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

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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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Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

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It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

VIDEO: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

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Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC. It beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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