Alysa Liu became the youngest U.S. figure skating champion in history last year, at age 13. In her title defense, she learned late Thursday that another new experience was on the horizon.
She would go last in the senior nationals free skate Friday night in Greensboro, N.C.
For many skaters, that assignment is the most pressure-packed in the sport. Liu embraced the challenge, confident that it will not be the last time she is in that spotlight.
“I kind of mentally prepared myself the night before for the long wait, and I think that kind of helped set up for the long wait today,” she said late Friday, after becoming the first woman to repeat as national champ since Ashley Wagner in 2013.
The wait may have seemed longer after the penultimate skater, Mariah Bell, brought the house down with a clean program including seven triple jumps. Liu watched it. Even clapped along with the crowd.
Then Liu landed two triple Axels — as she did last year — and the first quadruple jump by a woman in nationals history (albeit under-rotated). Liu rallied from a short-program deficit and distanced Bell by 10.31 points.
“I guess I was kind of inspired by [Bell’s] emotion and her happiness,” Liu said. “I guess that inspired me at the end of my program to relax and be happy and just kind of be aware of the moment.”
Bradie Tennell, the short-program leader, dropped to third after falling on a triple loop.
The night’s emotional moment occurred two hours earlier. Gracie Gold, in her first nationals in three years, was brought to tears after coming back from an eating disorder, depression and anxiety.
“The full arena pulling for my existence, like, on the ice,” said Gold, who finished 12th, lacking the most difficult jumping combinations but determined to continue next season. “I want everything now when I demand it, but I have to remind myself of that it is a progression. And next, we just kind of keep the train going.”
Nationals continue Saturday with the pairs’ free skate, free dance and the men’s short program, live on NBC Sports.
Liu won on her technical merit. No other active U.S. senior woman has landed either a triple Axel or a quad in competition. At least one is necessary to contend with the world’s best — Russians competing at the European Championships this week.
Liu is too young to compete on the senior international level until the 2022 Olympic season. She ranks third in the world among junior skaters this season, behind two Russians, going into March’s junior world championships.
Bell, the oldest skater in the last group at 23, had her best nationals result after bronze medals in 2017 and 2019. Much to the delight of her coaches at rink level — Rafael Arutunian and Olympian Adam Rippon.
Tennell, who couldn’t bend one of her arms on Wednesday, fell on the last of her 10 jumps in the free skate, a triple loop.
For the second straight year, Tennell topped the nationals short program, fell in the free skate and dropped down the podium. Stunning given Tennell broke through in the 2017-18 season as the only elite international skater without a fall going into the Olympics.
Bell and Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion, will likely make up March’s senior world team for a second straight year. A U.S. Figure Skating committee makes that decision, hoping the duo has combined results add up to no greater than 13 to ensure the U.S. gets three world spots in 2021.
Earlier, Madison Chock and Evan Bates topped the rhythm dance with 87.63 points, taking a 1.32-point lead over two-time defending champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue going into Saturday’s free dance. They could become the first U.S. skater, couple or pair to go five years between national titles in many decades.
Chock and Bates came out of the Sochi Olympics as the top U.S. couple, succeeding Meryl Davis and Charlie White. But they fell behind both Hubbell and Donohue and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani going into the PyeongChang Olympics.
After that, Chock underwent ankle surgery. The couple moved from Michigan to Montreal. They now train with Hubbell and Donohue and world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.
“We’re just finding our groove right now,” Bates said. “It feels like we’re just having a bit of a renaissance with our career.”
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