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.
Liu’s free skate score (160.12), buoyed by both her huge technical score and generous, career-best component marks that averaged 8.59, was 8.13 higher than Bell’s and 18.22 above Tennell’s.
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.”
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.
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