AP Photo

Ashley Cain, Timothy LeDuc ready to take on Worlds pressure

Leave a comment

Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc had a plan for the 2018-19 season: skate well through the fall, become national champions, get named as the only U.S. pair team at the 2019 World Championships, and then win back more pair spots for the U.S. by finishing in the top 10.

So far, they’ve checked off those boxes, with one major hurdle in December. During a competition in Croatia, Cain fell on her head during a lift and had to spend the time leading up to the U.S. Championships recovering from a concussion.

Despite all that, they won their first national title together and will compete at the world championships in Saitama, Japan from March 18-24.

Cain and LeDuc opened up to NBCSports.com/figure-skating in Detroit after nationals about their preparations, the pressure they don’t feel, their coaching team, and how their fans rallied around them during their recovery.

Here we are a day after winning the national title. Has it sunk in?

Cain: At this point I think our brains are a little fried.

LeDuc: I can’t help but feeling overwhelmingly grateful.

Cain: Me too.

LeDuc: I’ve been having all these flashbacks to different points along my journey that I just remember what someone did to help me through something, how they helped me overcome something. This does not just belong to me. it belongs to so many people.

Cain: I found myself yesterday thanking everyone. It was our team around us, yes, and it was each other. It was the U.S. Figure Skating staff, but also it was the fans. They stuck with us through all of it. They were defending us at times when people were being critical. Through this whole week through every practice and through the performances. They were cheering so loud. They were on that journey with us as well. I think that we just feel an overwhelming gratefulness. We just want to keep thanking everybody because that truly is what created that performance out there.

Have you had time to do those thank yous yet?

Cain: A few here and there. Obviously, our coaches, we’ve just been “thankyouthankyouthankyou.” You could see in the Kiss and Cry, they felt every emotion with us because they saw us every day. No matter what was gonna happen in that long program, they were gonna stick by us and build us back up. To have it happen like that was almost a storybook ending to what could’ve happened. It’s crazy to think of what could’ve happened. It’s crazy because it could’ve gone either way.

LeDuc: I’ve felt defeated and down so many times so to be on the other side of that is like… I’m not sure what.

Cain: I’ve also been able to watch these moments happen over and over with other people. I’ve wanted it so bad and to finally have it I’m like, ‘Oh this is what it feels like!’ I still feel like the same person. Nothing changed, you know? I’m still the athlete I was yesterday, but at the same time our goals happened. Everything that we wanted.

LeDuc: We have a few more.

And what are they?

LeDuc: Get the spots at worlds.

Cain: This [a national title] was one of the biggest goals of my skating career.

LeDuc: Same

Cain: And we accomplished it. It’s almost like when people ask, you went to the Olympics, you accomplished all your goals, why are you still skating? Because there’s always more. Yes, you accomplished that goal and it’s a big deal but you always want more. That’s like heading into Worlds, we want to get the spots back for the U.S. teams. We want there to be more teams at Worlds.

[Note: To earn two quota spots for the U.S. at the 2020 World Championships, Cain and LeDuc need to finish 10th or better at Worlds. To earn three spots, they need to win gold or silver.]

You mentioned fan support. It seemed like there was a lot of support, shock, and outrage all at once after Croatia. Was that surprising to see, or did you know they’d always have your back?

Cain: It wasn’t surprising to see.

LeDuc: I think everyone just felt badly for you, and wanted you to be better and happy to see you here. I don’t think anyone would’ve betrayed you for any reason. I understand why people dragged me through the mud a little bit.

Cain: That wasn’t right.

LeDuc: I understand the controversy surrounding maybe the officials side of things.

Cain: I would say to anybody that spoke negatively about the whole ordeal is that I finished. I got up and I finished the program. At that point, I know that my health comes first. But I kept going. You never know how things are gonna work out. Luckily, it worked out in a positive way for us. We finished the program in Croatia strong, nothing happened. I was able to get the right treatment back home.

