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 flip, 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.”

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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.

French Open: Novak Djokovic rolls to start Grand Slam record quest

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PARIS — Pretty much everyone expects to see, and likely wants to see, Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic face each other in the French Open semifinals. There’s work to be done first, of course, and both began their journeys at Roland Garros with straight-set victories Monday against opponents making Grand Slam debuts.

These were supposed to be straightforward chances to ease into the clay-court tournament for the two popular picks to win the men’s trophy — and it turned out that way, other than a brief late blip for each.

Djokovic, a 22-time major champ seeded No. 3, was up first in Court Philippe Chatrier, facing 114th-ranked Aleksandar Kovacevic, a 24-year-old from New York.

Djokovic served for the victory at 5-4 in the third set but got broken there. Not surprisingly, he quickly righted himself and won 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (1).

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“Made me work for my victory,” Djokovic said.

“I played really well and held things under control for 2 1/2 sets and then lost my serve and things got a little bit on a wrong side for me,” said the 36-year-old Serb, who can break the men’s mark for most Slam titles he currently shares with Rafael Nadal, the 14-time French Open winner sidelined by a bad hip. “But I managed to hold my nerves and played pretty much a perfect tiebreak.”

Next came Alcaraz, a one-time major champ seeded No. 1, in Court Suzanne Lenglen, facing 159th-ranked qualifier Flavio Cobolli, a 21-year-old from Florence, Italy.

Alcaraz held three match points to close things at 5-3 in the third set but couldn’t convert, then found himself at 5-all minutes later. Not surprisingly, he quickly righted himself and won 6-0, 6-2, 7-5.

Before the start of the tournament, Djokovic called Alcaraz the logical pick to take the trophy, given his recent form on clay: 21-2 as of Monday, with three titles.

Hard to argue.

On the other hand, Djokovic also noted that he loves the best-of-five-set format of majors and not-so-accidentally mentioned the 22-1 gap in such championships.

Other seeded men advancing on Day 2 in Paris included No. 12 Frances Tiafoe, No. 14 Cam Norrie, No. 15 Borna Coric, No. 18 Alex de Minaur, No. 19 Roberto Bautista Agut and No. 26 Denis Shapovalov. Among the seeded women moving into the second round: No. 5 Caroline Garcia, No. 14 Beatriz Haddad Maia, No. 20 Madison Keys and No. 22 Donna Vekic.

Seeds on the way out included No. 12 Belinda Bencic and No. 16 Karolina Pliskova in the women’s bracket and No. 10 Felix Auger-Aliassime and No. 25 Botic Van de Zandschulp in the men’s.

Part of the group of past Grand Slam champions who won Monday were Stan Wawrinka and Sloane Stephens.

Wawrinka edged Albert Ramos-Vinolas 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-7 (2), 1-6, 6-4 across more than 4 1/2 hours, while 2017 U.S. Open title winner Stephens defeated two-time major finalist Pliskova 6-0, 6-4.

“One of the big reasons why I keep playing is to relive those emotions. It was special today again to be here, a lot of support, a lot of fans here. It helped me a lot today to stay in the match and to keep fighting for it,” said Wawrinka, a 38-year-old whose three major titles include the 2015 French Open but has dealt with a series of injuries in more recent years. “If I can stay five more minutes on court, I will do it.”

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Canada wins men’s hockey world title; Latvia wins first medal

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TAMPERE, Finland — Samuel Blais scored two goals to rally Canada to a 5-2 victory over Germany in the final of the world men’s hockey championship on Sunday.

It’s a record 28th world title for Canada, and its second in three years. Russia has 27 while Germany has never won the trophy.

Blais netted with a backhand 4:51 into the final period for a 3-2 lead for Canada, which was playing in its fourth straight final.

“It feels really good,” Blais said. “We’ve been in Europe for a month and we’ve all waited for that moment to play for the gold medal game. And we’re lucky enough to have won it.”

Lawson Crouse, Tyler Toffoli and Scott Laughton also scored for Canada, Peyton Krebs had two assists and goaltender Samuel Montembeault stopped 21 shots.

Toffoli stretched the lead to 4-2 from the left circle with 8:09 remaining and Laughton made it 5-2 with an empty net goal.

Adam Fantilli became only the second Canadian player after Jonathan Toews to win gold at the world juniors and world championship the same year.

Canada had to come back twice in the final.

John Peterka wristed a shot past Montembeault from the left circle 7:44 into the game. It was the sixth goal for the Buffalo Sabres forward at the tournament.

Blais was fed by Krebs to beat goaltender Mathias Niederberger and tie it 1-1 at 10:47.

Daniel Fischbuch put the Germans ahead again with a one-timer with 6:13 to go in the middle period.

Crouse equalized on a power play with 2:32 remaining in the frame.

It was the first medal for Germany since 1953 when it was second behind Sweden.

The two previously met just once in the final with Canada winning 6-1 in 1930.

LATVIA GETS BRONZE

Defenseman Kristian Rubins scored his second goal 1:22 into overtime to lead Latvia to a 4-3 victory over the United States and earn a bronze medal earlier Sunday.

It’s the first top-three finish for Latvia at the tournament. Its previous best was a seventh place it managed three times.

The U.S. lost in the bronze medal game for the second straight year. The U.S. team was cruising through the tournament with eight straight wins until it was defeated by Germany in the semifinal 4-3 in overtime.

Rubins rallied Latvia with his first with 5:39 to go in the final period to tie the game at 3 to force overtime.

Roberts Bukarts and Janis Jaks also scored for Latvia.

Rocco Grimaldi scored twice for the U.S. in the opening period to negate Latvia’s 1-0 and 2-1 leads.

Matt Coronato had put the U.S. 3-2 ahead 6:19 into the final period.

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