Mariah Bell believes the best is yet to come, including a spot at the Olympics

Mariah Bell

Memory is an often-imprecise function of the mind. Much of how we remember something owes to the atmosphere of the environment in which it happened, in which we experienced it.

This is especially true of seeing performances live, whether they are athletic, artistic or a combination of both. A brilliant performance in a nearly empty, nearly silent venue often will become less than it was in our memory. The same performance before a cheering or applauding large crowd at a significant event often is remembered as more than it was.

Video allows us to test memory dispassionately against reality. Rarely does such replay of something remembered as spectacular make it look as good upon review, stripped from the emotions and context of the moment.

That is what makes Mariah Bell’s free skate performance at the 2020 U.S. Championships so singular, both for her and everyone who saw it at the Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina last January.

After each of the several times watching it again to write this story, Bell’s elegant, near flawless skating to k.d. Lang’s haunting interpretation of the emotionally powerful Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah” actually has gotten progressively better than my memory of the live performance having been remarkable.

It was the epitome of what skaters strive for: the “whole package” of jumps, spins, footwork, ice presence, emotion, interpretation and striking body positions, all seamlessly and commandingly executed. At the national championships, with a roaring crowd on its feet 20 seconds before the four-minute performance ended, with tears streaming down Bell’s face before the music stopped.

It was also the unquestioned highlight of the then 23-year-old Bell’s lengthy and, at times, exasperatingly inconsistent career. It took her from third after the short program to second overall, the most impressive result in her eight seasons as a senior skater, beaten only by phenom Alysa Liu’s point-gobbling jumps. Under pressure in a major event, Bell finally had gotten past being undone by the final jump in her free skate.

Under different circumstances, that could have been the takeoff point from which Bell moved to a different level internationally, beginning with the 2020 World Championships in late March.

And then Covid-19 hit full force, leading to the cancellation of the world meet, meaning Bell would have to wait another year to show once more that what she had done at nationals could become routine.

“I told Mariah that her not going to worlds – yes, it kind of sucks, because she had this momentum behind her to have really great performances,” Adam Rippon, her friend and part-time coach, said Wednesday via phone. “But at the same time, I said you’re lucky to end your season with something so great.

“She made a lot of big steps last year, and I don’t think she has lost too much momentum.”

In the disconcerting weeks of quarantine that kept her off the ice and in the emotionally challenging 10 months (and counting) of being separated from her boyfriend of four years, Romain Ponsart, stuck in his native France by Covid travel restrictions, Bell has been able to get a clearer view of what she accomplished not only at nationals but all of last season. It included bronze medals at both her Grand Prix events (her first Grand Prix podium finishes since 2015) and, at a Challenger Series event, her first international triumph.

“It’s hard to appreciate what you are doing in the moment,” Bell, now 24, said via telephone last week. “When you take a step back and have time to see the big picture, I could be really proud of everything I did last season.

“I made huge jumps in consistency and performance quality. Even though everything was kind of halted, and we have this break, I know that is what I am capable of.”

The break, at least the part encompassing live competition, ends this week at Skate America, with the short program Friday and free skate Saturday.

Because of the pandemic, it has been recast as an essentially domestic event, the women’s field including the second through fifth finishers at the 2020 nationals, with Liu missing because she missed the minimum age cutoff date for senior international events. NBC Sports will provide complete coverage on NBC, NBCSN and Peacock Premium.

Bell already has won one phase and the overall score of U.S. Figure Skating’s international selection pool points challenge, a virtual event. She earned the top scores in both short programs and one of the two free skates, getting third behind Bradie Tennell and Amber Glenn in the other.

What changed for Bell last season? The increased involvement of 2018 U.S. Olympic skating star Rippon as occasional coach after the two had previously worked together on choreography. It was Rafael Arutunian, their mutual coach, who had suggested that plan to Bell and Rippon.

Bell remembered that as Rippon prepared to make the 2018 Olympic team under Arutunian, he was the hardest worker in the Southern California rink where they trained. At times, she found herself missing the fire to go the extra mile in practice. Rippon began demanding it of her.

As a coach, sometimes three days a week and sometimes three days a month because of his travel schedule, Rippon emphasized training hard so that competition would seem like a vacation. It would a celebration of hard work rather than pressure, and being exhaustively prepared would make that final jump in the free skate become less daunting.

“I told Mariah I she would find a lot more confidence if she increased the training she did,” Rippon said.

“Someone on the outside would say, ‘Oh, she can’t handle the pressure.’ In Mariah’s case, she needed to work past those moments. When she felt, ‘I’ve got all my work done,’ I would say, ‘Well, just repeat it.’ You’ve got to do double the amount so your body takes over, and your mind isn’t a factor when you go to those events.”

