OAKLAND, Calif. – Laura Lipetsky and Alysa Liu stood on an empty sheet of ice. They would have room to move, to do anything they wanted in the next 60 minutes, including the more technically demanding free skate they plan for the Junior Grand Prix Final.
There would be no having to deal with cones dividing the ice surface to accommodate newbie recreational skaters from a nearby school, some of them wobbling across the entire sheet during Liu’s usual afternoon training session. No working around 10 skaters of all levels and three other coaches, as in Liu’s usual morning session on the rink where banners celebrating her three national titles hang next to each other.
Twice a week at 11 a.m., if no one has bought the ice time, the supportive management of the Oakland Ice Center gives Liu and Lipetsky, her coach, one of the building’s two rinks all to themselves for an hour, free of charge. They get time and space. Enough of both for Liu to work on keeping up with rivals who are recalculating the sport’s fundamental theorems, who are breaking what had seemed an almost immutable continuum of physical advancement, all at warp speed.
The empty rink was cold. Not polar vortex cold like the one on the other side of the building, but frigid enough that Liu wore gloves and tights and a small skirt and a knee-length, hooded black parka over a waist-length white parka and a purple long-sleeved shirt as she warmed up and did some of her less challenging jumps.
Lipetsky laughed about Liu’s heavy clothing. “That’s our weight training,” the coach said, a wry allusion to the absence of any weights or exercise machines in the 24-year-old building.
Slowly, Liu shed the top layers swaddling her 4-foot, 10-inch body. She moved faster, attacking the more difficult jumps in her repertoire. While covered in all the seemingly burdensome clothing, weighing less than 100 pounds herself, she still did effortless triple flips. A few minutes later, with the top parka removed, she tossed off triple Axels.
“Now it comes off,” Liu said of the second parka.
And out came the quadruple Lutzes, the jumps with which Russians Alexandra Trusova and Anna Shcherbakova have revolutionized women’s skating this season.
Liu is not competing directly against them. The two 15-year-old Russians are first-year senior level skaters internationally, and the 14-year-old Liu is a first-year junior.
But the equally precocious Liu, the first U.S. woman to land a quad in competition (a Lutz) and the only one in the world ever to have done a triple Axel and a quad, already is preparing for that moment. (For the record: Liu did an Axel and a quad in the same program.)
“They are amazing,” Liu said of Trusova and Shcherbakova. “I look up to them, and I will try to follow in their footsteps.”
The workout continued. Liu landed a solo quad Lutz. Then another in combination with a triple toe loop, landing both jumps unsteadily. She asked to do the combination again, but popped the opening jump into just a double Lutz. Another try. Another pop.
Lipetsky was recording the attempts on her phone’s camera. She and Liu looked together at the video and discussed how the jumps came undone, with the skater clearly giving an opinion. Lipetsky has taught her the proper technique, and Liu quickly understands where she has gone awry.
Another quad Lutz-triple toe. A beauty. “That was a much better setup,” Lipetsky said. Liu’s face lit up.
Soon came the big reveal of this early November practice. Liu did a near flawless run-through of the free skate with the jumps she and the coach have programmed for the Junior Grand Prix Final this week at Turin, Italy. The first four jumping passes: triple Axel-double toe, quad Lutz-triple toe, quad Lutz, triple Axel. Both a quad in combination and a second quad are new in competition for Liu, additions she hopes can help get her onto the podium – or to a higher step – at the Final.
“Can we keep this on the down-low for a while, so the Russians won’t know until they see her in Italy?” Lipetsky asked.
“Or they will do all quads,” Liu said, with a grin.
The Russian women. The quads. There is no doubt they have become an obsession for everyone in the sport at both junior and senior levels this season.
That focus is especially true for rivals like Liu who hope to beat them, no matter that she already is one of only two young women among the six Junior Grand Prix Final qualifiers who has landed a quad. The other? A Russian, natch: Kamila Valieva, 13, the leading qualifier, who did two quadruple toe loops (falling on the latter), in the free skate of her second regular Junior Grand Prix event this season.
Valieva is one of four Russians among the six women in the junior final. She, Liu and Lee Hae-In of South Korea each won two events. Russia’s Kseniia Sinitsyna won the remaining event after having finished second to Valieva in another.
As hard as it is to compare scores, given different judges at each event, Junior Grand Prix results this season favor Valieva and Sinitsyna for the top two places in the Final, should they skate cleanly. Liu can close the gap because the mean base value for her four JGP programs, as calculated by skatingscores.com, was seven points higher than Valieva’s and 11 points higher than Sinitsyna’s for their four programs.
“You go into a competition wanting to win, so you need the other quad, for sure,” Lipetsky said. “Still, it’s not just the other quad but everything else, especially going against the Russians.”
