U.S. Figure Skating/Jay Adeff

Skating prodigy Alysa Liu, a senior national competitor at 13, is using the present to avoid future shock

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The idea was to show Alysa Liu what her future might look like and for her to get comfortable seeing herself in that picture.

So Samuel Auxier, U.S. Figure Skating’s international committee chair, arranged for Liu and her coach, Laura Lipetsky, to attend the junior and senior Grand Prix Final competitions earlier this month in Vancouver.

“Having judged and watched the Junior Grand Prixes, it was clear our skaters competing their first time in them were often very intimidated by the Russian and Japanese ladies,” Auxier said.

He soon realized that Liu isn’t intimidated by much.

“At first, she was amazed by the Russian ladies, but then (she) wanted to get out there and show them her triple Axels,” Auxier said.

That’s right, triple Axels.

The triple Axels Liu, 13, plans to show in the senior competition at next month’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit.

The jumps that make 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski think Liu is good enough to take the senior national title three seasons before she will be age eligible for senior international events.

Lipinski, who will be commentating at nationals for NBC, knows whereof she speaks on the subject of precocious success. She is the youngest Olympic champion in history (age 15) and the youngest world champion in history (14), and she finished 15th in the senior world championships at 13 (age eligibility rules then were different.)

“If Alysa does all her elements, she has a very real chance to win the event,” Lipinski said. “I think we will definitely see her on the podium unless something goes terribly wrong.”

The idea of standing not just on the senior national podium but on the top step is among the goals that motivate Liu as she trains at the Oakland, Calif. Ice Center. That objective is born not out of excessive self-confidence but out of relentless competitiveness and desire to excel in this effusive, engaging young lady from Richmond, Calif.

“I hope to win, obviously,” Liu said. “I’d never go into a competition hoping I medal. I always strive for first, even if it’s not possible.”

Liu already has defied probability at a speed that makes anything seem possible right now.

In 2016, at age 10, she became the youngest intermediate U.S. champion in history. Last year, at 12, a six-clean-triple-jump free skate (with two triple-triple combinations) made her junior national champion in a 12-skater field where she was the youngest by nearly 15 months.

This year, Liu will be the only one of 22 senior women’s entrants at nationals under 15 years old. Defending champion Bradie Tennell turns 21 a week after nationals, and the leading title contender, Mariah Bell, is 22.

Even Liu is a bit surprised by how fast this has happened.

“Sometimes I’m overwhelmed,” Liu said. “I’m like, ‘Omigod, I have a triple Axel, and not a lot of people in the world have it.’ Then I tell myself, ‘Don’t think you’re the best in the world. You’re not the best yet.’”

Comparing scores – especially comparing international and national scores, since the latter usually are more generous – can be a fool’s errand. But the total, short program and free skate numbers Liu racked up while qualifying for nationals by winning November’s Pacific Coast Sectional event are higher than the best scores of any U.S. woman this season at any event above club level.

The numbers themselves mean less than how she got them. Her short program at sectionals included a clean triple Axel and a clean triple Lutz-triple toe combination. Her free skate there had a clean triple Axel-double toe combination and two clean triple-triple combinations.

And, just for the fun of it in practice last April, she tossed off a triple Axel-triple toe-triple toe-double toe combination.

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It is such advanced technical ability that explains the decision to have Liu move up to the senior level nationally this season, even given her being too young for even junior competition internationally until next season. (Her 13th birthday was Aug. 8, five weeks past the July 1 cutoff.)

“After I won (the junior national title), I didn’t want to stay in juniors two years,” Liu said. “I want to get the experience of competing against the best seniors.”

That logic also helps explain why four of the five Russians who qualified for this season’s Junior Grand Prix Final are scheduled to compete in seniors at the Russian Championships this week. The Russians began letting juniors compete with the seniors as part of what became a stunningly successful rebuild of their women’s skating program leading to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

For example: Elizaveta Tuktamysheva was barely 12 when she finished eighth as a senior at Russian nationals in 2010. Tuktamysheva, 22, has gone on to win the 2015 World title and the bronze medal in the senior Grand Prix Final last month. And Yevgenia Medvedeva, eventually a two-time world champion and 2018 Olympic silver medalist, was 12 when she finished eighth in her first senior nationals.

