Alysa Liu leaves Las Vegas without U.S. figure skating title, but full of optimism

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Alysa Liu arrived at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Las Vegas as a two-time and reigning national champion with a lot of buzz, much of it the wrong kind.

She leaves without the title but with something that may prove just as important: an undiminished love of skating and competition.

“I didn’t expect much from myself, I expected the bare minimum, with how everything was going,” the 15-year-old told reporters after her fourth-place finish Saturday night. “And I’m definitely really happy with coming here and having this competition still go on. I was really grateful to compete again because I love competing. I like the feel of it.”

Liu may have ramped down her expectations, but her coach, Massimo Scali, came to Las Vegas with a loftier objective.

“The only goal we had for this competition was to perform and show an Alysa that is confident, and gorgeous, and with beautiful new qualities that no one ever saw before, that could prove to herself she is capable of anything,” Scali said.

A six-time Italian ice dance champion (with partner Federica Faiella), Scali’s English is a bit florid, but his words ring true.

Liu, who many expected to struggle at these U.S. Championships, instead showed maturing expression, speed and some solid triple jumps, including her triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination.

The teen from Richmond, California, fought off the challenges of a growth spurt, coaching changes, severely limited ice time and a hip injury in the last year to skate a clean, second-place short program and finish just 1.59 points behind bronze medalist Karen Chen.

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It was far more than most expected. At the Las Vegas Invitational, a free skate-only team event in late October, Liu showed mostly double jumps. Later, she revealed a hip injury sustained during the event prevented her from training her triple jumps for several weeks this fall.

The injury was just the most recent of Liu’s trials. She has grown, she estimates, about three inches over the past year. In June, it was announced she parted company with lifelong coach Laura Lipetsky, who nurtured the triple Axel that led her to her two U.S. titles. The Covid-19 pandemic canceled plans to work full-time with Toronto-based Lee Barkell and Lori Nichol.

Even before that, with Bay Area rinks closed, Liu spent much of last spring off ice.

“I just stayed inside in my best friend’s house and just hung out every day,” she said. “That was fun, but obviously I didn’t skate, so I was like, ‘This was a little strange.’”

Eventually, Liu traveled to Delaware for ice, returning to California when homesickness proved hard to bear. At the beginning of last summer, she began working in earnest with Scali, although conditions were still restrictive at her home rink in Oakland. The duo also sought ice time in San Francisco and held zoom sessions with Barkell and Nichol.

“I introduced her to ballet, to Pilates, we do yoga once a week,” Scali said. “We are using my experience as a dancer in my life to transfer everything I know to bring her knowledge of her movement and passion and feelings on the ice, to really the highest level.”

The 41-year-old Scali, who retired from competition in 2011, began his coaching career in Michigan. At different times, he helped to train Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.

His specialties – skating skills, steps, performance quality, musical expression – were evident in Liu’s skating this week, particularly in her short program, choreographed by Nichol to music from “La Strada.”

“[We have] been working a lot on skating skills every day in practice and working on the choreography of the program, especially when I had my injury,” Liu said. “We especially worked on facial expressions in each part of the choreography. There is one part where I’m surprised or happy, and we worked a lot on that.”

Jeremy Abbott, the four-time U.S. champion, joined the team full-time, lending technical expertise to Liu’s jumps and spins as well as her overall performance.

“He is part of the team, and he is with us every single day,” said Scali. “In Oakland, there is also Phillip DeGuglielmo, who is mainly helping her with the [pole] harness to restart the big jumps.”

With the world junior championships canceled due to Covid-19, Liu is focused on next season, when she will finally be age-eligible to compete at senior international events.

She resumed training the triple Axel, at first working with DeGuglielmo on the harness but quickly progressing to on her own. Quadruple jumps, including the quad Lutz she landed last season, are next on the agenda.

“It actually didn’t take that long to land (triple Axel) again, probably because of muscle memory,” Liu said. “I didn’t train it a lot because we weren’t planning to incorporate it here because it was too close to nationals, and it still needed to get consistent, obviously.”

“We want to break back the big jumps, of course, better than before,” Scali said.

Assuming sporting events resume later this year, Liu – who turns 16 on Aug. 8 — will likely compete on the fall Grand Prix circuit. Scali made clear that the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics are very much on the radar.

“Definitely I told her about my experience with the Olympics [2002, 2006 and 2010], how exciting and how beautiful and unique that experience is,” he said. “When I first met her, I saw so much in her. The goal is to bring everything out, and she has so much to offer.”

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IOC looks for ways for Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ to compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach
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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with older veterans — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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