It was definitely tough… for me, I knew I had the injury and I was gonna get through it, and it was gonna be okay. I was more concerned about Tim, because just some of the comments that were being thrown around. It’s really tough because at the same time, he wants to be there for me and all that. I needed to be there for him in that moment because that was so tough for him to go through as well. I think some people didn’t realize how hard it was for him to have to deal with. That was our first fall, too. For him having to come to terms with that—that was our first lift fall. Ever. And it was in competition, it happened like that.

LeDuc: And it went viral.

Cain: It kept getting spread. Yes, people wanted to weigh in and give their opinions. At the same time, it was tough to go through that. We actually shut down social media for a bit while we were going through all of it.

Concussion is such a buzzword. Do you think that was part of why it got bigger and bigger?

Cain: Yes. It just kept spreading. The video kept getting shared everywhere. That’s okay, now it’s a… a pivotal moment in our careers.

LeDuc: It is. Thankfully, through this – not defining, but in a full circle story – concerning concussions, we followed every plan that the U.S. Figure Skating team gave to us and that’s why we were able to be here strong. We stuck together every plan, every doctor visit.

Cain: All the exercises. The rest.

LeDuc: The treatment, just following the plan and sticking to it. We’re really grateful to have a really good group of people to help us.

One of the things I noticed in the way you guys talk about your coaches is that it’s ‘coaches’ and not ‘mom and dad.’ Is that a mental thing?

Cain: It is. I feel like it’s a business as well. They are our coaches when they’re in the rink and when we’re at things like this, yes, they’re also my parents and they’re excited to feel all the feelings as my parents and see me go through this journey. But at the same time, they look at it as a business as well.

We have a really good relationship and I think it’s worked because we keep it that way. We keep a lot of other emotions out of it.

Did that come from any trial and error or did you set it out to be that way?

Cain: I think we set out for it to be like that at the start when I was a little kid. We always set it up to be like that. We didn’t want to get to my teenage years and start butting heads or anything like that. That never happened. It’s been a really good relationship.

And in your own partnership, it seems like you always speak very highly and thoughtfully of each other.

LeDuc: This is only our third season together but we’ve really… I think that’s why we’ve come together and progressed so quickly is because we have that synergy right from the start. You can’t really force that. It just worked. It was like chemistry really aligned. When you put mutual respect at the center of your partnership, it allows you to deal with things that come toward you. We’ve had a lot of obstacles –

Cain: Oh my god, so many!

LeDuc: – and challenges come at us. We’ve learned how to come together through those so we can overcome them better. That’s really made us strong. I think that’s how we were able to deal with this last six weeks, overcoming the injuries. Because we came together to deal with it and to build each other up. Otherwise separately, I don’t know what we would’ve done.

Hard to do as half and half instead of a whole team, it sounds like.

Cain: We think of each other as equal units as well, equal energies. That’s what we try to bring to our programs and to every performance. I think yesterday [during the free skate at the U.S. Championships], that’s what carried us through that performance. That we counted on each other to bring the equal amount of energy. I remember thinking at the beginning of our program, ‘Our energies are going to come together at this program.’ That’s how we like to think about ourselves.

LeDuc: I knew whatever energy I would give, she would give back. It’s like a positive feedback.

That’s pretty zen.

LeDuc: It was pretty zen yesterday.

Cain: It was really zen!

LeDuc: we were so dialed in and focused.

I have also heard you use the phrase “pillars of strength” to describe your free skate. Tell me more about that concept.

LeDuc: Equality is really important to us. Not necessarily conforming to traditional gender roles and also not the traditional romantic storyline that a lot of pairs and dance teams have. It’s not just because I’m gay. It’s not just because she’s engaged to somebody else. You can still have a great storyline in your partnership that isn’t about being in love.

MORE: Madison Chock and Evan Bates look to peak at Worlds and return to podium

As a reminder, you can watch 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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Hallelujah! Mariah Bell strikes secret chord with mentor Adam Rippon

Mariah Bell and Adam Rippon
Getty
Leave a comment

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.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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

Leave a comment

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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.