Everything else includes both Grades of Execution (GOE) and program component scores (PCS), particularly the latter. Valieva and Sinitsyna have wiped out much of Liu’s base value advantage with higher GOEs. And those two Russians have had substantial PCS margins over Liu – some nine points for Valieva, 10 for Sinitsyna.
That explains why Liu is adding a quad.
And it also brings Italy’s Carolina Kostner into this story.
FOR NEARLY A DECADE, four-time Olympian Kostner, 32, has been an exemplar of both figure skating artistry and of using athletic skating qualities, like speed, to increase the point-getting value of that artistry.
Kostner, the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist, 2012 world champion and five-time European champion, left competitive skating after the 2018 season. She had remained a contender against far more advanced jumpers at the end of her career because of her consummate skating skills, such as the flow of her edges across the ice, and because of the elegance of her body line and of her ability to reach audiences on an emotional level.
Kostner and Liu have the same choreographer, the estimable Lori Nichol, with whom the Italian has collaborated since 2006 and Liu since last spring. Once she knew Liu would be working with her, Nichol asked Kostner to join the process. Kostner agreed immediately.
“Lori is my mentor and inspiration,” Kostner said in a phone interview from New Brunswick, Canada a week before she finished performing on the two-month-long Rock the Rink tour. “She taught me how to connect skating with art. I give back to her and help her any way I can.”
Liu was thrilled.
“When I heard she was going to help me, I was like, ‘No way. She is one of the most beautiful skaters in the world,’” Liu said. “It is an honor to work with her.”
Kostner would work with Liu for two weeks last April at a rink in the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hills. Before the first session, Kostner had watched video of Liu’s triumphant, historic performances at last year’s U.S. Championships, where Liu, then 13, became the youngest U.S. singles champion ever, the first U.S. woman to land a triple Axel in the short program and the first to land two triple Axels in the free skate. Such jumps – and two errorless performances – allowed Liu easily to overcome a double-digit PCS gap against 20-somethings Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell, who each fell in the free skate and finished second and third.
“I admired Alysa before meeting her,” Kostner said, “and I admired her even more after for her work ethic, her eagerness to learn and her humbleness to say, ‘Oh, yeah, that was wrong. I’m going to try it again and see how I can make it work.’”
Kostner and Nichol have been together so long the skater knows intuitively how to process what the choreographer tells her to do. When she saw that Liu sometimes was unfamiliar with what Nichol was asking of her, Kostner would explain it, usually by doing the movement herself or doing it alongside Liu. Sometimes, the veteran would simply share what was involved in every aspect of being an elite skater.
Among the many things they worked on, Kostner said, were line, speed, jump landings, and how to push off to start moving. They also focused on range of crossovers, when to make the crossovers short and fast, when to make them big and long.
“That’s a great start in showing a difference in her skating,” Kostner said of the varied crossovers. “To not be just busy, busy, busy but to show gliding ability, holding positions, elegance and effortlessness by doing a simple thing like a crossover in amazingly different ways. I think it is starting to show.”
For several years after Kostner won her first Italian senior title at age 15, she had simply bounded around the ice with the unfettered energy of a frolicsome fawn. Her first European medal, a bronze in 2006, came with PCS scores averaging in the mid-to-low 7s, not much above Liu’s scores on the Junior Grand Prix this season. PCS scoring certainly has been affected by grade inflation in recent seasons, but until the latter half of her 18-year senior career Kostner was recognized as much or more for her speed and enthusiasm as for her artistry.
“It’s not just a process of the body, of learning things and putting them into action, but also of the mind, of the maturity of a person, of a girl slowly becoming an adult,” Kostner said. “Alysa is very aware of the steps she has to take, and I saw her ready to take those steps and also to have the patience to go through the steps. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Both look at what they have done together so far as the start of a long-term relationship. Since April, they have used video and video chat to continue the work. They plan another series of live sessions together in Italy after the Junior Grand Prix Final.
“Carolina has seen my Junior Grand Prix [performances], and obviously she saw some improvements, but there still are a lot of things I need to fix in my skating skills and other areas,” Liu said.
ALYSA LIU, WHO TURNED 14 IN EARLY AUGUST, HAS A REMARKABLE LACK OF ILLUSIONS about her strengths and weaknesses for someone so young who last January became an overnight sensation. She bantered breezily with Jimmy Fallon, appeared on the Today Show and was selected this month as one of Time magazine’s “100 Next,” a list the magazine said “spotlights 100 rising stars who are shaping the future of business, entertainment, sports, politics, science, health and more.”
