Serendipity is part of this story. And both happenstance and coincidence also played a part in how Jeremy Abbott became a full-time member of Alysa Liu’s coaching team this fall.
Abbott describes the way it all developed as “organic,” a word he also uses to explain the process Team Liu is using to further her growth as a skater. It is a word that seems especially appropriate for Liu this season, when organic physical changes have challenged the two-time reigning U.S. women’s figure skating champion.
Four months past her 15th birthday, Liu is some three inches taller, with longer limbs and a different center of mass, than she was at this point a year ago. All that has made it harder for her to spin in the air as quickly as she could.
And that in turn has made it a struggle for Liu to complete rotations on the jumps that were a big part of her history-making success at the last two U.S. Championships, when she first became the youngest women’s champion ever (at age 13 in 2019) and then the youngest ever to win two titles (14 in 2020).
The issues became dramatically evident in her performance at the late October Las Vegas Invitational team competition, a free-skate-only event in which Liu popped her opening double axel and doubled five other planned triple jumps. She got a technical score (48.93) barely half as high as that (91.75) in her winning free skate at the 2020 nationals, in which she had landed two clean triple axels, six other clean triple jumps and an under-rotated quadruple lutz. Her total score in Las Vegas was last of the six women competitors, 10 points behind the fifth.
That followed her unremarkable performances a few weeks earlier in U.S. Figure Skating’s virtual points challenge, when her scores were fourth overall. It was enough for some in the social media universe to decide Liu was history before she has even made her senior international debut.
In his first interview since beginning to work with Liu, the 35-year-old Abbott pushed back against such a rush to judgment.
“Nobody should count her out and be thinking she is done or that just because she has grown, it’s over,” Abbott said.
“She is becoming a young woman, and she is adjusting to her new height, her new body and her new environment. That is a lot of growth and a lot of change at a time when training and skating are not normal to begin with.”
The COVID-19 pandemic hit as Liu, who lives near Oakland, California, was about to leave her longtime coach, Laura Lipetsky, for a new coaching team. Two Toronto-based mentors, singles coach Lee Barkell and choreographer Lori Nichol, were set to have significant roles on a team headed by a Bay Area-based coach, Italian Olympic ice dancer Massimo Scali, who had begun working with Liu last December.
Suddenly, health restrictions made travel between Canada and the United States nearly impossible, and Liu’s interactions with Barkell and Nichol were restricted to Zoom and FaceTime. Since ice dance had not required Scali to learn jumps, it was hard for her to get the in-person help she needed to adjust her jump technique to her changed body.
Enter Abbott, almost sub rosa.
This is where the serendipity comes in.
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By the fall of 2019, three seasons after he had fully retired from competition with four U.S. men’s singles titles and two Olympic appearances (with a team event bronze medal in 2014) on his resume, Jeremy Abbott was constantly on the road – skating in shows, giving clinics and doing choreography, notably programs for Gracie Gold. So he decided to give up his Detroit area apartment and put his belongings in storage.
Abbott’s globe-trotting ended with the pandemic. He returned to Michigan, moved in with one of his former coaches, Yuka Sato, for four months and then began heading west.
His first stop was Idaho, where he lived with his older sister, Gwen, and choreographed Gold’s programs for this season. Then he spent a few weeks on the road camping, eventually getting to San Francisco with no plans to stay there for any length of time – and no thoughts of becoming a full-time coach anywhere.
One day, Abbott went to skate at the San Francisco rink where Liu happened to be training with Scali when her usual rink in Oakland was closed because of COVID.
Scali asked if Abbott would do a lesson with Liu. That led to more lessons. Then came an offer to work with her for 30 minutes, three days a week. That turned into two hours a day, five days a week. And now a commitment to Team Liu that Abbott said goes through at least the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. He has moved his belongings to a San Francisco apartment.
He has also been working three days a week in San Francisco with Dinh Tran, 19, who finished eighth at the 2020 nationals, stepping in because Tran currently is living with his family in the Bay Area while his regular coach, Dee Goldstein, is based in Arizona. With that separation complicated by COVID-related travel issues, Goldstein asked Abbott to keep an eye on Tran’s training.
“Jeremy is a terrific in-person addition to Alysa’s training,” Scali wrote in a text message. “With his technical expertise and his artistic ability, he is working every day toward strengthening technical aspects of (Alysa’s) skating and guiding her into the beautiful skater she is becoming.”
