A “new” Alysa Liu in a good place for a transformative season

courtesy Massimo Scali

Choosing FaceTime rather than a telephone as the medium for an interview with Alysa Liu last week was fortuitous.

The video connection revealed a Liu who smiled constantly – and punctuated the smile with frequent laughs – during a 30-minute conversation.

Liu, talking from a hotel room in the small northern Italian town of Egna, clearly was in a good place.

And not only because the mountain scenery Liu could see outside the hotel is beautiful.

It also was because Liu’s new view of herself has put her in a good headspace.

“I’m much happier now,” Liu said. “I feel better. Mentally, I’m in a very good spot.”

You could see that clearly from Liu’s confident, mature skating in her first two events as an international senior competitor, the Cranberry Cup International in August and the Lombardia Trophy in September. She won both events by huge margins and, more significantly, her performance quality showed a striking maturity.

It was evidence that, at age 16, Liu has suddenly gone beyond the image of jumping prodigy that once captured her skating.

“That transformation was the goal for this season,” said Massimo Scali, who heads Liu’s three-person coaching team, which now includes Jeremy Abbott and Lorenzo Magri. Liu trained at Magri’s skating school in Egna during most of June and the time between the Lombardia Trophy and the Nebelhorn Trophy that begins Thursday in Oberstdorf, Germany.

“She needed to be presented as something that wasn’t just jumping,” Scali continued. “One thing that impresses me, and that I keep reminding her about, is to get to that level of change and maturity normally takes years, maybe a full Olympic cycle. Now there are times already when see her on the ice, and Jeremy and I and Lorenzo look at each other and go, `Wow, look at what she became.’”

She is faster, more powerful, better at expressing movement and emotions that fit the choreography Scali created to two imposing pieces of classical music, the gypsy dance from Minkus’ ballet, “Don Quixote,” for the short program and excepts from Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto (deftly assembled by Hugo Chouinard) for the free skate. Such music, especially the Tchaikovsky, would have overwhelmed the artistically callow Liu who won U.S. titles in 2019 and 2020.

“They are programs that really gave me the feeling of an Olympic season, of a new Alysa who could arrive at an elevated level of feeling and interpretation,” Scali said.

Sonia Bianchetti of Italy, a longtime International Skating Union official and judge, went to Lombardia Trophy as a spectator. She came away very impressed by Liu, whose total and free skate scores were second best ever by a U.S. woman, with easily her highest component scores ever internationally.

“She skated very well both in the short and the free,” Bianchetti said in an email. “All her jumps are very well executed, effortless, high and long. She has also beautiful spins. What is even more important for me is that she glides well on the ice, with deep edges, and she moves her hands and body according to the music. She is very elegant considering her age.”

At the same time, Liu seems to be slowly regaining command of one of the big jumps, the triple axel, which had been her competitive plus. Her first attempt, at Cranberry Cup, ended in a fall and downgrade. The next, at Lombardia, was landed slightly under-rotated. She has no reservations about trying it again at Nebelhorn, where the stakes include her needing a top-six finish to earn the U.S. a third spot in women’s singles at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

“I was very shocked and pretty honored when they (U.S. Figure Skating) picked me to compete for the third spot,” Liu said. “I don’t feel any pressure. I think that must be a change in my mindset. I’m kind of skating just for myself right now.”

It took only what she showed at Cranberry Cup and the subsequent Champs Camp for USFS to pick Liu for the Nebelhorn assignment. Her strong showing at Lombardia reinforced that decision.

“This is where I wanted her to be,” Scali said. “What blows my mind is it has happened so fast.”

Such rapid change is something that defined Liu in the phenom phase of her career.

That phase lasted about 26 months, beginning with her becoming the 2018 U.S. junior champion at age 12 and ending with her taking the bronze medal at the 2020 World Junior Championships.

During that time, she became the youngest U.S. senior champion ever (age 13, in 2019), the youngest to win two senior titles (14, in 2020), the first U.S. woman to land a triple axel in a nationals short program, the first U.S. woman to land two triple axels in any free skate, and the first U.S. woman to land a quadruple jump in competition.

She was on the “TODAY” show. She was on Time magazine’s 2019 “100 Next” List, with Michelle Kwan writing in the magazine, “Alysa has a long and bright future.” At a time when U.S. Figure Skating longed for an athlete who could challenge the ever-more-dominant young Russian phenoms in women’s singles, Liu was the great (if then physically tiny) hope, no matter that she wouldn’t be age eligible for senior international competition until this 2021-22 Olympic season.

And yet she doesn’t think it would have been easier to handle the subsequent frustrations if success and its demands had come at her slower.

“I like fun stuff,” she said. “The more things that are going on, the better I feel.”

And then, about a week after the 2020 junior worlds, nearly everything stopped because of the pandemic.

“During the quarantine (period), when I wasn’t on the ice at all, I started thinking, `Do I even skate?’” she said.

What did go on would add to that unsettling feeling.

She left her longtime coach, Laura Lipetsky, in June 2020 and, after pandemic restrictions scuttled her plans to work with Lee Barkell and Lori Nichol in Canada, she began to train full time in the Bay Area with Scali, an Italian Olympic ice dancer. Four-time U.S. singles champion Abbott soon joined Scali in coaching her.

