Mariah Bell keeps getting better, but if you ask her, it’s just the start

Mariah Bell
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No one knew fifth place could feel this good. But Mariah Bell felt this good.

It’s early November in the Grand Prix Series and Bell, the 2017 U.S. bronze medalist, had just finished a dazzling free skate to the Lori Nichol-choreographed “The Experience” by Ludovico Einaudi.

Bell thrusts her arms overhead, jumping up and down with a beaming smile splashed across her face. The work she had put in with coach Rafael Arutunian was finally paying off. And she knew she could skate even better.

“NHK was such a great experience; it was a stacked field,” said Bell in a phone interview last week. “I think it was the hardest Grand Prix (this season). Going into it, I wanted to put out my best and see where it got me. I look back and I’m so proud of how I skated… It opened my eyes to my potential. I’m right where I want to be. I can hang with the best in the world.”

Bell was right: It was a stacked field. Rika Kihira had her senior breakthrough in a triple-Axel showdown with Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, while Satoko Miyahara and Mai Mihara also factored into the top five.

It was Bell who would bounce back from a botched triple-triple in the short program (“I was so bummed about it… But then I regrouped [in the free]”) and placed fourth in the free skate, but overall it was the kind of performance that has become familiar to her in the past four months: Consistent, passionate and strong. Yet still wanting.

“I look back and I’m really proud of what I’ve done so far. I have a lot of hopes for myself coming up,” she said in an interview with me featured on this week’s Ice Talk podcast. “I want to continue progressing. I feel like the work that I’ve put in with Rafael is really starting to show, so that’s exciting for me.”

Just over two years ago – in August of 2016 – Bell made the switch from working with Kori Ade in Colorado to signing on to “Team Raf” (which included Nathan Chen, Ashley Wagner and Adam Rippon at the time). Arutunian told Bell he needed two years to start to get the kind of skating out of her he wanted.

She wasn’t exactly thrilled about that timeline.

“I was like, ‘Two years is a long time from now!’” Bell remembered, laughing. “Raf is very blunt. It’s about trusting him. He says exactly what he thinks and what he feels. Sometimes that’s really hard to swallow. It’s about learning his language. A lot of it is you taking on responsibility yourself. He’s not going to hold your hand. You gain maturity from having to do things on your own.”

That’s where Bell believes she has improved – in addition to on the ice – over the last two years: a mature mentality. Something only experience can help you with.

“If anything, I think (my age) helps me from experience and the mental side of the sport,” said the 22-year-old.

Last year was a struggle. She came into the Olympic season feeling a kind of pressure that she never had before and it showed in her skating. She was sixth and ninth in her two Grand Prix assignments, respectively, and finished fifth at U.S. Championships a year after being third.

This fifth left a much different feeling than that NHK one 10 months later.

“I would have loved to be on that Olympic team… but to be honest, I didn’t do what I needed to during the season to have the Nationals that I needed,” she says. “I didn’t put out the best version of myself. This year, I feel like I have put out the best version of myself. I look back at Nationals and have nothing but pride for what I did. I was bummed to be fifth. Whatever happened, happened and it was the right choice. I have to continue to be honest with myself. I have felt re-focused and refreshed this season. I think I’ve grown a lot.”

It shows in her programs. For her short she went out on a whim – at the encouragement of Arutunian – and asked former training partner and good friend Rippon to choreograph it, while Nichol did her free.

Both are fan favorites, and Bell told reporters on a call two weeks ago that she listens to the Celine Dion “To Love You More” track (her music for the short) all the time. Even driving to and from practice.

This coming weekend expectations are high. Many inside the sport think it could be a showdown between reigning U.S. champ Bradie Tennell and Bell, with 2017 winner Karen Chen out with injury and neither Mirai Nagasu nor Wagner skating this season.

MORE: 3 questions with Bradie Tennell before U.S. Championships

Bell knows she has top billing with Bradie. That doesn’t intimidate her in the slightest.

“I want to win. I want to be national champion,” she says, channeling some Raf bluntness. “But I can only control what I can control, which is my skating. I need to skate the way that I train. And I truly think if I do that, the results will take care of themselves. Regardless of the outcome, I want to be proud of myself, and that’s the goal I ultimately have.”

Arutunian sees it similarly. Well, mostly…

“At minimum? She should be top three in the U.S.,” he tells me, then adds: “You should know then, what maximum is (for her)… ”

He continues: “I think she’s gotten better technically. There is more consistency, but there is still a lot of work to do. She can improve. I think it’s about her head. She has to believe what we’re doing. September has been two years (since) she’s working with us. She’s at a point where she can peak more now.”

The fall is proof of that, with a fourth at Nebelhorn Trophy, then the same at Skate Canada, that fifth at NHK and a bronze medal at Golden Spin, where Tennell was the winner. Bell is no longer suffering from the sort of inconsistencies that once plagued her.

That’s thanks to time, maturity, Arutunian and, well, a new outlook.

“This season has felt fresh because not only is it a new season, but it’s a start to the next four years,” she said. “My ultimate goal is to be on that Olympic team, but my goal continues to be just to improve each season. Last year I got hung up on the results of things. I got in my own way a little bit. This year I’ve just been focusing on myself and my skating.”

