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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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Alysa Liu lands quad Lutz

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Alysa Liu, a 14-year-old who in January became the youngest U.S. women’s figure skating champion, on Saturday landed a quadruple Lutz, something no other U.S. woman has done in competition.

Liu landed the jump at the Aurora Games, a women’s sports festival in Albany, N.Y. It does not count officially, since it’s not a sanctioned competition.

Previously, Sasha Cohen landed a quadruple Salchow in practice in 2001, but never in competition. At least three Russian teens landed quads in junior competition in the last two years.

Kazakhstan’s Elizabet Tursynbaeva became the first woman to land a clean, fully rotated quad in senior competition en route to silver at last season’s world championships.

Liu, who landed three triple Axels between two programs at January’s nationals, makes her junior international debut at a Grand Prix stop in Lake Placid, N.Y., next week.

She will not meet the age minimum for senior international competitions until the 2022 Olympic season. But she can continue to compete at senior nationals.

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MORE: 2019 Grand Prix figure skating assignments

Noah Lyles bests Bolt’s meet record in Paris Diamond League meet

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Noah Lyles set a meet record of 19.65 seconds to win the 200m with ease at Saturday’s Diamond League meet in Paris.

The previous record of 19.73 belonged to Usain Bolt.

Running out of lane 6, Lyles quickly made up the stagger on France’s Christophe Lemaitre and remained several meters ahead of world champion Ramil Guliyev of Turkey, who finished in 20.01.

Lyles’ time was especially impressive because several early races saw relatively slow times despite the elite fields in  the final Diamond League meet before the season-long circuit’s finals, which will be split between two meets Aug. 29 in Zurich and Sept. 6 in Brussels. The meet opened on the new track at Stade Charlety with temperatures in the upper 80s.

“I barely remember any of the race, to be honest,” Lyles said. “I was going around the track and before I knew it I was at the finish line. I was like, ‘Hold up — this happened too fast!'”

READ: Lyles overcomes 2017 heartbreak to reach first world championship

Meanwhile, several meet records fell in the field events, capped by a back-and-forth contest between U.S. triple jump rivals Christian Taylor and Will Claye, who have finished 1-2 in the last two Olympics and the 2017 world championships.

Taylor also won the world title in 2011 and 2015, and his personal best of 18.21m is the second-best of all time. Claye, who also has a long jump bronze medal from 2012 and two more world championship medals, is third on the all-time list at 18.14.

Through three rounds, Claye led by 1cm, 17.39 to 17.38. Taylor took the lead in the fourth, jumping 17.49. Claye responded with a jump of 17.71, just off the meet record.

Taylor broke that record in the fifth round, going 17.82. Claye immediately reclaimed the lead and took the record with a jump of 18.06. Taylor had a strong jump in the sixth round but had taken off just a bit over the line.

“This is the farthest I’ve ever jumped overseas, so it’s a great day,” Claye said.

Omar Craddock made it a U.S. sweep, jumping 17.28. Craddock joins Taylor, Claye and Donald Scott in the U.S. contingent for the Diamond League final.

Though Taylor has taken top honors in the big competitions, Claye has kept it close in the all-time head-to-head matchups between the two former Florida Gators, winning 23 of their 49 meetings.

READ: Taylor, Claye go 1-2 in second straight Olympics

A showdown between U.S. rivals and recent collegians Daniel Roberts and Grant Holloway failed to materialize in the men’s 110m hurdles.

Holloway had broken a 40-year old NCAA record in June, finishing in 12.98 to edge Roberts, who tied the old record in 13.00. Roberts then beat Holloway to win the USATF Championship in July.

Roberts held up his end Saturday, winning in 13.08, but Holloway lost his form late to finish sixth.

“It hasn’t been too hard for me to stay at a high level this long after NCAAs,” Roberts said. “A lot of people tell me after long seasons they feel it a little bit more but my body feels great, everything feels good and I’m just thankful to be here.”

Freddie Crittenden finished third with a personal-best 13.17 to take the last spot in the Diamond League final. Roberts also clinched a berth with his win, his first in Diamond League competition. Holloway was making his Diamond League debut and wouldn’t have made the final even with a win.

