Our figure skating team is on the ground in Detroit to cover the U.S. Championships. This is our behind-the-scenes look at the final competition day, featuring the men’s free skate and the Skating Spectacular.
Alysa Liu’s upcoming TV tour
U.S. Figure Skating’s newest prodigal sensation will get her first taste of celebrity this week.
Four days after becoming the youngest women’s national champion in history, 13-year-old Alysa Liu is set to be in New York for scheduled Tuesday appearances on TODAY and the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
The TODAY appearance is planned for the 8 a.m. hour.
Liu’s outgoing personality, evident in one-on-one interactions if not yet at press conferences, belies her age and her physical stature (4 feet, 7 inches).
In a telephone interview six weeks before nationals, Liu was unafraid to say she was coming to her first senior nationals with lofty goals.
“I hope to win, obviously,” Liu said. “I’d never go into a competition hoping I medal. I always strive for first, even if it’s not possible.”
Liu, of Richmond, Calif., won on the strength of her extraordinary jumping. She became the first woman to land a triple Axel in a short program at nationals and, in the free skate, the first to land two triple Axels in a single program.
Determined, Emmy Ma reclaims love of skating
Ninth place here in Detroit felt good as gold to Emmy Ma.
The 18-year-old Long Island native, often hailed for her musical style and balletic positions, was considered an up-and-comer last season. She won a medal on the Junior Grand Prix and was selected for the U.S. world junior team.
This season was a different story. She withdrew from Finlandia Trophy and placed just sixth at Eastern Sectionals. It looked like her season was over, but when two other competitors received retroactive byes, she qualified for nationals. For a while, though, she wasn’t sure if she really wanted to go.
“I kind of have had a tough season regarding a lot of issues – mental health, personal issues,” an emotional Ma said after her free skate.
Other stresses rained down on the skater, who trains with Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson in Boston: What college to attend. (Ma eventually decided on Boston University.) Should she take a “gap” year. And whether she, an “older” teenager, could still compete with younger skaters.
“I know recently Gabby Daleman and Gracie Gold have come out and said they struggled with eating disorders, which especially in this sport are really hard,” Ma said. “I was dealing with that.”
“She was really down. I hate to use the word depressed, but that was the case,” Mitchell said. “There were a lot of circumstances surrounding the issues that ended up happening. For her to fight back is a true testament to her character. She hasn’t always had it easy.”
Ma began seeing a therapist, mainly for her eating issues. She reached out for help.
“It’s really important to be more open about it, because at moments I felt isolated and alone,” Ma said. “I’m really lucky I have such a great support system. My family is really supportive, as is my family at the rink and my coaches.”
With their encouragement, Ma trained for the U.S. Championships. And she did better than she had hoped in Detroit, even performing a clean short program. She impressed U.S. Figure Skating officials enough to be invited to the U.S. Junior World Camp Feb. 3-4.
“I didn’t come here expecting much, but the fact I could go out there and skate the why I did, it made me really proud,” Ma said. “The crowd was really amazing and I’m really happy.”
“It’s been a really rough six months. We’ve all stuck by her,” Mitchell said. “I’m just so proud of her. She put out two performances, especially in the short program, that just two months ago she never thought she could give again.”
For Cui, there is always tomorrow
With some of the highest international scores this season of any U.S. lady, Ting Cui was tipped for big things here in Detroit. But when the 16-year-old fell twice in her short program on Thursday, she seemed to take herself out of the conversation.
Until Friday, that is.
Cui roared back, hitting seven clean triple jumps – including two triple-triple combinations – and gaining a standing ovation from crowd for her finely nuance free skate to the classic ballet Giselle. Her 139.66 points was third-best in the free skate, and she climbed from 12th place to fifth overall.
“It’s one of my best programs in performance (quality) and one with the hardest jumps I’ve ever done, with the triple Lutz-triple toe loop and triple flip-half loop-triple Salchow,” Cui said. “Definitely the best program in my career probably so far.”
This wasn’t the first time Cui had to fight back at the U.S. Championships. Competing as a junior last season, she was 11th after the short and ended up winning the bronze medal.
Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches Cui in Colorado Springs, knew his student was made of stern stuff.
“Basically, what I said to Ting and her parents was, tomorrow is another day,” Zakrajsek said. “We talked about it for a few minutes after the short, but then moved back to the present. It’s part of the sport. You can watch a lot of top skaters sometimes have a performance like that.”
Cui competed twice on the Junior Grand Prix early this season, but couldn’t reach the podium. But at Tallinn Trophy, an ISU Challenger Series event in Estonia in late November, she won the silver medal. Her total score, 199.79 points, ranks her second behind Bradie Tennell as the highest-scoring U.S. lady in international competition this season.
“International judges love her,” Zakrajsek said. “In terms of looking ahead to Junior Worlds or whatever else she can qualify for, she’s the complete package. She has not just the technical scores, but the (program) component marks, too. When she can give a performance like that and make the crowd stand, that’s pretty special.”
Cui, a junior at Towson High School near Baltimore, Md., began training in Colorado Springs last summer. She has to balance her training needs with her education; once she completed her second Junior Grand Prix at the end of September, she returned to Maryland for a few weeks. After that, it was back to Colorado Springs to prepare for Eastern Sectionals and Tallinn, and then home again for Christmas. She has been in Colorado Springs the past few weeks revving up for the U.S. Championships.
It’s a bit unorthodox, but Towson High School has had elite student athletes before: Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, is an alumnus. And Cui thinks all of the back-and-forth is worth it.
“You can feel the vibe in the rink each day,” she said. “Everyone is going into each training day really motivated trying to put their best foot forward.”
“We have a lot of the top junior ladies in the world at the rink, from Hong Kong and Korea, and Ting is one from the U.S.,” Zakrajsek said. “That makes it very competitive every day and I think it’s helping all of them.”
Cui, along with Hanna Harrell, Starr Andrews and Emmy Ma, who placed fourth, eighth and ninth, respectively, will attend U.S. Figure Skating’s Junior World Camp Feb. 3-4. They will be joined by newly crowned junior champion Gabriella Izzo and junior silver medalist Audrey Shin. At the conclusion of this camp, U.S. Figure Skating will select its two entrants for the 2019 World Junior Figure Skating Championships, held in Zagreb, Croatia March 4-10.
Stories compiled by Phil Hersh and Lynn Rutherford.
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