Alysa Liu unflappable under intense pressure to successfully defend national title

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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.”

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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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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.

Joey Mantia extends U.S. medal streak at speed skating worlds; Dutch dominance returns

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Joey Mantia ensured the host U.S. finished with a medal at the world single distances championships. Ireen WüstKjeld Nuis and Jorrit Bergsma ensured the Netherlands finished atop the medal standings.

Mantia joined Shani Davis as the only U.S. men to earn individual medals at three different editions of the championships, taking bronze in the 1500m on the last day of the speed skating meet at the 2002 Olympic oval outside Salt Lake City.

Mantia won the mass start at the last two worlds in 2017 and 2019 (and finished fifth on Sunday, after the 1500m bronze).

Mantia clocked a personal best 1:42.16 in the fifth of 12 pairs of the 1500m. It held up until Nuis (1:41.66) and countryman Thomas Krol (1:41.73) in the last two pairs.

“Was starting to think that I’m so old that I can’t time trial anymore,” Mantia, a 34-year-old whose last 1500m personal best came in 2015, told media in Utah. “Maybe there’s a little bit of hope left.”

Mantia’s medal extended the U.S. streak of making the podium at every world championships this millennium — 16 straight. The single bronze is the smallest medal output since 2000.

Full results are here.

Wüst and Nuis gave the Dutch a sweep of the men’s and women’s 1500m titles, two years after they did the same at the PyeongChang Olympics. Bergsma, an Olympic and world 10,000m champion, earned his first global medal of any color — gold — in the 16-lap mass start.

The Netherlands failed to earn any golds on the first two days of the four-day competition. The dominant Dutch, who topped the medal standings at every Olympics and worlds dating to the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, entered Sunday trailing Russia.

But Wüst began the day by clocking 1:50.92 to win the 1500m by .21 over Russian Yevgenia Lalenkova. American medal hope Brittany Bowe, the 2015 World champion who took bronze last year, finished 14th a day after taking eighth in her world-record 1000m distance.

Nuis and Krol went one-two in the men’s 1500m to tie Russia’s medal total. Then Irene Schouten took bronze in the women’s mass start to put the Netherlands ahead for good, followed by Bergsma’s capper.

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Netherlands on the board; more world records at speed skating worlds

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It took four world records from other countries before the Netherlands won its first title in an Olympic program event at the world single distances speed skating championships.

Jutta Leerdam got the dominant skating nation on the board on the third day of the four-day competition and in the ninth Olympic program event. Leerdam scored an upset over defending champion and world-record holder Brittany Bowe, the American who ended up eighth.

Leerdam, 21, prevailed despite having zero World Cup podiums to her name. She clocked 1:11.84, just .23 slower than Bowe’s world record set on the same Utah Olympic Oval last year. Bowe, who recently had her yearlong win streak snapped in the 1000m, finished in 1:12.92.

“It’s a nightmare,” Bowe said, according to media on site.

Later, the Netherlands won the men’s team pursuit in a world record 3:34.68, the fifth world record in Olympic events the last two days on the world’s fastest ice at the 2002 Olympic oval outside Salt Lake City.

Full results are here.

The world championships conclude Sunday, highlighted by American Joey Mantia defending his world title in the mass start.

In other Saturday events, both the men’s 1000m and women’s 5000m world records fell. On Friday, world records were lowered in the men’s 10,000m and women’s team pursuit.

Pavel Kulizhnikov followed his Friday world 500m title with the 1000m crown, repeating his double gold from 2016. Kulizhnikov was one of the Russians banned from the PyeongChang Olympics after he served a prior doping ban.

On Saturday, Kulizhnikov clocked 1:05.69 to take .49 off Dutchman Kjeld Nuis‘ record from last March, also set at Salt Lake City. Nuis, the Olympic 1000m and 1500m champion, took silver, 1.03 seconds behind.

Russian Natalya Voronina and Czech Martina Sablikova both went under Sablikova’s world record in the 5000m. Voronina came out on top in 6:39.02, 2.99 seconds faster than Sablikova’s record from a year ago and 2.16 seconds faster than Sablikova on Saturday.

Voronina’s time would have been the men’s world record as recently as 1993. Sablikova won the previous 10 world titles in the event dating to 2007.

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MORE: World Single Distances Championships broadcast schedule