DETROIT – The top step of the awards podium at Little Caesars Arena is 1 foot, 10 inches high.
Alysa Liu, who is 4 feet, 7 inches tall, needed to get to that step after Friday’s free skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Liu stood in front of the podium, quickly sized up the chances of being able to jump from the ice onto the spot she had just earned and then let Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell reach down to pull her up to the step between them.
It was the only extraordinary leap Liu did not attempt in the past two days.
She pulled off all the others, vaulting into the record books with a combination of insouciance, enthusiasm, ambition and stunning poise under pressure for one so young.
“She is the future of U.S. ladies’ skating,” said 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski. “And she will be the one to push the next generation forward.”
Liu, 13, replaced Lipinski, now an NBC commentator, in the history books as the youngest women’s national champion in history. Lipinski, 14 when she won the 1997 U.S. title, had predicted that might happen when we spoke about Liu last month.
“If Alysa does all her elements, she has a very real chance to win the event,” Lipinski said then.
Liu did all her elements. And, remarkably, three of them were triple Axels – one in the short program, two in the free skate.
She was the first U.S. woman to do a triple Axel in the short program at nationals and the first to land two in a single program.
“What a talent,” Lipinski said. “Twenty-two years ago, I tried to push the technical envelope and now Alysa has taken it to the next level.”
Age eligibility rules mean Liu won’t be able to show that talent on the senior international stage until the 2022 Olympic season and junior international events until next season. The U.S. Championships are her final consequential competition this season.
Liu and her coach, Laura Lipetsky, will not allow themselves to be frustrated by the luck of the birth date draw. Liu was five weeks too young this season for international junior events, which quadruple-jumping Russian women have dominated.
“We look at the positives,” Lipetsky said. “She is trying to grow as a skater and be better each week, each month, each season, including quads to be competitive with the Russians.
“Before we are even able to compete with the Russians, we’re trying to have the goods to compete successfully against them.”
At this nationals, Liu took advantage of her jumps and mistakes by 2018 champion Tennell to make up a nearly three-point deficit to Tennell after the short program.
Liu won with 217.51 points, including 20.05 from the two triple Axels, one of which was in combination. Tennell, 20, who fell on one triple jump, had 213.59. Bell, 22, who also fell once, was third at 212.40.
“We have a strong field of (U.S.) ladies, both experienced and up-and-coming,” Bell said.
Skating to the score from “The Witches of Eastwick,” Liu made up for her callow artistry with eight triple jumps and a top-level step sequence and spins.
When she headed into the kiss-and-cry area to await her scores, Liu thrust her hands over her head to form a big “V.” She did not yet know that she had would be champion, but she never pretended that was not her goal.
“I did want to win,” she said.
So, she rose to the occasion.
That’s called stepping up.
MORE: Former triple Axel-ing Mirai Nagasu makes commentating debut at 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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