Wearing her free skate costume, Mariah Bell topped the short program at a Skate America like no other with a clean performance in front of no ticketed spectators at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Friday.
Bell, 24, landed a double Axel, triple flip-triple toe loop combination and a triple Lutz for 76.48 points in front of cardboard cutouts of fans.
“I kind of had to go back to revert to what it’s like to practice,” Bell, whose short program dress didn’t fit well, said on NBCSN. “We could hear clapping and stuff, but you look up, and the stands are completely empty.”
She edged 2018 U.S. Olympian and national champion Bradie Tennell by 3.19 points. Tennell had the back half of her triple Lutz-triple toe combination called under-rotated.
Audrey Shin, the 16-year-old, 2019 U.S. junior silver medalist who failed to qualify for last season’s senior nationals, is a surprising third at 69.77.
Two-time reigning U.S. champion Alysa Liu, 15, is too young for Skate America, but will be old enough next year in the Olympic season.
Skate America continues later Friday with the men’s and pairs’ short programs and the rhythm dance. The free skates are Saturday.
Bell is looking to notch the biggest win of her career. She broke through at Skate America four years ago with a silver medal, was a 2018 Olympic alternate and, back in January, took silver at the U.S. Championships.
“I had a lot of great momentum coming off of last year,” said Bell, who added former training partner Adam Rippon to her coaching team in the last year. “I truly feel like I’m just coming into my prime.”
Gracie Gold, a two-time U.S. champion who was fourth at the 2014 Olympics and is on the comeback trail, was 12th of 12 skaters with 46.36 points.
Gold struggled on jumps, unable to complete any triples. She left figure skating before the 2018 Olympic season to receive treatment for an eating disorder, depression and anxiety.
Gold, 12th at January’s nationals with similar jump problems, rated her short “zero stars on Tripadvisor, would not do again.”
“I didn’t bring any energy out onto the ice,” she said. “Just really nervous.”
Gold also lamented her Las Vegas bubble experience amid the coronavirus pandemic. Like in other sports, accredited personnel are spending a vast majority of their time at the hotel or the competition venue.
“It kind of reminds me of when I was clinically depressed,” she said.
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