“A lot of people think I’m really, really good. I’m very grateful they think that, and I respect their opinion,” Liu said, laughing.
“Others think I need to work a lot on my skating skills, that my spins aren’t fast enough, that I need to go faster into my jumps, that I need to get a lot better in the PCS areas. And they are right. I do need to improve all those things.
“I think I’m going to take a while to get really good. But obviously because the  Olympics are so close, I need to do it faster.”
So, at this point in her skating life, with a scoring system richly rewarding triple Axels and quads, Liu and Lipetsky continue to put great emphasis on jumps. They know it is necessary to keep up with the current and future young Russian jumping jacks being rolled off coach Eteri Tutberidze’s assembly in Moscow. Tutberidze coaches all four Russian women in the Grand Prix Final as well as Valieva and another Junior Grand Prix Final qualifier, Daria Usacheva.
“I have a lot of respect for Eteri and everything she has done to push this sport to the next level,” Lipetsky said. “I think it’s great because it challenges skaters to push the limits even further.
“You have to step up your game to be even better if you want to look at the number one prize, which is winning the Olympics.”
Liu, junior national champion in 2018 and intermediate champion in 2016, had unsuccessfully tried quads in the regional qualifying for the senior 2019 U.S. Championships. She then shelved them until after her 2018-19 competitive season. It ended with a bang at nationals because her birth date was later than the cutoff date to be age eligible for even the junior world championships in 2019.
Her first “unofficial” quad success was a Lutz at the unsanctioned Aurora Games in Albany, N.Y., in late August. A week later, Liu landed an “official” quad Lutz with a positive 2.30 GOE at the Junior Grand Prix in Lake Placid, N.Y. Three weeks after that, she got a +1.81 GOE for the jump at the Junior Grand Prix in Gdansk, Poland.
Liu understands that she is striking while the iron is hot, that her strength-size ratio and light body make it easier to learn quads now. She is unconcerned by the widely expressed feelings that she and the other young phenoms will lose their ability to do the quads once their bodies change from girlish to more womanly outlines.
“It’s better if you learn them when you are small,” Liu said. “It will be a lot harder when you go through puberty. I think it’s best to get them once in your life, to experience it, even if you don’t keep them.
“I don’t think I will grow that much. So if I can just maintain my health and endurance and strength, I think I can keep the quads.”
The future health of the young women doing the quads has become a subject of considerable and well-intentioned debate. There are justifiable concerns that the physical demands and repetitive stress of doing quads may cause long-term damage to bodies that are not fully formed, especially at the growth plate areas in hips and knees.
Because the quad revolution in women’s skating began just two seasons ago, there is not anything near a body of evidence to suggest a definitive outcome or whether the evidence will be widely applicable. (The same uncertainty about future health also is true of men’s skating, where quads have been done for two decades but the number of quads in a free skate has increased dramatically since 2014.) For now, coaches and skaters are flying by the seat of their pants, trying to minimize risk by limiting the number of jumps done in practice.
Liu admits she might practice too many jumps if Lipetsky did not tell her to stop. The coach does that when she sees Liu is tired, as manifested by how the skater is feeling, by deteriorating jump quality from slow reactions or by not being able to push off as well for the jump setup.
The first of Liu’s three daily skating practice sessions concentrates almost entirely on choreography and skating skills; the third, when Liu is more likely to be tired, has few jumps. She sees a physical therapist on a weekly basis. Team Liu is holding off on adding a quad Salchow for the foreseeable future.
“We have to watch carefully,” said her father, Arthur. “If her body says no, she doesn’t do it. Whenever Alysa feels a little ache or pain, Laura stops her right away, and she goes to the physio.”
ON THE RINK THEY HAD TO THEMSELVES FOR AN HOUR, Liu and Lipetsky called it quits with 15 minutes to go.
Liu put back on the white parka, then the black one. She would wear them both for half her final training session of the day.
“The Russians do costume changes,” Lipetsky said, referring to Trusova unfurling part of one garment to reveal another in her short program and Shcherbakova doing the same in her free skate. “We’re going to start Alysa with all the layers and have her take one layer off, then another. That will be our costume change.”
Lipetsky was joking. But keeping up with the Russians, doing whatever might help beat them at their own game – which seems to be the game in women’s skating right now – is seriously on her mind. Neither she nor Liu has any desire to cover up that stark truth.
Liu eschews the skating mantra of, “I just want to skate my best.” Befitting an athlete who trains in Oakland, channeling late Raiders owner Al Davis, her mantra is more like his: “Just win, baby.”
“You never go into a competition wanting to get second or third,” Liu said. “Your goal should always be first, no matter who is at the competition, who the judges are or where it is located. Why skate if you are only thinking of second?”
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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