Rippon, who retired from competition after the 2018 Olympics, cajoled the extra work out of her in a manner far less intense than Arutunian’s approach. Arutunian noted that his own English is occasionally so fractured that Rippon, who had trained with him since 2012, helps convey the essence of what the Armenian émigré coach is saying.

“I really kind of came into the rink more as a fairy godmother,” Rippon said. “I was something new and fresh and kind of like a break from the everyday work she was doing.”

Mariah Bell and Adam Rippon
Bell reacts with Rippon and Arutunian to her scores at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

As the season progressed, with one essentially clean free skate after another, Bell no longer had to find ways to deal (or rationalize) with the frustration of coming so close, like saying, “Yeah, I fell on the last jump, but I could have fallen on the first six.” And she better understood the idea of learning from mistakes instead of dwelling on them as failures.

“Skating is really hard, and if you are only thinking of what you didn’t do, that’s how you lose the passion and the love as far as doing everyday work,” she said.

Rippon, like Bell, saw the parameters of their sport radically changed by jump revolutions that occurred when each already was 20, an age when trying to learn quads and triple Axels can be a Sisyphean exercise. The way the sport is scored and judged now, winning internationally without some of those jumps has become nearly impossible.

“At the end of my career, I wasn’t the best,” said Rippon, the last U.S. men’s champion (2016) without a successful quad. “I was never going to get the gold medal.”

“But I knew what my own capabilities were. I would try a quad, but I knew I was really inconsistent with them. I knew what I was really consistent with, and I would work that to the bone.”

Rippon’s description of himself also seems to sum up the position Bell is in, trying to compete without quads or a triple Axel against Russians and Japanese and South Koreans – and Liu – who have an arsenal of them. Bell has finished ninth, 12th and 12th in the pre-revolutionary last three world championships, only one of which (2019) had a medalist with a quad.

“I think it totally does describe her,” Rippon said. “I think it’s why I really see eye-to-eye with Mariah. Watching with my own eyes someone like [4-time reigning U.S. champion and two-time reigning world champion] Nathan Chen completely change the sport, I remember thinking, ‘Is what I’m seeing happening?’

“Then it really needed to become a personal journey. There was nothing I could do about the quads.

“It’s kind of the world Mariah is in now. A lady doing the quad was kind of this mythical thing we heard Miki Ando had done [in 2002], but now it’s so normal.

“I want Mariah to have the same experience [I did]. She can’t control what the other girls do. I have told her that doing what she does really well should always be her focus.”

Bell is training a triple Axel, so far without success. Rippon also has her working on doing more than one triple-triple jump combination in a free program. Some days, he will have her try five triple-triples in a run-through, and Bell did a second triple-triple at one of the ISP events, falling on the second jump of the combination.

“Definitely in these days, we need skaters internationally who have triple Axel and quad,” Arutunian said by phone on his way to Las Vegas this week. “Unfortunately, it is very difficult when a skater comes to you this late.” (Bell was 20 when she began working with him in 2016.)

“Who is to say I won’t do a quad or a triple Axel?” Bell said. “Is it easier for younger athletes? Sure. But I’m just coming into my prime.”

At this point in this strange season, as Liu tries to adapt to her physical growth and a coaching change, Bell looks like the top woman skater in the United States and would be a solid bet to make the 2022 Olympic team, especially if the U.S. earns a third spot for women. She was second alternate in 2018.

“The door is wide open for her to be U.S. champion,” Rippon said.

As flattering as it sounds, Bell tries not to see herself in those terms.

“That’s a very exciting statement, and you work so hard because you want to be at the top,” Bell said. “But there is no value in me thinking of that [being perceived as No. 1].

“I want to be on the Olympic team. To do that, I’ve got to continue focusing on how I can improve.”

Even her nationals free skate could have been better. There was an edge call on the final triple Lutz, a slightly wonky landing on a triple loop, a level 3 (instead of the maximum 4) on one spin.

How natural it is to overlook all that, when the overall performance was so unforgettable. Memory is that way. Sometimes for the better.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to

MORE: Bradie Tennell training triple Axel under new coach

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World figure skating championships the latest chapter of Deanna Stellato-Dudek’s comeback


There are so many improbabilities in the story of how Canadian pair team Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps got to this week’s world figure skating championships that the whole thing reads like a flight of fancy.

You start with a talented junior singles skater from suburban Chicago named Deanna Stellato, whose skates had sat in a closet at her mother’s home for 16 years after injuries pushed her from the sport.

You bring her back to the skating world in 2016 as a married woman of 33 with a different name, Deanna Stellato-Dudek, and in a different event, pairs, making the switch on the recommendation of U.S. Figure Skating high performance director Mitch Moyer.