Athletes whom the legendary Dick Button famously called “baby ballerinas” competed as seniors in the U.S. Championships in the 1990s. They included Lipinski, 2002 Olympic champion Sarah Hughes and Michelle Kwan, all 13 or younger in their senior debuts.

Kwan was 12 when she finished sixth at her first senior nationals in 1993. At the time, Kwan said, innocently, of competitors Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, “It’s kind of fun skating with the older people. They’ve been around for a couple hundred years. I’m just starting to rise.” Kerrigan then was 23, Harding 22.

Kwan, whom Liu cites along with 2010 Olympic champion Yuna Kim of South Korea as her favorite skaters, rose to the sport’s stratosphere. She became a two-time Olympic medalist, five-time world champion and nine-time national champion.

Yet the step up to seniors is a challenge, no matter how gifted the young athlete.

“It’s always a little intimidating turning senior and skating senior nationals for the first time,” Lipinski said. “There isn’t pressure at the junior level. You competed all the time there, and nerves didn’t get to you, so you became almost oblivious to pressure.

“I do remember feeling so nervous and jittery at my first seniors [she was bronze medalist at age 13]. I definitely needed that year, needed to go to worlds and mess up [23rd after the short program; only 24 made the free skate] to learn about dealing with the nerves from competing on the top international level. Skating is about talent, but it’s also about timing. That was on my side.”

Liu’s timing is more complicated because of rules changes about minimum international competition ages that became effective over the last 15 years.

Alysa Liu as a junior skater at the 2018 U.S. National Championships. Credit: U.S. Figure Skating/Jay Adeff

The 2022 Olympic season would be Liu’s first as a senior internationally (the senior age minimum is 15 by July 1 preceding the season). In her lone international competition this season, the Asian Open last August in Bangkok, Liu had to compete in the advanced novice division, which she won – but in which the program length and number of elements performed are fewer than in seniors.

“It is a little frustrating to wait,” Liu said. “But then again, I need more practice before I can be against the best.”

Russia’s Alina Zagitova was able to go from world junior champion to 2018 Olympic champion in just one year.

“But that’s really rare,” Lipinski said. It had, indeed, never happened before.

“I try to look at the international situation as a positive,” Lipetsky said. “Alysa has time to get stronger and stronger and stronger and have the tools so we can compete for first place.”

Such discussions about the Olympics are, of course, a bit premature in Liu’s case. But they are behind why Lipetsky wanted her to gain senior experience as soon as possible. It is also why she has begun working on quadruple jumps, as several of the Russian juniors are doing.

The timetable and the plan changed when Liu won last season’s U.S. junior title a year after finishing just fourth in novice.

“Winning juniors showed her it’s possible to be the best,” Lipetsky said. “It was a step towards the ultimate goal of trying to be national champion and world champion and win the Olympics. It’s a step-by-step process.”

The first step came when her father, Arthur, brought 5-year-old Alysa one weekend to the Oakland Ice Center, where Lipetsky teaches.

A journey of one thousand miles had begun.

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Arthur Liu’s narration of how they got to that point describes a journey that was much longer and more unusual.

He was born 54 years ago in Mingxing, a mountain village of 200 inhabitants in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province, as one of six siblings of a father who had a government job and a mother who farmed. He said the village did not have electricity during his childhood there.

He had the good fortune to reach high school age just after the end of the brutalizing Cultural Revolution, in which intellectual development was not only scorned but often punished. From test results, Arthur Liu would win a place in a boarding school in Chongqing, now a city of eight million.

He got bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Chinese universities and left China at age 25 for California, where he went on to an MBA at Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), a law degree at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and a career as a legal general practitioner. He also is a single father of five children ranging in age from Alysa to 9-year-old triplets. They were born to two surrogate mothers through anonymous egg donors.

Liu told Alysa about the circumstances of her birth about five years ago, when she asked, “Why do I look different?  Why don’t I look Chinese?” She had met the woman who bore her before knowing of the link between them. They have visited each other since.

“Alysa and a friend had almost figured it out on their own,” Arthur Liu said. “So she wasn’t surprised when I told her.”

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His mother, Shu, spent some eight years in California helping him raise the five young children, returning to China two years ago. Since then, a friend has taken over some of those parenting duties, which became a logistical high-wire act as Alysa began to spend more and more time at the rink.