READ: Holloway beats Renaldo Nehemiah’s NCAA record in 2019 final

Olympic shot put champion Tomas Walsh of New Zealand beat his own meet record of 22.00m four times, winning with a throw of 22.44 in a contest with eight athletes throwing beyond the 21-meter mark for the first time.

American Joe Kovacs also beat the old meet record, finishing second at 22.11. Kovacs won the 2015 world title and was second to Crouser in the 2016 Olympics, then second to Walsh in the 2017 world championships. 

Ryan Crouser, whose 22.74 heave in April was the best result in the event since Randy Barnes set the world record in 1990, did not compete in Paris. Kovacs, Crouser and Darrell Hill will give the U.S. three of the eight slots in the final.

READ: Crouser passed up NFL shot, now aims at world record

U.S. pole vaulter Sam Kendricks also entered the meet record book, tying the previous mark with a clearance of 6.00m in an event with no Diamond League points.

The meet was the last chance for athletes to claim spots in the Diamond League finals, and some Americans qualified with clutch performances.

Hanna Green won the women’s 800m in 1:58.39 with a late surge to take the last spot in the final. Green’s win gives U.S. three runners in the event alongside Ajee Wilson and Raevyn Rogers, who went out quickly with the pace-setter Saturday and led through the 700-meter mark before fading to sixth.

U.S. high jump champion Jeron Robinson cleared 2.26m to tie for fourth and clinch his spot.

U.S. triple jumper Keturah Orji jumped a personal-best of 14.72m to take third place and secure a spot in the final. Orji’s jump is the second best in U.S. history. Venezuela’s Yulimar Rojas, the reigning world champion, won at 15.05.

In the women’s pole vault, world leader Jenn Suhr did not clear the first height she attempted but held on to a spot in the final. Canadian Alysha Newman upset the top two finishers in the last Olympic and world championship competitions Katerina Stefanidi of Greece and U.S. champion Sandi Morris. Suhr, Morris and Katie Nageotte will be in the final.

READ: Jenn Suhr ends retirement in 2018

In the women’s 100m, Olympic champion Elaine Thompson put a slight bit of daylight between herself and a tightly bunched group, finishing in 10.98. Thompson shares the world lead of 10.73 with fellow Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.

The next five finishers were separated by 0.04 seconds. Marie-Josee Ta Lou of the Ivory Coast took second in 11.13, followed by the Netherlands’ Dafne Schippers, U.S. champion Teahna Daniels and Aleia Hobbs

Hobbs, who did not qualify for the world championships after finishing sixth in the U.S. meet, will be the only American in the Diamond League final. 

READ: Hobbs upsets Thompson to win senior international debut

In the women’s 400m, Kendall Ellis was the only American to qualify for the final, finishing second behind Jamaica’s Stephenie Ann McPherson. Two U.S. runners followed  Shakima Wimbley and Phyllis Francis, who finished 10th in the Diamond League standings.

In the men’s 400m hurdles, world champion Karsten Warholm of Norway ran away from the field to win in 47.26, just shy of his world-leading time of 47.12. Americans TJ Holmes and David Kendziera finished fifth and sixth to secure places in the final along with Rai Benjamin, who didn’t race in Paris but has the second-fastest time in the world this year at 47.16. Ireland’s Thomas Barr finished atop the Diamond League standings despite finishing last in Paris.

In the women’s discus, Valarie Allman took fifth to ensure a U.S. representative in the final.

Neither of the U.S. runners in the men’s 3,000m steeplechase earned enough points to qualify, though Hillary Bor already had enough points to qualify.

John Gregorek hung on to the last spot in the men’s 1,500m despite not competing Saturday.

Canada’s Brandon McBride won the 800m, which didn’t count toward Diamond League standings, with U.S. runner Clayton Murphy fifth.

France’s Kevin Mayer won the triathlon, which combined the shot put, long jump and 110m hurdles. U.S. athlete Devon Williams tied for fourth.

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