You have Moyer able to make that suggestion because he coincidentally was visiting a Florida rink the day Stellato-Dudek went there to sound out her old singles coach, Cindy Caprel, about the idea of a comeback.

You end her 12-year career as an aesthetician in a plastic surgery practice and have her go back to the ice, keeping her apart for long stretches from her husband of nine years, Michael Dudek, a Chicago-based turnover management specialist.

You have her begin a pairs’ career in summer 2016 as the partner of a 2014 Olympian, Nathan Bartholomay, with whom she would win bronze medals at the 2018 and 2019 U.S. Championships before the partnership ended when a bum knee made Bartholomay’s competitive future uncertain.

“I was still gung-ho on continuing until 2022,” Stellato-Dudek said.


You hear her talk of having messaged everyone she ever had met in skating to see if they knew of a possible new partner and have one reply, from 2018 Olympic pairs’ bronze medalist Meagan Duhamel and her husband, Bruno Marcotte, a pairs’ coach, tell Stellato-Dudek they had the perfect guy for her.

You have it be a guy she had never heard of, Maxime Deschamps, a French-Canadian from suburban Montreal who had skated with eight previous partners, finished no higher than fifth at the senior level at the Canadian Championships with any of them and thought of ending his competitive career many times.

“Yes, it’s kind of an unusual pairing,” said their coach, Josée Picard.

You have their tryout in June 2019 be the skating version of love at first sight, leading Stellato-Dudek to cancel scheduled sessions with other potential partners.

You have their getting-to-know-you workouts in Montreal stopped cold by the Covid pandemic, forcing them to train outside whenever there was ice for much of a year.

“We made the best of what we could do,” Deschamps said. “It was a really hard time. We questioned ourselves a lot. The goals we were setting up as markers keep us going and able to pass through those hard times.”

You have them begin this season after the first extensive offseason training of their partnership and watch them win a silver medal at Skate America that makes Stellato-Dudek, 39, the oldest medalist in the 25-season history of the Grand Prix Series.

You have them win their second Grand Prix event before Stellato-Dudek comes down with a respiratory virus (RSV, not Covid) that has her coughing, feverish and listless and eventually paralyzes her left vocal cord, inhibiting her swallowing, breathing and speech to the point she needs ongoing work with a speech pathologist to relearn how to talk.

“It was a big setback,” Picard said of the lingering sickness. “It was three months, and we had to adjust a lot of things and diminish the amount of training and do everything very, very carefully.”

You have doctors tell her there is no risk in continuing to train and compete (other than the risks that come with pairs’ skating, in which the woman is flung across the rink and carried some seven feet above a hard and slippery surface), but it isn’t easy training while constantly out of breath and having difficulty swallowing water. That Stellato-Dudek would keep at it impressed her coach.

“Just to come back at 30-some years old and do a totally different discipline in the first place shows that somebody has a lot of ambitions and a lot of goals and a lot of guts,” Picard said. “This just amplifies it, you know, to show that she’s not giving up, and she has all the willpower, and she wants to succeed.”

You have her fight through the Canadian national championships out of her desire to give Deschamps, 31, a shot at his first national title – and have them win.

“I really had a strong will,” Stellato-Dudek said. “I thought to myself, ‘If this was the Olympic Games, I would be skating.’

“Max really stepped up in our partnership during that time. Often, it’s not both partners who are able to give 100 percent. For those three months, I was able to give 80 percent, and Max was making up for that 20 percent and still giving his 100 percent, so he was giving 120.”

You have her healthy as they go to the world championships beginning Wednesday in Saitama, Japan, with a decent chance for Stellato-Dudek, now 39, to win her second world medal, the other a silver from the world junior championships 23 years ago.

And, finally, you have them looking toward the 2026 Olympics where she could, at the age of 42 years and 229 days, be the oldest woman to compete in Olympic figure skating since 1928 and the third oldest in history, according to (That’s assuming Stellato-Dudek gets Canadian citizenship in time for a chance at the team; it is required for her to represent Canada at the Olympics, but not at other international competitions after U.S. Figure Skating granted her a release.)

“I think I’ve lasted a lot longer than anybody thought I could — even now,” Stellato-Dudek said.

How prophetic it seems that her mother, Ann, told me in an interview for a 2000 Chicago Tribune story, “Deanna is a worker, not a child prodigy.”

Among all the unlikely parts of this tale, Stellato-Dudek’s age has attracted the most attention. The subject has become amusing to her, so much so that when Canadian figure skating press officer Karine Bedard tells Stellato-Dudek about an interview request, she will answer lightheartedly, “What do they want to interview me about? Skating while old?”