The first skating trip had led immediately to group lessons with Lipetsky that ended with a skills test. The coach told Arthur Liu his daughter had done well and asked if they wanted to try private lessons.

“You could see how eager she was to learn and the love she had for skating,” Lipetsky said. “Over time, I saw she could be good. She wanted to learn, and I wanted to guide.”

For the first few years, that meant getting up at 4:30 a.m. at their home in suburban Oakland so she could do skating lessons and regular school. By the time she was 10, that arrangement became untenable because of missing so much school time while traveling to competitions, so Arthur Liu decided to have Alysa home schooled via Connections Academy courses.

Now she wakes at 6:45. Before he goes to work, her father takes the four younger children to school, then drops Alysa at the rink for the first of what can be three training sessions spaced over eight hours during the week. She does homework between sessions, usually eats dinner in the car on her way home with her dad and is asleep by 8:30. (A friend picks up the other children at school, feeds them and gets them ready for bed.) She skates for an hour on Saturday and Sunday.

Lipetsky, a married mother of two, has been coaching some 20 years. At 15, the coach finished ninth in the 1995 U.S. Championships. Injuries derailed her competitive career, and she went on to get a degree from the University of California.

Liu is Lipetsky’s first student to qualify for nationals. It is not surprising that some in the skating community have questioned the idea of Liu staying with such a little-known coach. Lipetsky has heard the questions but is not concerned.

“Alysa is a very smart girl, and she knows what works for her,” Lipetsky said. “She understands me very well, and she and her dad have trust in me. I know when to give her easy days and when to push her. It has been proven in the results.”

The eligibility peculiarities created by Alysa’s August birthday have given the coach more time to have her try more difficult elements. With no major competition open to her after last year’s nationals, they began perfecting the three-and-a-half-revolution triple Axel, which no other top U.S. skater is likely to do at nationals.

Only three U.S. women – Harding, Kimmie Meissner and Mirai Nagasu – had been credited with landing one in competition before Liu hit the jump in the Asian Open, making her the youngest in the world ever to land it in an international event. She now is doing one in the short program and two in the free skate, with a success rate of about 50 percent clean in her competitions this season.

“I had a ‘wow’ feeling for a little while after she began landing them consistently in practice,” Lipetsky said. “Then I felt it was just part of getting all the tools to put into the bag. It was just another tool for us to have.”

The same is true of quadruple jumps. Liu tried two quad Lutzes in the free skate at this season’s regionals, singling the first and falling after under-rotating the second. The quads then were set aside until after nationals, when, once again, she will have time to practice them.

“They wanted to experiment at regionals,” Arthur Liu said. “Sectionals, we wanted clean programs going to nationals. So no quads.”

That Alena Kostornaia of Russia just won the Junior Grand Prix Final without a quad, while two of her countrywomen badly botched attempts at them, does not dissuade either Lipetsky or Liu from wanting to master them.

“You can’t get stuck in a mindset of, ‘We won’t need quads,’” Lipetsky said. “You always want to push the envelope and challenge yourself. If you stand still, someone else will come out there and do more than you.”

Alysa Liu as a junior skater at the 2018 U.S. National Championships. Credit: U.S. Figure Skating/Jay Adeff

Liu’s immaturity as a performer notwithstanding, the triple Axels – and her triple-triple combinations – already can give her a substantial advantage at the U.S. Championships.

“But you don’t know how someone will react to the pressure of being on the senior level and knowing her technical score is what is going to give her that gold,” Lipinski said. “She has to hit those jumps.”

No matter what happens, when someone asks Liu what comes next, she will be able to say, “I’m going to Disneyland.”

That has become a post-nationals ritual for the Liu and Lipetsky families the last few years.

“It’s sooooo much fun,” Liu said, the emphasis in her voice making her sounding every bit the kid she still is.

There’s no need to rush to the future.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Deajah Stevens, Olympic sprinter, suspended through Tokyo Games

Deajah Stevens
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Deajah Stevens, a U.S. Olympic 200m sprinter, was suspended through Aug. 15, 2021, for missing drug tests, ruling her out of the Tokyo Games unless she successfully appeals.

Stevens, who placed seventh in Rio, missed three drug tests in 2019, grounds for a suspension between one and two years.

The exact length depends on an athlete’s degree of fault and, with the timing in this case, determined whether she would be banned through the Olympics.

Full details of her case are here.

