Alysa Liu grows on the ice and adds inches, too

Liu and Scali in San Francisco
Courtesy Massimo Scali
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Word on the street is Alysa Liu has grown.

The two-time reigning U.S. figure skating champion said that’s true… to a degree. The two inches of height she added between last season and her 15th birthday in August don’t change Liu’s perspective.

“I just went from really short to very short,” Liu said, wryly, via telephone after a training session last week in San Francisco. “I’m up to 5-0. I like the five-foot number, but it’s still short.”

Anyway, the more important measure will be how much Liu has grown as a skater since her successful 2019-20 debut in international junior competition.

As is the case for all skaters, especially those in North America, such skating growth risks being temporarily stunted by restrictions on training and lack of competition caused by the coronavirus pandemic. And physical growth, even if it is only two inches, can also be problematic.

In Liu’s case, issues related to the pandemic have complicated her sudden shift to a new coaching team in late June, when she announced a split from Laura Lipetsky, who had coached her since age 5. Cancellation of the Junior Grand Prix series is giving Liu more travel-free time to adapt to the new situation, although, ironically, travel restrictions are keeping her from having the two-country, three-coach arrangement work the way it was planned.

“I don’t think it affects the long-term plan that much,” Liu said. “I still have my school schedule [where she will finish her high school education before the 2021-22 season, her first as an international senior]. I’m training hard. I’m getting stronger.

“I wasn’t surprised the Junior Grand Prix was cancelled. I’m a little sad I can’t go, but I get to stay home and train, so it’s all good. I do like competing a lot, and I guess I’ll miss that feeling, but because of corona[virus], there is nothing I can do, so I just accepted it.”

As of now, Liu can’t go to Toronto to work face-to-face with coach Lee Barkell, the newest member of the team, and choreographer Lori Nichol, with whom the skater began collaborating last season.

Massimo Scali, the three-time Italian Olympic ice dancer based in the Bay Area who began helping Lipetsky with Liu a month before the 2020 U.S. Championships, now is her in-person coach. Barkell and Nichol contribute via several FaceTime or Zoom sessions each week. Once entry restrictions from the U.S. to Canada are eased, Liu intends to visit regularly while continuing to live with her family in the Bay Area.

Of course, little has gone as might have been planned for Liu over the last two seasons.

In January 2019, at 13, she stunningly became the youngest ever to win a U.S. singles title. In January 2020, at 14, she became the youngest to win two. In the process, Liu became the first U.S. woman to land two triple Axels in a free skate and the first to land a quadruple jump, the former at 2019 nationals, the latter at her 2019 Junior Grand Prix debut.

She won both her 2019 Junior Grand Prix series events. She finished a close second to Russia’s Kamila Valieva at the 2019 Junior Grand Prix Final and a distant third to Valieva at the 2020 World Junior Championships. That made her the first U.S. woman to win a Junior Grand Prix Final medal since 2012 and just the second to win a world junior medal during that period.

Taking over as primary coach of a skate with such a resume carries a burden, especially for a coach like Scali whose entire knowledge base and coaching experience is based in ice dance.

Scali and Liu
Scali and Liu at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center in San Francisco. Courtesy Massimo Scali

“There is a little pressure on me, for sure,” Scali said. “She is an extremely talented skater and an amazing human being. But I know that I have a terrific team behind me, working really well together. My pressure is doing the best for Alysa to improve where she has to improve.”

Barkell is dealing with a different set of challenges: working remotely with a skater he barely knows.

“It was a bit difficult in the beginning, verbally explaining exercises, technique, corrections, etc., instead of being able to show Alysa,” Barkell said in a text message. “But we have figured out ways to make this work. Alysa is very coachable and has been very receptive to new ideas.

“We [myself, Massimo and Lori] are focusing on development of speed and power in her overall skating and continued development and consistency in all of her jumps. We all realize some of these changes will not happen overnight.”

There is a rule of thumb that says figure skaters need between 18 months and two years to get fully comfortable working with new coaches. For Liu, that time frame dovetails nicely with the next Olympic season.

Liu plans to give her first progress report by recording this week her new short and long programs, by choreographed by Nichol, for judging in U.S. Figure Skating’s international selection pool (ISP) points challenge competition. The performances are to go online Oct. 6.