They found themselves with a Liu whose physical changes compromised her ability to do the big jumps that had been her calling card. A hip injury last fall made it problematic for her to jump at all early in a season where Covid would make live competition a rarity. Her performance at a team event in Las Vegas late last October was dismayingly poor.

She wondered whether it was worth trying to compete at the 2021 nationals in January, one of the few live events to take place. Simply finding the will to try pleasantly surprised her. And her fourth place, less than two points from a silver medal, proved heartening. It was something to build on.

U.S. Figure Skating Championships
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The next phase of Liu’s career was about to begin. Given that this is an Olympic season, she and her coaches knew it had to begin posthaste.

That was a double-edged sword. An athlete to whom everything had come in a rush had to slow down to move forward, both last season and this one. Patience isn’t easy when irritation sets in over being unable to do what once seemed easy and effortless.

“I was actually surprised at how patient I was last year,” Liu said. “That probably came from my friends. They told me not to think too much (about her struggles) or to think it was the end of the world, because it wasn’t. They kept my spirits up.

“I used to be really hard on myself during practice. Now I’m better at not doing that. I’ve just become more patient.”

One rule of thumb is that it usually takes 18 months to two years for a skater to feel comfortable with a new coach and to fully understand the coach’s instructions and training methods. Scali said Liu is such a quick learner they were beginning to be on the same wavelength after about six months. The changes in her triple axel, with a different entry pattern and more reliance on arms and legs than on the quick rotation that had worked with a willowier body type, have started to have the desired effect in giving Liu a bigger, more reliable jump.

“I wasn’t used to thinking so much on the ice,” Liu said. “The way I use my arms and step into my jumps now, especially the axel, was hard getting used to.”

Scali designed Liu’s free skate to make room for a quad lutz if she can remaster it. Making the Olympic team is her primary goal for the season. Landing the quad lutz again is next.

She and Scali feel training in Egna has been critical in improving the jumps, both because of what Magri, an ISU technical specialist, has contributed to her learning and because of all the other talented skaters there. In June, all of Italy’s top three men’s singles skaters – Matteo Rizzo, Daniel Grassl and Gabriele Frangipani – were training with her.

“At home (in Oakland), I don’t skate with people doing the high-level jumps,” Liu said. “When I started skating with more people doing triple axels, it gave me confidence. I get a lot of motivation from being with other good skaters.”

Throughout all the on-the-fly changes in Liu’s life over the past couple years, one part of her trajectory went off just as planned. She finished high school in June, at age 15, freeing her mind and schedule of academic commitments until she begins college applications later this fall.

That has given her more time to bike and hike with friends, play volleyball with her family, and learn more about the world outside the rink. “I didn’t see the big picture of anything,” Liu said.

She would like to begin driver’s ed, especially since a Toyota sponsorship announced last December provided her a Highlander Hybrid seventh months before she was eligible for a California driver’s license.

Her father, Arthur, tells her to focus on skating, not driving, in a season that is to include her first senior Grand Prix appearances (Skate Canada and NHK Trophy) and, hopefully, a trip to his homeland, China, for the Olympics. He figures that dealing with any bumps on the road to Beijing may be challenge enough.

“I think my dad is just saying that so he can drive the car,” she said. “I think he is playing me. I’ll get him back.”

Alysa Liu underscored that thought with a wry grin. She did it again when asked about her chances to make the Olympic team.

“I definitely like them a lot better than I did last year,” she said.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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Faith Kipyegon breaks second world record in eight days; three WRs fall in Paris


Kenyan Faith Kipyegon broke her second world record in as many Fridays as three world records fell at a Diamond League meet in Paris.

Kipyegon, a 29-year-old mom, followed her 1500m record from last week by running the fastest 5000m in history.

She clocked 14 minutes, 5.20 seconds, pulling away from now former world record holder Letesenbet Gidey of Ethiopia, who ran 14:07.94 for the third-fastest time in history. Gidey’s world record was 14:06.62.

“When I saw that it was a world record, I was so surprised,” Kipyegon said, according to meet organizers. “The world record was not my plan. I just ran after Gidey.”

Kipyegon, a two-time Olympic 1500m champion, ran her first 5000m in eight years. In the 1500m, her primary event, she broke an eight-year-old world record at the last Diamond League meet in Italy last Friday.

Kipyegon said she will have to talk with her team to decide if she will add the 5000m to her slate for August’s world championships in Budapest.

Next year in the 1500m, she can bid to become the second person to win the same individual Olympic track and field event three times (joining Usain Bolt). After that, she has said she may move up to the 5000m full-time en route to the marathon.

Kipyegon is the first woman to break world records in both the 1500m and the 5000m since Italian Paola Pigni, who reset them in the 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m over a nine-month stretch in 1969 and 1970.

Full Paris meet results are here. The Diamond League moves to Oslo next Thursday, live on Peacock.

