Mariah Bell took an unconventional career route to winning a unique Skate America. It may be the latest in a series of stepping stones to an extraordinary Olympic appearance.
Bell, 24, prevailed in an empty Orleans Arena in Las Vegas — save some judges, officials and cardboard cutouts — to prevail by a slim 1.66 points over 2018 U.S. champion and PyeongChang Olympian Bradie Tennell.
Bell held on despite falling on her last jump, a triple Lutz, and not having a triple-triple combination in her free skate. Her other jumps were of such high quality, and her artistic component scores so strong, that she didn’t lose all of her 3.19-point lead from Friday’s short program.
“Wasn’t my best skate today,” Bell said. “It was a little shaky, and I felt a little bit stiff.”
Audrey Shin, the 16-year-old, 2019 U.S. junior silver medalist who failed to qualify for last season’s senior nationals, held onto third place by landing seven triples in her free.
Later Saturday, Nathan Chen won the men’s event (more on that here), Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Brandon Frazier took the pairs’ title and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue three-peated in ice dance.
Bell, yet to make an Olympic team, won a top-level competition for the first time in a career that is up to seven senior seasons.
“I try not to look too much at outcomes, more how I feel,” she said after an ABBA medley free skate that intentionally takes her out of her comfort zone. “I’m walking away from this performance a little disappointed, but I look back at nationals [in January], and that was a program I was really proud of.”
She was due, arguably entering as the favorite after taking silver at nationals with a captivating “Halleljuah” free skate (referenced in that quote). (Two-time reigning U.S. champion Alysa Liu, at 15, isn’t old enough for senior international events like Skate America until next season.)
Skate America usually includes top skaters from around the world. This year, due to coronavirus pandemic travel concerns, it’s mostly American skaters and closer to a national championships preview.
Liu, Bell, Tennell, Shin and 2018 Olympian Karen Chen are the key players for the 2022 U.S. Olympic team, which will be two or three spots, depending on results at the world championships in March.
Bell broke out with a silver medal at Skate America in 2016, made the 2017 Worlds team (finished 12th) and was second alternate for the 2018 Olympics after placing fifth at those nationals.
If Bell, the oldest of that group of five contenders, does qualify for the Beijing Winter Games, she will become the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater since 1928, according to Olympedia.org.
“I hate it but I love it when people talk about age,” Bell, who trains under Rafael Arutunian, the same coach as Nathan Chen, and has former training partner Adam Rippon as a part-time coach, said before Skate America. “I would never use my age as any kind of an excuse. There’s no reason why me being 24 would make anything harder. I should be more in tune with my body and have a better understanding.”
Before she can think of the Olympics, another challenge: trying to supplant Liu, the only U.S. woman with a quad or a triple Axel (she has both), as national champion in January. Bell can become the oldest U.S. women’s champion post-World War II.
Tennell, the top U.S. woman internationally the last three seasons, had the highest-scoring free skate. That came after minor injuries prevented her from doing combination jumps until nine days before the competition.
“I had a lot of things thrown at me the last month and a half,” said Tennell, who changed coaches from Denise Myers to Tom Zakrajsek in the offseason, moving from her native Chicagoland to Colorado Springs. “To be able to come out here and compete like that for the first time in eight months, I feel really great. There’s a lot of room to grow.”
If this had been a normal year, Shin would have competed on the (now canceled) Junior Grand Prix rather than at Skate America.
She took advantage of the situation, despite a difficult previous season — May 2019 surgery to remove a cyst from her right ankle that kept her off the ice for about a month, followed by boot and blade issues that contributed to her not qualifying for last January’s nationals.
Shin is working on a quadruple toe loop and a triple Axel with coach Tammy Gambill in Colorado.
“[Gambill] told me, Skate America is a chance for you to show how much more consistent you are now,” Shin said. “After Skate America, you want to get that world team spot and you want to get that Olympic spot.”
Gracie Gold, a two-time U.S. champion who was fourth at the 2014 Olympics and is on the comeback trail, finished 12th of 12 skaters in both programs at Skate America. Gold left figure skating before the 2018 Olympic season to receive treatment for an eating disorder, depression and anxiety.
In Vegas, she struggled technically, landing one fully rotated triple jump. Gold was “terrified” to skate Friday after a difficult last two months that included a leg injury and blade and boot problems.
“I just cried most of the day yesterday because of how scared I was to compete,” she said after Saturday’s free skate. “We’re going back to the drawing board, I don’t know, I guess to salvage what we can in the wreckage, but we’re a little worse off than I thought.”
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