The short uses music from Nino Rota’s score for the Fellini movie, “La Strada.” The long draws from “The Storm,” a work by the Hungarian composer/pianist Balázs Havasi that Nichol had choreographed for Carolina Kostner in the 2018-19 season, when an injury kept Kostner from competing with that program.

Liu’s jump layouts this season include a triple Axel in the short program with two triple Axels and a quadruple Lutz in the long. She may wait until later competitive events to include them. She plans to skate at the USFS Championship Series competitions in Spokane, Wash., November 10-15 and Henderson, Nevada Nov. 24-28.

“I just want to do good programs for whatever competitions are available,” Liu said. “It will take me a long time to get everything perfect. But I have been working hard on skating skills, and hopefully people can see a difference.”

Barkell handles nearly all the jump instruction, although Scali said is learning enough from watching the remote sessions to be aware of what Liu is supposed to do. Nichol is primary choreographer, with the concept, the music cuts and the steps coming from her.

Scali, who has done choreography for ice dancers, makes occasional choreographic suggestions. But his focus is the areas of skating covered by component scores (PCS).

Liu’s PCS was 6.31 points lower than Valieva’s in the world junior free skate. And Liu’s aggregate PCS for the two programs at 2020 nationals was 9.35 points behind that of runner-up Mariah Bell, but a whopping 18.66 margin over Bell in technical scores – most from jumps – made Liu an easy winner.

Scali and Liu
Scali and Liu at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center in San Francisco. Courtesy Massimo Scali

“We want Alysa to go out on the ice and look like a mature, different skater,” Scali said. “We are working on details – expression, speed, gliding, posture – to polish the programs so that they give an image of an Alysa who is more empowered and more mature and really ready for senior level competition.”

Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion, skates twice a week at the San Francisco rink where Liu has been training for the last seven weeks. He gives her tips on jumps and moves like spread eagles.

Boitano proctored Liu’s clean run-throughs last week that did not include the Axels or a quad. “It was great,” Boitano said of the long program.

“We don’t know yet [about the big jumps],” Scali said. “Her training was so affected by this pandemic, and this ISP competition is so early in the season considering all she went through.”

Liu has been training in San Francisco because of issues with ice time availability at her home rink in Oakland, in a different county with different pandemic rules than San Francisco.

When no rinks at all near her were open after coming back from junior worlds, Liu and her father, Arthur, an attorney, went to Wilmington, Del., from early March through mid-May, living in an AirBnb property. She trained in Wilmington on her own except for spotting from a coach with jumps done on a pull harness.

She found herself going stir crazy at times in Delaware, especially missing her four younger siblings, who stayed in California. There is only so much anime on Netflix one can watch.

Once she and her father returned west, it became a case of being careful what you wish for. The siblings, like the home-schooled Liu, now are doing remote learning at home. So far, the Wi-Fi is holding up.

“It’s very chaotic,” she said, laughing. “They are all so crazy it’s kind of ridiculous. I get home every day, and there’s always a racket in the house. My sister Julia is always falling. My sister Selina is always FaceTiming her friends. And the boys [Joshua and Justin] are always fighting.”

Since she has been training in San Francisco, Liu takes the BART train back and forth, sometimes by herself, sometimes with Scali, who lives in Berkeley.

When they began working together on a full-time basis, it was briefly at her usual rink (the Oakland Ice Center), where Lipetsky still teaches. Lipetsky was away at the time, so there were no potentially uncomfortable encounters.

In the June 22 USFS release announcing the coaching change, Liu acknowledged and thanked Lipetsky for the coach’s role in the skater’s success.

“We’ve worked so closely together, and she has helped me get to where I am today,” Liu said.

In a June 22 text message to me, Lipetsky wrote:

“I have really enjoyed working with Alysa for her entire skating career. Massimo Scali and her father informed me that I would no longer be working with her. To not add to her distraction and allow her the opportunity to focus on being the best she can be, I prefer not to comment any further.”

In a text message to me a few days later, Arthur Liu said neither he nor Alysa wanted to talk about the reasons why she left Lipetsky.

“We need to move on and focus on her training,” he wrote.

Scali said they plan to return to the Oakland Ice Center as soon as they can get the ice time Alysa needs there. He does not expect any issues if they are in the rink at the same time as Lipetsky, who, Scali said, had asked him last December to work with the skater on skating skills and components.

“It’s all good,” Scali said. “Alysa is serene and happy about the decision she made, so there will be no problems.”

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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IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach
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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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