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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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April Ross, Alix Klineman back atop Olympic beach volleyball qualifying

April Ross, Alix Klineman
FIVB World Tour
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Two-time Olympic medalist April Ross and new partner Alix Klineman moved back on top of the U.S. Olympic beach volleyball qualifying standings by winning an event in Itapema, Brazil this week.

Ross, who split from Kerri Walsh Jennings in 2017, and Klineman beat Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes 25-23, 18-21, 15-10 in Sunday’s final for their third title in 11 FIVB World Tour tournaments together.

“Every victory is important, but this counts for more,” Klineman said, according to the FIVB. “We want to send a message and we want to be consistently the best.

Ross and Klineman supplanted Walsh Jennings and her new partner, Brooke Sweat, for the lead in the early U.S. Olympic qualifying rankings with still more than a year of events ahead.

1. Ross/Klineman – 3,240 (5 events played)
2. Walsh Jennings/Sweat – 3,100 (7 events)
3. Day/Flint – 2,180 (5 events)
4. Hughes/Ross — 2,000 (4 events)
5. Larsen/Stockman — 1,840 (5 events)
6. Sponcil/Claes — 1,600 (3 events)

Each team’s 12 best results from Sept. 1, 2018, to June 14, 2020, go into the Olympic qualifying rankings. That means Ross and Klineman are comfortably in front, having played two fewer events than Walsh Jennings and Sweat, who lost in the quarterfinals in Itapema.

The top two U.S. pairs come June 15, 2020, provided they’re ranked high enough internationally, will qualify for Tokyo. Most of the qualifying events, including the ones with the most points available, are still to come this summer.

Ross, 36, picked up Klineman, 29, after Walsh Jennings didn’t join her in signing a domestic AVP contract in 2017. The 6-foot-5 Klineman primarily played indoor the previous decade, including at Stanford from 2007-10 after being the Gatorade National Player of the Year coming out of high school.

MORE: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Katie Ledecky extends 5-year win streak

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Katie Ledecky extended a five-year domestic win streak by taking the 200m freestyle at the Tyr Pro Swim Series at Bloomington on Saturday.

In her last full meet before July’s world championships, Ledecky clocked 1:55.80 to beat training partner Simone Manuel by 1.44 seconds for her second win in as many days. Ledecky is also entered in Sunday’s 800m free on the last day of the meet.

Ledecky, who also cruised to a 400m free victory on Friday, ranks third in the world in the 200m free this year, behind Australian Ariarne Titmus and Swede Sarah Sjöström (the Olympic silver medalist who is not expected to race the 200m free at worlds).

Ledecky, a five-time Olympic champion, hasn’t lost a 200m, 400m, 800m or 1500m free final at a domestic meet since Allison Schmitt beat her in a 200m free on Jan. 18, 2014 when Ledecky was 16 years old.

BLOOMINGTON: Full Results

But Ledecky lost the two biggest 200m frees of this Olympic cycle so far, at the 2017 World Championships and the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships. Italian veteran Federica Pellegrini handed Ledecky her first individual final defeat at a major international meet at 2017 Worlds.

Ledecky dropped to third in the 200m free at Pan Pacs in Tokyo last year, beaten by younger swimmers Taylor Ruck of Canada and Rikako Ikee of Japan.

Ruck, who like Ledecky trains at Stanford, is in Bloomington, but she chose not to swim the 200m free on Saturday. She instead swam the 200m backstroke about 45 minutes after the 200m free and was upset by 17-year-old Regan Smith. Smith won in 2:06.47, moving to No. 3 in the world this year.

In other events Saturday, Ella Eastin captured the 400m individual medley in 4:37.18, taking 1.25 seconds off her personal best and moving to fifth in the world this year. Eastin is not on the world championships team after an untimely bout with mono before qualifying meets last summer.

Blake Pieroni won the men’s 200m free in 1:47.25. No American ranks in the top 20 in the world this year. World silver medalist Townley Haas did not enter Bloomington.

MORE: Olympic breaststroke champion faces ban for missed drug tests

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