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Tara Lipinski calls Alysa Liu the future of U.S. skating

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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.

Alysa Liu is helped onto the podium by silver and bronze medalists Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell. AP Photo

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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Tommy Ford ends U.S. men’s World Cup drought at Beaver Creek

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Tommy Ford earned his first World Cup win at age 30 and ended the U.S. men’s longest victory and podium droughts in two decades.

Ford won the giant slalom in Beaver Creek, Colo., on Sunday, the last North American race on tour this season. He prevailed by eight tenths of a second combining times over two runs.

Norwegians Henrik Kristoffersen and Leif Kristian Nestvold-Haugen were second and third. American Ted Ligety, fourth after the opening run, finished 11th.

Full results are here.

Ford became the first U.S. man to win a World Cup since Travis Ganong took a downhill on Jan. 27, 2017. He also became the first U.S. male podium finisher since Ligety in January 2018. Both were the longest droughts for the program since the late 1990s.

Ford, a 2010 and 2018 Olympian who missed the 2014 Olympics due to a broken femur, had been working toward this moment.

He finished a World Cup career-high fourth at the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27. Last season, the Oregon native and former Dartmouth student had a pair of fifths.

The men’s World Cup moves to Val d’Isere, France, next weekend for a giant slalom and slalom.

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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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