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

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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 NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

Germany goes 1-2 at bobsled worlds; Kaillie Humphries breaks medals record

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Kim Kalicki and Lisa Buckwitz gave Germany a one-two in the world bobsled championships two-woman event, while American Kaillie Humphries earned bronze to break the career medals record.

Kalicki, who was fourth at last year’s Olympics and leads this season’s World Cup standings, edged Buckwitz by five hundredths of a second combining times from four runs over the last two days in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Humphries, with push athlete Kaysha Love, was 51 hundredths behind.

Olympic champion Laura Nolte was in third place after two runs but crashed in the third run.

Humphries, 37 and a three-time Olympic champion between two-woman and monobob, earned her eighth world championships medal in the two-woman event. That broke her tie for the record of seven with retired German Sandra Kiriasis. Humphries is also the most decorated woman in world championships monobob, taking gold and silver in the two times it has been contested.

Humphries rolled her ankle after the first day of last week’s monobob, plus took months off training in the offseason while also doing two rounds of IVF.

“I chose to continue the IVF journey through the season which included a Lupron Depot shot the day before this race began,” she posted after her monobob silver last weekend. “My weight and body fluctuating all year with hormones, it was a battle to find my normal while competing again. I’m happy with this result, I came into it wanting a podium and we achieved it as a team.”

Love, who was seventh with Humphries in the Olympic two-woman event, began her transition to become a driver after the Games.

Worlds finish Sunday with the final two runs of the four-man event.

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Snowboarders sue coach, USOPC in assault, harassment case

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Olympic bronze medalist Rosey Fletcher has filed a lawsuit accusing former snowboard coach Peter Foley of sexually assaulting, harassing and intimidating members of his team for years, while the organizations overseeing the team did nothing to stop it.

Fletcher is a plaintiff in one of two lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Thursday. One names Foley, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team and its former CEO, Tiger Shaw, as defendants. Another, filed by a former employee of USSS, names Foley, Shaw and the ski federation as defendants.

One of the lawsuits, which also accuse the defendants of sex trafficking, harassment, and covering up repeated acts of sexual assault and misconduct, allege Foley snuck into bed and sexually assaulted Fletcher, then shortly after she won her bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics, approached her “and said he still remembered ‘how she was breathing,’ referring to the first time he assaulted her.”

The lawsuits describe Foley as fostering a depraved travel squad of snowboarders, in which male coaches shared beds with female athletes, crude jokes about sexual conquests were frequently shared and coaches frequently commented to the female athletes about their weight and body types.

“Male coaches, including Foley, would slap female athletes’ butts when they finished their races, even though the coaches would not similarly slap the butts of male athletes,” the lawsuit said. “Physical assault did not stop with slapping butts. Notably, a female athlete once spilled barbeque sauce on her chest while eating and a male coach approached her and licked it off her chest without warning or her consent.”

The USOPC and USSS knew of Foley’s behavior but did nothing to stop it, the lawsuit said. It depicted Foley as an all-powerful coach who could make and break athletes’ careers on the basis of how they got along off the mountain.

Foley’s attorney, Howard Jacobs, did not immediately return requests for comment from The Associated Press. Jacobs has previously said allegations of sexual misconduct against Foley are false.

In a statement, the USOPC said it had not seen the complaint and couldn’t comment on specific details but that “we take every allegation of abuse very seriously.”

“The USOPC is committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of Team USA athletes, and we are taking every step to identify, report, and eliminate abuse in our community,” the statement said.

It wasn’t until the Olympics in Beijing last year that allegations about Foley’s behavior and the culture on the snowboarding team started to emerge.

Allegations posted on Instagram by former team member Callan Chythlook-Sifsof — who, along with former team member Erin O’Malley, is a plaintiff along with Fletcher — led to Foley’s removal from the team, which he was still coaching when the games began.

That posting triggered more allegations in reporting by ESPN and spawned an AP report about how the case was handled between USSS and the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which is ultimately responsible for investigating cases involving sex abuse in Olympic sports. The center has had Foley on temporary suspension since March 18, 2022.

The AP typically does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault unless they have granted permission or spoken publicly, as Fletcher, Chythlook-Sifsof and O’Malley have done through a lawyer.

USSS said it was made aware of the allegations against Foley on Feb 6, 2022, and reported them to the SafeSport center.

“We are aware of the lawsuits that were filed,” USSS said in a statement. “U.S. Ski & Snowboard has not yet been served with the complaint nor has had an opportunity to fully review it. U.S. Ski & Snowboard is and will remain an organization that prioritizes the safety, health and well-being of its athletes and staff.”

The lawsuits seek unspecified damages to be determined in a jury trial.