The 18-month ban was backdated to Feb. 17, the date that Stevens requested her case be expedited. Her last of three missed tests was Nov. 25.

Stevens’ lawyer requested the suspension be backdated to the third missed test, which would have kept her eligible for the Olympics, or the date of Stevens’ request for an expedited hearing on Feb. 17, which could have kept her Olympic eligible if the ban was closer to one year.

For Stevens’ second missed test, she did not hear door knocks from a back bedroom. The drug tester called her five times but never received an answer. Stevens said her phone was out of battery power.

For her last missed test, the drug tester again tried to call Stevens. But Stevens changed her phone number six weeks earlier, after somebody was harassing her and threatening her fiance’s life. She had not yet notified drug-testing authorities that she changed her number.

“Despite our sympathy for the athlete, we have not been satisfied on a balance of probability that her behavior was not negligent and did not cause or contribute to her failure to be available for testing,” a disciplinary tribunal found. “She already had missed two doping tests in the last six months. She should have been on red alert and conscious that she could not miss the next one.”

Stevens’ initial provisional suspension was announced May 1 ahead of a June 25 disciplinary tribunal hearing.

Stevens, 25, was disqualified from the 2019 U.S. Outdoor Championships 200m semifinals in her only outdoor meet of the year, according to World Athletics.

She ranked No. 3 in the U.S. in the 200m in 2017 (and placed fifth at the world championships), No. 31 in 2018 and No. 59 in 2019.

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Virtual figure skating competition offers glimpse of sport’s possible future

Karen Chen
AP
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It was early April. The 2020 World Figure Skating Championships had been canceled by Covid-19, abruptly ending last season. Rinks were closing down for health reasons. Some entire countries were on lockdown.

Anyone who has been around figure skating as long as Gale Tanger could see even then how difficult it would be to have any competitions the rest of 2020 if they required travel by athletes or officials, whether the events were international, national, regional or local.

Tanger, an international judge for 32 years, began looking for an alternative to give elite U.S. skaters left unmoored by the pandemic’s impact at least something that could feel like a competition, something to anchor a goal in the early part of the 2020-21 season.

So the Peggy Fleming Trophy became the first virtual event in the sport’s history.

“It worked!!!!!!!” an excited Tanger said in an email late Tuesday, after the judging of the competition was completed. “What an incredible leap for our sport. Obstacles have been removed, and a new highway has been paved.”

A 90-minute streamed video of the event will be available to the public beginning Friday at 7 p.m. EDT on the U.S. Figure Skating Fan Zone video center. The question now is whether this concept can be expanded during the pandemic to make more competitions possible.

“Any time you experiment with something new, you always are paying attention to how it can be applied to other things – and for normal times, as well,” U.S. Figure Skating spokesman Michael Terry said. “The virtual concept has not yet been discussed for any other specific events, including the qualifying season (for the 2021 U.S. Championships).”

Tanger figured the Peggy Fleming Trophy was a good place to experiment. The event, which she and 1968 Olympic champion Fleming had created in 2018, already was an alternative to the usual competition format.

It has just one program, a three-and-a-half-minute freestyle in which there is heavy emphasis on artistry and musicality and significantly reduced weight on jumps. It allows men to compete against women and is easier to judge than an event using the International Judging System and ISU rules.

The third Peggy Fleming Trophy was supposed to take place July 1 at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs, its home in 2018 and 2019. When it was clear by late April that doing it live would likely be impossible for public safety reasons, Tanger enlisted the help of U.S. Figure Skating and immediately began working through the logistics of doing it virtually.

After all, Tanger and her husband, Tom, who live in Wauwatosa, Wis., had been using Zoom to help with the virtual schooling of their grandchildren in Sydney, Australia, and she was using Facebook Live to judge off-ice competitions in Latin America. She thought there had to be a way to use such technology for a judged competition in which both athletes and judges could take part from their own rink or, in the case of the judges, their home or office.

Once the various parties were sufficiently convinced it could be done to post an online entry announcement, the 18-person field filled overnight.

Gale Tanger
Gale Tanger at the 2019 Peggy Fleming Trophy at the Broadmoor World Arena. (Courtesy Gale Tanger)

“I thought we may have found the Holy Grail,” Tanger said, referring to the way skaters responded to a solution to save at least this event.

