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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