The truth is Stellato-Dudek has come to embrace such questions after a family member told her, “I think what you are doing is bigger than you.”

Stellato-Dudek began to gain that perspective in reading the hundreds of messages she said she has received from people who say they have been encouraged by her comeback to return to something they also loved.

“They will say, ‘I’ve always wanted to go back, but I’ve been too busy or too afraid to kind of step foot back in the rink, but I know that you started from somewhere so I can start from somewhere, too,’” Stellato-Dudek said. “And I thought maybe what I’m doing has a bigger meaning than even just what I’m doing for myself. It takes myself out of it a little bit and brings it back to something even bigger than just my personal goals.”

A similar desire to keep doing something he loved – and the dream of getting to the Olympics – is what led Deschamps to continue skating when progress was elusive and push came to shove, forcing him to interrupt his studies for a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology after two years because he couldn’t afford both the sport and school.

When asked to give more than 100 percent this season, which is impossible physically, he found the extra contribution by remaining upbeat as his partner struggled to train.

“It was mostly the mental part, (giving extra) to keep it positive because it was way harder (without) the physical capacity for the things,” Deschamps said. “And that’s how we were able to keep going.”

The interruptions caused by the pandemic mean that their four years together have included just two full competitive seasons. That has dramatically reduced the time each has had to learn the nuances of a new partner – and for Stellato-Dudek to master different techniques she has learned in Canada, like her hand placement on throws, in which she used to place both hands on her right shoulder but now has her left arm wrapped around the front of her body and the right arm around the back.

“There was a lot I had to do control-alt-delete and restart for,” she said.

“(Our skating) has just been evolving and evolving,” Deschamps said. “And we’re just trying to push our limits every single time, trying new elements, trying to even improve the sport by doing new stuff.”

One such element is the forward outside death spiral, hardest of the four types of death spirals (with the highest base value.) According to, only 11 pair teams have done it internationally over the 19 seasons of the current judging system, including two Olympic champions: Chinese pairs Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo and Sui Wenjing and Han Cong. Only one other team, Alisa Efimova and Ruben Blommaert of Germany, has done it internationally this season.

In the absence of the long-dominant Russian pairs, barred from international competition since their country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine 13 months ago, Stellato-Dudek and Deschamps have the fourth-best score this season of the 23 teams in the world championships field.

From last season to now, their personal bests in the short program, free skate and total have improved by 28 percent, 12 percent, and 16 percent, respectively. They have won medals at four of their five international events this season, finishing fourth at the Grand Prix Final, when Stellato-Dudek began to feel the effects of the virus.

“We always believed that (the success) was a possibility, but this season has surprised both of us,” she said. “When it began, we were getting a lot of positive feedback from everyone who had seen us, but you know, you don’t really believe that until you go to an event, and you get a new high score you’ve never received before.”

The high international scores and medals would send them to the Canadian Championships in the unexpected and potentially discomfiting position of being heavy favorites. They overcame the psychological and physical burdens to win the national title, a crowning achievement for many elite skaters.

“That was a brand-new place for us to be,” Stellato-Dudek said. “We’ve never been chased. We’ve always been chasing.

“We’re gaining a lot of very valuable experience. Because it’s a very new place to be mentally.”

It’s the place she always wanted to be. And there, truth be told, you have the plot of a neverending story that is no longer a fantasy.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to

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Kanak Jha, U.S.’ top table tennis player, banned for missed drug tests

Kanak Jha

Kanak Jha, the U.S.’ highest-ranked singles table tennis player, was given a backdated one-year ban for missing drug tests.

Jha, No. 23 in the world, was banned for missing three drug tests last year: March 18, June 2 and Sept. 4.

Athletes in Olympic sports face bans if they miss three drug tests in a 12-month span.

Jha, a two-time Olympian who has never tested positive for a banned substance, was given a reduced ban of one year, backdated to last Dec. 1, the date his provisional suspension was imposed.

First-time bans for missed drug tests can be as long as two years, but Jha was deemed by an arbitrator to have a light amount of fault and wasn’t trying to evade testing.

Jha disputed his third missed test, hoping it would be thrown out to avoid a ban.

During his one-hour testing window on Sept. 4, he was not present at the German address he listed on his doping-control forms, though he was at a nearby address.

The drug tester attempted to call Jha before his one-hour testing window was up, but the call did not go through as the tester did not dial the “+1” country code for a U.S. phone. Jha did not include the country code on his contact information and testified that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency never informed that he had to list a country code.

However, drug testers are not required to call athletes who do not answer their doors for random, out-of-competition tests.

Jha, who in 2016 became the first American born in the 2000s to qualify for an Olympics, lost his opening match in singles at the Rio and Tokyo Games.

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