Also Friday, Ethiopian Lamecha Girma broke the men’s 3000m steeplechase world record by 1.52 seconds, running 7:52.11. Qatar’s Saif Saaeed Shaheen set the previous record in 2004. Girma is the Olympic and world silver medalist.

Olympic 1500m champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen of Norway ran the fastest two-mile race in history, clocking 7:54.10. Kenyan Daniel Komen previously had the fastest time of 7:58.61 from 1997 in an event that’s not on the Olympic program and is rarely contested at top meets. Ingebrigtsen, 22, is sixth-fastest in history in the mile and eighth-fastest in the 1500m.

Olympic and world silver medalist Marileidy Paulino of the Dominican Republic won the 400m in 49.12 seconds, chasing down Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who ran her first serious flat 400m in four years. McLaughlin-Levrone clocked a personal best 49.71 seconds, a time that would have earned bronze at last year’s world championships.

“I’m really happy with the season opener, PR, obviously things to clean up,” said McLaughlin-Levrone, who went out faster than world record pace through 150 meters. “My coach wanted me to take it out and see how I felt. I can’t complain with that first 200m.”

And the end of the race?

“Not enough racing,” she said. “Obviously, after a few races, you kind of get the feel for that lactic acid. So, first race, I knew it was to be expected.”

McLaughlin-Levrone is expected to race the flat 400m at July’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, where the top three are in line to make the world team in the individual 400m. She also has a bye into August’s worlds in the 400m hurdles and is expected to announce after USATF Outdoors which race she will contest at worlds.

Noah Lyles, the world 200m champion, won the 100m in 9.97 seconds into a headwind. Olympic champion Marcell Jacobs of Italy was seventh in 10.21 in his first 100m since August after struggling through health issues since the Tokyo Games.

Lyles wants to race both the 100m and the 200m at August’s worlds. He has a bye into the 200m. The top three at USATF Outdoors join reigning world champion Fred Kerley on the world championships team. Lyles is the fifth-fastest American in the 100m this year, not counting Kerley, who is undefeated in three meets at 100m in 2023.

Olympic and world silver medalist Keely Hodgkinson won the 800m in 1:55.77, a British record. American Athing Mu, the Olympic and world champion with a personal best of 1:55.04, is expected to make her season debut later this month.

World champion Grant Holloway won the 110m hurdles in 12.98 seconds, becoming the first man to break 13 seconds this year. Holloway has the world’s four best times in 2023.

American Valarie Allman won the discus over Czech Sandra Perkovic in a meeting of the last two Olympic champions. Allman threw 69.04 meters and has the world’s 12 best throws this year.

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Iga Swiatek sweeps into French Open final, where she faces a surprise


Iga Swiatek marched into the French Open final without dropping a set in six matches. All that stands between her and a third Roland Garros title is an unseeded foe.

Swiatek plays 43rd-ranked Czech Karolina Muchova in the women’s singles final, live Saturday at 9 a.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app and Peacock.

Swiatek, the top-ranked Pole, swept 14th seed Beatriz Haddad Maia of Brazil 6-2, 7-6 (7) in Thursday’s semifinal in her toughest test all tournament. Haddad Maia squandered three break points at 4-all in the second set.

Swiatek dropped just 23 games thus far, matching her total en route to her first French Open final in 2020 (which she won for her first WTA Tour title of any kind). After her semifinal, she signed a courtside camera with the hashtag #stepbystep.

“For sure I feel like I’m a better player,” than in 2020, she said. “Mentally, tactically, physically, just having the experience, everything. So, yeah, my whole life basically.”

Swiatek can become the third woman since 2000 to win three French Opens after Serena Williams and Justine Henin and, at 22, the youngest woman to win four total majors since Williams in 2002.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

Muchova upset No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus to reach her first major final.

Muchova, a 26-year-old into the second week of the French Open for the first time, became the first player to take a set off the powerful Belarusian all tournament, then rallied from down 5-2 in the third set to prevail 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 7-5.

Sabalenka, who overcame previous erratic serving to win the Australian Open in January, had back-to-back double faults in her last service game.

“Lost my rhythm,” she said. “I wasn’t there.”

Muchova broke up what many expected would be a Sabalenka-Swiatek final, which would have been the first No. 1 vs. No. 2 match at the French Open since Williams beat Maria Sharapova in the 2013 final.

Muchova is unseeded, but was considered dangerous going into the tournament.

In 2021, she beat then-No. 1 Ash Barty to make the Australian Open semifinals, then reached a career-high ranking of 19. She dropped out of the top 200 last year while struggling through injuries.

“Some doctors told me maybe you’ll not do sport anymore,” Muchova said. “It’s up and downs in life all the time. Now I’m enjoying that I’m on the upper part now.”

Muchova has won all five of her matches against players ranked in the top three. She also beat Swiatek in their lone head-to-head, but that was back in 2019 when both players were unaccomplished young pros. They have since practiced together many times.

“I really like her game, honestly,” Swiatek said. “I really respect her, and she’s I feel like a player who can do anything. She has great touch. She can also speed up the game. She plays with that kind of freedom in her movements. And she has a great technique. So I watched her matches, and I feel like I know her game pretty well.”

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