“My big picture is these next four years.”

While one could argue that this weekend in Detroit is ground zero for what’s to come, both Bell and Arutunian would disagree: That started back in August of 2016, the day Mariah first stepped on ice with Raf.

And if this is the skater she’s become two years later, the next three could hold very big things.

MORE: How to watch U.S. Championships

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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IOC gives more time to pick 2030 Olympic host, studies rotating Winter Games

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The 2030 Winter Olympic host, expected to be Salt Lake City or Sapporo, Japan, is no longer targeted to be decided before next fall, the IOC said in announcing wider discussions into the future of the Winter Games, including the possibility of rotating the Games within a pool of hosts.

The IOC Future Host Commission was granted more time to study factors, including climate change, that could impact which cities and regions host future Winter Olympics and Paralympics. The 2030 Winter Games host is not expected to be decided before or at an IOC session next September or October.

Hosts have traditionally been chosen by IOC members vote seven years before the Games, though recent reforms allow flexibility on the process and timeline. For example, the 2024 and 2028 Games were awarded to Paris and Los Angeles in a historic double award in 2017. The 2032 Summer Games were awarded to Brisbane last year without a traditional bid race.

There are three interested parties for the 2030 Winter Olympics, the IOC said Tuesday without naming them. Previously, Salt Lake City, Sapporo and Vancouver were confirmed as bids. Then in October, the British Columbia government said it would not support a Vancouver bid, a major setback, though organizers did not say that decision ended the bid. All three cities are attractive as past Winter Games hosts with existing venues.

U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee officials have said Salt Lake City is a likelier candidate for 2034 than 2030, but could step in for 2030 if asked.

The future host commission outlined proposals for future Winter Olympics, which included rotating hosts within a pool of cities or regions and a requirement that hosts have an average minimum temperature below freezing (32 degrees) for snow competition venues at the time of the Games over a 10-year period.

The IOC Executive Board gave the commission more time to study the proposals and other factors impacting winter sports.

The IOC board also discussed and will continue to explore a potential double awarding of the 2030 and 2034 Winter Olympic hosts.

Also Tuesday, the IOC board said that Afghanistan participation in the 2024 Olympics will depend on making progress in safe access to sports for women and young girls in the country.

On Monday, Human Rights Watch urged the IOC to suspend Afghanistan until women and girls can play sport in the country.

In a press release, the IOC board expressed “serious concern and strongly condemned the latest restrictions imposed by the Afghan authorities on women and young girls in Afghanistan, which prevent them from practicing sport in the country.” It urged Afghanistan authorities to “take immediate action at the highest level to reverse such restrictions and ensure safe access to sport for women and young girls.”

The IOC board also announced that North Korea’s National Olympic Committee will be reinstated when its suspension is up at the end of the year.

In September 2021, the IOC banned the North Korean NOC through the end of 2022, including banning a North Korean delegation from participating in the Beijing Winter Games, after it chose not to participate in the Tokyo Games.

North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, was the only one of 206 National Olympic Committees to withdraw from Tokyo. The country made its choice in late March 2021, citing a desire “to protect our athletes from the global health crisis caused by the malicious virus infection.”

The IOC said in September 2021 that it “provided reassurances for the holding of safe Games and offered constructive proposals to find an appropriate and tailor-made solution until the very last minute (including the provision of vaccines), which were systematically rejected by the PRK NOC.”

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Olympic champion Justine Dufour-Lapointe leaves moguls for another skiing discipline

Justine Dufour-Lapointe
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Justine Dufour-Lapointe, the 2014 Olympic moguls champion, is leaving the event to compete in freeriding, a non-Olympic skiing discipline.

“After three Olympic cycles and 12 years on the World Cup circuit, I felt that I needed to find a new source of motivation and had to push my limits even more so I can reach my full potential as a skier,” the 28-year-old Montreal native said in a social media video, according to a translation from French. “Today, I am starting a new chapter in my career. … I want to perfect myself in another discipline. I want to connect with the mountain differently. Above all, I want to get out of my comfort zone in a way I’ve never done before.”

Dufour-Lapointe said she will compete on the Freeride World Tour, a series of judged competitions described as:

There‘s a start gate at the summit and a finish gate at the bottom. That’s it. Best run down wins. It truly is that simple. Think skiers and snowboarders choosing impossible-looking lines through cornices and cliff-faces and nasty couloirs. Think progressive: big jumps, mach-speed turns and full-on attack. Think entertaining.

Dufour-Lapointe has retired from moguls skiing, according to a Freeride World Tour press release, though she did not explicitly say that in social media posts Tuesday.

At the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, Dufour-Lapointe denied American Hannah Kearney‘s bid to become the first freestyle skier to repeat as Olympic champion. Older sister Chloé took silver in a Canadian one-two.

Dufour-Lapointe also won the world title in 2015, then Olympic silver in 2018 behind Frenchwoman Perrine Laffont.

Chloé announced her retirement in September. A third Dufour-Lapointe Olympic moguls skier, Maxime, retired in 2018.

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