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U.S. Championships reporters’ notebook: Alysa Liu on TV tour and more from final day of U.S. Championships

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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.

MORE: Stellato, Bartholomay’s Four Continents selection snub stuns coach

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.”

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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.

MORE: Reporters’ notebook from Day 1 | Day 2 | Later on Day 2

As a reminder, you can watch Four Continents and the world 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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Hallelujah! Mariah Bell strikes secret chord with mentor Adam Rippon

Mariah Bell and Adam Rippon
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Mariah Bell hit the final pose of her “Hallelujah” free skate in Greensboro, North Carolina on Friday night and couldn’t hold back her tears. The 23-year-old skater had just had the performance of her life at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

When Bell reached the kiss-and-cry, the first person she hugged wasn’t Rafael Arutunian, her coach since 2016, but former training partner Adam Rippon. A jubilant Rippon thrust Bell’s arm up in the air in triumph. As her score – a whopping 225.21 points, good for a silver medal – flashed up, he repeated the gesture.

“Adam has been such a major part of my success this year,” Bell said. “He’s completely changed my outlook on training. … To have that moment with him here was so special. I was hoping something like this would happen, because he deserved to have that moment, too.”

Considering all of the irons Rippon has in the fire, he is an unlikely candidate to be a coach, even part-time. Since the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, the personable 2016 U.S. champion is in high demand for reality TV, hosting and comedy gigs. He crossed the country promoting his autobiography, Beautiful on the Outside: A Memoir. But something was missing.

“After the Olympics, my plan was always to work with Rafael,” Rippon said shortly before the ladies’ free skate in Greensboro. “Then, I had a lot of opportunities come my way. One of my dreams was always to do what I do now, to be involved in comedy. I’ve always done it off the ice, and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just be the funniest person at the party.’ But when I got to do it as a job, it was a dream come true.

“Still, I felt I learned so much as a skater, because I was so self-directed, with Rafael’s help. Part of me that thought, ‘I can still help.’”

So after U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp last August, Rippon teamed up with the talented Bell, then a U.S. bronze medalist known for her on-ice sparkle as well as occasional inconsistency. With his help, she had her best Grand Prix season ever, winning two bronze medals.

As Rippon tells it, the key was helping Bell work harder and smarter on the ice.

“She needed to switch her mindset,” Rippon said. “What she thought was hard work, I thought of as a light day. Her hard work was what I considered a warm-up.”

After Champs Camp, the Los Angeles-based Rippon had two weeks free, so he visited Bell at their training rink in Irvine, California for three hours each day. There, he sharpened her work ethic.

“All of a sudden I was (telling her), ‘You’re going to do a double toe, double loop at end of every jump, or a triple toe at the end of every jump,’” he recalled. “It was just challenging her in a way she hasn’t been challenged before, so that when she got to the competition the pressure was much less.”

Rippon created a training plan with Bell, charting everything from workouts to breaks to program run-throughs.

“We did this, so that when she got to a competition, she could look down on the paper and say, ‘Look at all of the stuff I did; I’m ready,’” he said. “She could just go and enjoy it.”

After the two-week period following Champs Camp, the busy Rippon could only work with Bell three or four times a month. The two stayed connected via frequent telephone conversations and videos.

Then, a few weeks before Greensboro, both Rippon and choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne visited Irvine to help Arutunian prepare Bell for the U.S. Championships.

“We did a lot of work before nationals, running and polishing programs,” Rippon said. “I think Shae-Lynn is one of the best, if not the best, choreographer working today. So yes, I did the choreography of Mariah’s short (set to a Britney Spears medley), but when Shae-Lynn is there, you take advantage.”

Rippon’s strategy, along with Bourne’s choreography and Arutunian’s technical expertise, paid off big time. On Friday, Bell landed six clean triples, including a triple Lutz, triple toe loop, in a stirring free skate choreographed by Bourne to “Hallelujah.”

“Mariah took my advice and she worked hard and she transformed herself,” Rippon said. “She’s one of the oldest ladies in the competition, and she’s kind of having a renaissance, and I relate to that. I felt like that happened to me, too. At the end of my career, I that I was in the best headspace.”

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

Despite the success, Rippon isn’t planning to expand his coaching to other skaters. He’s too busy with a new project, developing content for Quibi, a short-form mobile video platform.

“It’s my biggest thing right now,” Rippon said. “Everything on the platform is 10 minutes or less. I sold them a show and we started filming last week. I just had this week off, because I asked to go to nationals.”

It’s a comedy show, of course, with Rippon, other comedians and celebrity guests poking fun at the events of the day.

“We do a review of whatever idiotic thing happened,” he said. “It will be funny. I’m very excited.”

But no matter how successful this project, or the next, becomes, Rippon will never abandon figure skating.

“(Quibi) is my work,” he said. “When I have days off, I come to the rink  and I get to work with Mariah, and that’s sort of my relaxation. I reconnect to my roots.”