“It’s so great that everyone associated with the event is trying to test the waters and see what is possible,” said 2018 Olympian Karen Chen, third in last year’s Peggy Fleming Trophy and a virtual contestant in the 2020 event.

This was the basic premise: each skater would perform a program at his or her convenience between July 8 and 10. He or she would submit video of the program, to be shot from a high center-ice position. Multiple attempts were permitted, but the video chosen had to be of a single complete attempt, with no editing.

The seven judges and technical specialist David Santee, all qualified to work international events, watched the videos from eight different places via Zoom at the same time Tuesday, as if they were in an arena. They scored on iPads, using the IJS software they have at live events, and they have taken a vow of secrecy about the results until the event is streamed.

Could it be more than a one-off? Probably not for more significant events like the Grand Prix series. The International Skating Union council will again discuss its fate for 2020 in early August. A decision is supposed to be made by Aug. 1 on Skate America, the series opener, scheduled Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

To the question of whether the ISU is looking at a virtual format as a possibility for some events this season, ISU vice-president Alexander Lakernik said in an email: “No… At least at the moment.”

Added Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chair of the ISU singles and pairs technical committee: “I didn’t know about the idea of having it (the Peggy Fleming Trophy) online this year, and I think it is a wonderful possibility to do it in this way in such a difficult moment. As to the possibility of using this format for other events this season, I have no answer. The matter has never been discussed so far.”

Chen, who has been training at the World Arena since late May, chose an expanded version of a short program to Katy Perry’s version of “Rise” that Drew Meekins had choreographed for her to use this season. She did three “takes,” with about 30 minutes between each, for an iPhone recording done by her boyfriend, Camden Pulkinen, the 2018 U.S. junior champion, who also competed. Another competitor, Andrew Torgashev, shot iPhone video of Chen as a backup.

(Defending champion Jason Brown heads the field, which includes 12 athletes who train at the World Arena. For a complete list of the competitors, now 10 women and seven men after Amber Glenn withdrew, click here.)

“I was quite happy with my first attempt, but I got nit-picky and ran two more,” Chen said. “I finally decided to use the third because it didn’t make sense to go with the first after all that effort.”

The limitations of iPhone video, where close-ups can lead to a blur from pixelization, meant about half the rink was visible on nearly all of Chen’s video. That obviously reduced the size of her image.

“For the most part, all the skaters’ videos were clear,” Tanger said.

Pulkinen, who competed in the first two editions of the Peggy Fleming Trophy (finishing second in 2018), also did three takes, using the third, as videographed by Torgashev. His performance, to “In This Shirt” by The Irrepressibles, enlarged on the new short program choreographed for him by Josh Farris.

“I tried to treat it as if each run-through was my only shot, the way it would be in a normal competition, instead of falling back on the mindset that if one was bad, I have multiple attempts,” Pulkinen said. “I felt the same sense of relief one would typically feel at the end of a competition.”

Pulkinen did not think it was impossible for a variation on this format to be used for more important events, perhaps with each competitor using a live feed and taking the ice one after another for a single attempt. It might require choreographic changes for skaters knowing they are not being judged on the view from several sets of eyes but on the view from a single camera angle.

“I’m keeping an open mind and taking this as, ‘Okay, this is a trial run for how video competitions may be, and maybe I learn how to choreograph something differently to appeal more to that specific camera more,’” Pulkinen said.

Such “virtually live” competitions would eventually depend on the ability of the ISU or USFS to ensure a high-quality, very reliable stream created with professional video equipment by a professional camera operator at the many rinks where skaters would perform. Given the money saved if there are no live Grand Prix or Junior Grand Prix events, arranging for such equipment might be money well spent to preserve some of the season.

“I think it would be very mentally challenging to do live feed competitions,” Chen said. “Part of competition is its whole environment: being with other skaters, feeling the pressure, having the adrenaline kick in when you get on the ice with people cheering.

“Letting go of that side of competition and embracing this new side will be quite challenging for people. I think it could work, but there will need to be a lot of experimentation.”

Over the weekend, Tanger judged a “live” off-line competition run by Argentina that had skaters from four countries. The marks were simple, on a scale of 1-to-10, but so was the execution of a concept that would have seemed like science fiction a few years ago.

Now the Peggy Fleming Trophy has paved a few miles of a way for figure skating to travel the information highway.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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