Abbott has the background to do all that. Long acclaimed as a “skater’s skater” for his edge quality and expressiveness, he also landed quadruple toe loops in an era when that still was a cutting edge jump. He had a 66 percent “clean” rate and a 98 percent fully-rotated rate on the 96 jumps (including those in combination) in significant international competitions listed as triple axels on skatingscores.com.
“Jeremy is helping me out with polishing my programs and with jump technique,” Liu said in a voice message. “I really enjoy working with him because he is really nice, and he teaches me so many really cool exercises.”
Scali said Team Liu recently decided to take a break from the online lessons with Barkell and Nichol, switching to weekly updates.
In working with Liu, which he loves because of her “genuine and authentic” passion for skating, Abbott finds himself hearing – and then expressing in his own voice – words he heard from Tom Zakrajsek, who taught him technique on jumps from double axel through triples to quads, and from Sato and Jason Dungjen, who helped him refine the technique.
“When I came on, I saw Alysa had instinct and natural ability for jumping,” Abbott said. “I didn’t want to change what she is naturally good at but take the best aspects of her technique and adjust the rest so she can have longevity and jump with a bigger, stronger body.
“When you’re small and compact like she was, you can just throw yourself into the air and rotate. When you get bigger, you have to have a little more takeoff power, height and explosion to maintain the same rotation. She has more mass pulling out from her center because she is taller.”
U.S. Figure Skating rules allow precociously talented skaters to compete in the senior division at nationals before they are age eligible for senior competition internationally. Other countries, including Russia and Japan, also allow it.
“Unfortunately, that means they can become senior national champion before going through their growth spurt from puberty,” said a leading U.S. judge.
At 13, Liu became the first U.S. woman to land both a triple axel in the short program and two triple axels in the free skate at nationals. At 14, she became the first U.S. woman to land a quadruple jump, the lutz, in competition. Abbott does not expect Liu to try either a quad or a triple axel at the 2021 nationals next month in Las Vegas.
Revisionist history – and 20/20 hindsight – says U.S. judges were so excited about the prospect of having a young woman with jumps to match those of the young Russians dominating women’s singles they have rewarded Liu at nationals with scores, especially component scores, that were overly generous. Yet her technical score in 2020 was so high that she would have won the title even with PCS marks 1.2 points lower than the 8.55 average she received.
Remove the big-points jumps and the triple-triple combinations (Liu did two such combinations at 2020 nationals), and Liu becomes the struggling skater she was at the Las Vegas Invitational, far behind Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell, the two women who shared the nationals podium with Liu the past two years.
Abbott categorically rejected the description of Liu as struggling. He said that image is based on too small a view, one that came at an event where Liu’s skating was affected by what Abbott would say only was “tweaking something” on a jump landing in practice before the Las Vegas event.
“People only get to see what is on the internet,” Abbott said. “From my vantage point, she is not struggling.
“Yes, we’re not doing a quad right now and not planning to do a triple axel at nationals. But she has made so much improvement, and she is going to come to nationals and look like a completely different skater. What people saw in Las Vegas is not even remotely an indication of what she is doing now.”
Toyota of North America clearly still likes what it sees in Liu. Last week, it added her to the Team Toyota group of 16 U.S. athletes hoping to compete at the 2022 Winter Olympics or Paralympics in Beijing. She and two-time reigning world champion Nathan Chen are the only figure skaters in the Toyota group.
Yet there still is a feeling Liu might be better off skipping nationals rather than risk missing the podium and damaging her standing a year before the Olympics. Abbott does not think Liu would find it difficult to deal with such a result.
“We love it when these young girls come out of the gate fast,” Abbott said. “We’ve seen it a number of times – Sasha Cohen, Naomi Nari Nam, Karen Chen. They do really well, and then they grow, and it takes a certain adjustment period.”
Liu was to have competed as a junior internationally again this season, but the Junior Grand Prix and World Junior Championships were canceled because of COVID. Last season, in her international debut as a junior, she won bronze at junior worlds and silver at the Junior Grand Prix Final after winning two Junior Grand Prix Series events.
The judge who noted the problems related to becoming a senior champion before growing also suggested that, after several years of relentless success for Liu, a setback “could light another fire within her.”
“Alysa knows what we are working toward,” Abbott said, “This is a building year for us.
“Of course, we want to have her on the podium at nationals, because that sets her up really well for next year. But this year is about making sure she has the full package to be as competitive as possible for next year – and not just on the national stage. Nationals this year is a step, not the end game.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.