For reigning U.S. figure skating champion Alysa Liu, growing pains shrink expectations

ISU World Junior Figure Skating Championships - Tallinn
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It’s easy to understand why Alysa Liu has altered her perspective for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships next week in Las Vegas.

“I don’t necessarily care about my placement anymore,” Liu said via telephone Wednesday.

The two-time defending champion realizes she will be hard-pressed to make it three straight. Getting onto the awards podium might even be out of reach, given what the 15-year-old Liu has been dealing with this season:

*There is a growing body, three inches taller than a year ago, which has changed her center of gravity, making it challenging to do the jumps she had easily tossed off the previous two seasons. And a hip injury that kept her from practicing triple jumps for nearly a month after she struggled through a free skate at an Oct. 27 team event in Las Vegas.

*There is bouncing from rink to rink because of pandemic restrictions in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives and trains. And trying to adapt to a new coaching team headed by Italian Olympic ice dancer Massimo Scali – and including Toronto-based Lori Nichol and Lee Barkell – after Liu split in early spring with Laura Lipetsky, who had coached her since age 5.

*There is being able to work with Barkell and Nichol only via video because of travel restrictions. And then changing the arrangement by eliminating the remote coaching and adding another coach, four-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott, to work with her in person.

So it’s no wonder Liu has different expectations than a year ago, when she was strongly favored to win her second straight title.

“Obviously, you want to win, but the most important thing will be to skate my best,” Liu said. “You can win and skate bad, and you don’t feel so good about yourself. I would rather skate very well and not focus on placement.”

Skating very well would presumably be enough for Liu to challenge for the title again. That presumption has to be somewhat discounted because she will not be doing either a triple axel or a quadruple jump, and her triple-triple jump combinations may not be the sure thing they have been.

The triple axels and the combinations accounted for most of the huge numerical advantage Liu had in free skate technical scores, her winning margin at the last two U.S. Championships. She said she has not practiced any quads for weeks and began reworking the triple axel only last week.

“She is already the champion of this season to me because of the way didn’t give up during one of the toughest times in her life and career,” Scali said in a text message. “At nationals, we are going to fight and to show that Alysa Liu is so much more than just her big jumps.

“This is a stage, not the final destination, and I will be proud of her no matter what (her finish is).”

Liu, 13 when she became the youngest senior champion in history in 2019, still was not age eligible for senior international competition this season. With the cancellation of both the Junior Grand Prix circuit and the World Junior Championships due to COVID-19, nationals is likely her last competition of this season.

“This season doesn’t feel like a season,” she said. “I’m a little sad we can’t compete, but I understand why. I would rather everyone be safe.”

Liu was just beginning to adjust to her physical changes when she hurt her right hip on a wonky triple axel landing during practice at the free skate-only team event. She wisely watered down the program there, popping the solo triple axel and doing far more double jumps (seven) than triples (two).

“It has been pretty difficult (to jump with a different body),” she said. “It was extra difficult because I grew and also had an injury.”

Her score in the team event, 110.80, was substantially below her lowest in the free skate as either a senior or junior in international competition or national championships the past three seasons.

“I just wanted to compete. I didn’t care how bad I did,” she said, with a laugh.

A few weeks earlier, she had finished fourth in U.S. Figure Skating’s ISP Points Challenge, a virtual event for which skaters submitted video of a short program and a free skate. Her overall score would be closer to sixth place than to third.

And if she also is out of the medals at nationals?

“I don’t think I will be too disappointed,” she said. “I’m mostly planning for after nationals when I get to train my quad jumps again. I’m excited for that.”

Liu said she knew intellectually that adapting to physical changes could be a struggle. When it happened over the last several months, she was forced to face its reality. The good thing is it happened before the 2022 Olympic season, when she will be a senior internationally.

“I was not prepared for it at all,” she said. “I knew I eventually was going to grow, but I just didn’t want to believe it. Then I became more used to it and got hurt.”

Liu hopes that the extra work she had done on skating skills will show – especially because it was nearly all she could work on during the month when her jumping was limited by the injury.

“Hopefully, it all looks better than the last competition,” she said.

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

Jessica Pegula upset in French Open third round

Jessica Pegula French Open

Jessica Pegula, the highest-ranked American man or woman, was upset in the third round of the French Open.

Elise Mertens, the 28th seed from Belgium, bounced the third seed Pegula 6-1, 6-3 to reach the round of 16. Pegula, a 29-year-old at a career-high ranking, had lost in the quarterfinals of four of the previous five majors.

Down 4-3 in the second set, Pegula squandered three break points in a 14-minute game. Mertens then broke Pegula to close it out.

Pegula’s exit leaves No. 6 seed Coco Gauff, last year’s runner-up, as the last seeded hope to become the first U.S. woman to win a major title since Sofia Kenin at the 2020 Australian Open. The 11-major span without an American champ is the longest for U.S. women since Monica Seles won the 1996 Australian Open.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

Mertens, who lost in the third or fourth round of the last six French Opens, plays a Russian Anastasia in the fourth round: Pavlyuchenkova or Potapova.

Earlier, ninth-seeded Russian Daria Kasatkina became the first player to reach the fourth round. She won 6-0, 6-1 over 69th-ranked American Peyton Stearns, the 2022 NCAA champion from Texas.

Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion, is the lone American woman left in the bottom half of the draw. She plays Kazakh Yulia Putintseva later Friday. Gauff, Bernarda Pera and Kayla Day remain in the top half.

Friday’s featured men’s matches: Top seed Carlos Alcaraz versus 26th seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada, and No. 3 Novak Djokovic against No. 29 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain.

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Olympians, Paralympians get early look at Paris on ‘Top Chef’ World All-Stars


A year from now, they hope to vie for medals in the City of Light. But on this day, four U.S. hopefuls for the 2024 Paris Olympics and Paralympics competed on “Top Chef” World All-Stars at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, the first cross-promotional moment across NBC Universal’s One Platform for the Games.

As Parisians and tourists traversed the Champ de Mars, Olympic champions gymnast Suni Lee and sprinter Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and Paralympic champion swimmer Mallory Weggemann and medalist sprinter Hunter Woodhall bundled and huddled and did everything possible to stay warm between rain showers.

Then came the 30-minute frenzy. Each athlete was paired with a cheftestant for what the Bravo series calls a wall challenge: the chef and the athlete each attempted to make the same dish while separated by a divider, unable to see what the other was doing. The duo whose dishes have the closest appearance and taste win.

It’s little surprise that Weggemann prevailed. At 33 on the day of filming, she’s a decade older than the rest of the athletes.

When she was 18, Weggemann lost movement from the waist down while receiving epidural injections to treat shingles. Four years later, she swam at her first Paralympics and won her first gold medal.

“I understand that when I go onto a [filming] set like today, and I’m rolling rather than stepping, that looks different,” she said. “Not everyone who’s going to watch ‘Top Chef’ is a sports fanatic, and so they maybe don’t watch the Olympics and Paralympics, but in that moment, we got to bring them into the movement in a way that we maybe otherwise wouldn’t. I’m not oblivious to the fact that as a woman with a disability in that moment, I also have the power to change perceptions because not everyone in our society has exposure to disability.”

Each of the athletes, flown in by Delta, the official airline of Team USA through the 2028 Los Angeles Games, came at a different point in their journeys.

Weggemann has already been to three Paralympics and earned five medals. She did the “Top Chef” competition while three months pregnant. Baby Charlotte arrived March 16. Her goal is to be on the podium in Paris and be able to see her husband and daughter in the stands.

Woodhall, who won three medals in Tokyo in his Paralympic debut, visited the French capital with his then-fiancée Tara Davis, who placed sixth in the Tokyo Olympic long jump. Their Texas wedding was a month after the “Top Chef” filming.

“In Tokyo, we weren’t able to be there for each other,” said Woodhall, referring to COVID-19 travel restrictions for those Games not allowing spectators. “Paris is so exciting because we’ll both be able to really be in the moment and support each other through both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

McLaughlin-Levrone had husband Andre Levrone Jr., a former NFL practice squad wide receiver, by her side in Paris. Before “Top Chef,” she had a whirlwind spring and summer, getting married in May and then twice breaking her world record in the 400m hurdles. At the top of her sport, McLaughlin-Levrone had a decision to make in the fall and winter offseason: continue in the hurdles, where she has accomplished everything, or venture into another event, the 400m without hurdles, to test herself.

“That world record has stood for so long, and no one’s come even close to it,” she said of the flat 400m, and its 37-year-old world record, while in Paris. “So we definitely want to be able to try that and see what we can do there as well.”

Now, McLaughlin-Levrone is set to return to Paris next week for her first outdoor race since August. It will be a flat 400m. She also plans to race the 400m at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in July, and possibly at August’s world championships in lieu of the hurdles.

Top Chef World All-Stars
Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and cheftestant Sara Bradley meet after preparing their dishes during the “Top Chef” wall challenge. (Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)

The gymnast Lee became one of the unexpected golden stories of the Tokyo Games. After Simone Biles withdrew from the meet, the Hmong American from Minnesota seized the all-around title, the biggest prize in her sport.

She hasn’t performed in international gymnastics since. Lee matriculated at Auburn and competed for the Tigers. But NCAA gymnastics involves different routines, competitions and scoring than Olympic gymnastics. It’s such a contrast that, traditionally, joining a college team has often meant retirement from the Olympic level.

The afternoon before the “Top Chef” filming, Lee walked inside the Accor Arena in the Bercy neighborhood, the site of the 2024 Olympic gymnastics events. A competition was taking place that included the Brazilian who took silver behind Lee in Tokyo.

“I am a little nervous to get back out on the bigger stage,” Lee said then. “Going to that meet actually was really important to me because I think I needed the help of re-motivating myself and seeing what I’m getting back into, watching the competition, just getting used to that atmosphere again.”

Two months after that experience, Lee announced she would leave Auburn after her sophomore year to return to elite training for a 2024 Paris Olympic bid.

The “Top Chef” integration helps launch summer Paris Games-related fanfare, including national and world championships in many Olympic and Paralympic sports and events to mark the one-year-out dates from the Opening Ceremonies (July 26 for the Olympics, Aug. 28 for the Paralympics).

“Top Chef,” in its 20th season, previously featured Olympians before the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games and then again before Tokyo. Host Padma Lakshmi noticed a common trait.

“Their attention to detail is extraordinary,” she said. “Having that Olympic training, and really listening to what your coaches want, and what the parameters of the contest is, is something that they’re skilled at doing day in and day out.”

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