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

Mariah Bell
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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 NBCSports.com/figure-skating

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