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MORE: Alysa Liu unflappable under intense pressure to successfully defend national title

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season 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.

Alysa Liu unflappable under intense pressure to successfully defend national title

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Not long before Alysa Liu was to take the ice as the last of 18 women to do her free skate Friday night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the 14-year-old sat amidst the comings and goings and general commotion of a hallway leading to the ice. She had ear buds in place, munched on an apple and watched the skater who preceded her, Mariah Bell.

By the time Liu reached the Greensboro Coliseum rink for her final warmup moments, the ice surface was littered with stuffed animals, a form of tribute to an outstanding skater, and packed with the flower girls who pick them up. It was also awash with noise from an audience saluting the brilliant skating Bell had just done, an elegant, near flawless performance to k.d. Lang’s haunting interpretation of the emotionally powerful Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah.”

With the crowd’s reaction roaring in her now open ears, Liu weaved through the girls and the plushies in what seemed an eternity before the announcement of Bell’s scores. Liu waited and glided around with an aplomb that is just one of the many extraordinary parts of the personality of this 10th grader who last year had become the youngest U.S. senior champion in history.

In the crowd, 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano watched with his coach, Linda Leaver, trying to see how Liu would react to what could be a discomfiting, pressurized situation.

“When she came out, I said to Linda, ‘Welcome to the big leagues, girl,’” Boitano said. “I thought it was really a sign of a champion she was smiling, and she was relaxed.”

And when her four minutes of skating to “Illumination” by composer-pianist Jennifer Thomas was over, Liu had moved into a league of her own in the United States.

“I was very happy for Mariah,” Liu said. “I didn’t get nervous or excited. I was kind of like, ‘Okay, she did well, and I also have to do well.’”

Capitalizing on the high values of her difficult jumps, Liu skated so well she won her second title by more than 10 points, with 235.52 to Bell’s 225.81. Bradie Tennell, who led Liu by 3.56 points and Bell by 5.74 after the short program, dropped to third (220.86) after mistakes on her final two jumping passes, including a fall on the last.

As they had done last year, Bell and Tennell had to lend their arms to help Liu ascend the top step of the podium for the awards ceremony, a delightfully ironic circumstance given how the 4-foot, 10-inch Liu towers above them in competition.

“It’s so exciting,” said Liu’s coach, Laura Lipetsky. “I’m so proud of her and happy for her. She really wanted to do well.

“She just blocked out what was going on beforehand and did her job.”

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

Liu went into the free skate with a technical base value advantage of more than 16 points over both Bell and Tennell. She made the most of it by executing all but one of the 12 elements very well, failing only on her attempt to be the first woman to land a quadruple jump at nationals.

Her quadruple Lutz was called under-rotated and produced her only negative Grade of Execution. Both Liu’s triple Axels were solid, and her final two spins were of surpassing quality.

Liu said she had begun preparing for one potential psychological hurdle as soon as she saw the free skate draw: the guaranteed 40-minute gap between the end of the final group warmup and the time she was to skate. But she handled just as coolly the unexpected – the crowd reaction to Bell, whose only error was an under-rotated triple Lutz, and her own hard fall earlier in the day.

Liu’s fall had come on a quad Lutz attempt at the end of her final practice, some seven hours before her free skate. It was the last thing she did in that practice, running out of time before she could try another jump.

Some skaters are rattled by a competition-day practice that ends in such a failure, especially if it stings physically. Liu just shook it off.

“I have fallen like that before so it wasn’t like, ‘Omigosh, what am I going to do?’” Liu said. “I guess I knew how to recover from that and focus on other things. I relaxed the rest of the day and iced it so it wouldn’t hurt any more. I just didn’t let that fall get to me.”

Liu joined Ashley Wagner (2012-13) as the only women to win consecutive women’s national titles since Michelle Kwan won her last of eight straight in 2005.

“Last year was more special because it was my first,” Liu said. “This year, I’m just as excited. I’m thinking, ‘It’s a new decade, wow, what a good start.’”

This year is different because her competitive season does not end at nationals.

In 2019, when she was 13, Liu fell below the age minimum for even the Junior World Championships. (U.S. Championships do not have that rule.) Liu will be able to compete at the 2020 Junior World Championships this March in Estonia, but she is not eligible for senior international events until the 2021-22 season – the next Olympic season.

This was her first junior season internationally. She has won a silver medal at the Junior Grand Prix and won two Junior Grand Prix events. But Liu faces formidable competition now and in the future from what seems like an endless stream of young Russians doing quads and triple Axels.

“I am aware a lot of skaters around the world are getting these difficult jumps, and I’m just trying to keep up,” she said.

In Year Two of the Liu Dynasty in America, she has become the youngest to win consecutive national titles and, earlier in the season, the first U.S. woman to land a quadruple jump in competition. She is the only U.S. woman to do those difficult jumps.

“I just want to keep improving and hopefully make history along the way,” Liu said.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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MORE: Gracie Gold in tears at figure skating nationals after emotional comeback

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season 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.