Mariah Bell tops figure skating nationals short program; Gracie Gold surprises

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The two oldest skaters produced the most memorable performances of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships women’s short program.

Mariah Bell, a 25-year-old bidding to be the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater in 94 years and the oldest national champion in 95 years, tallied a leading 75.55 points with a triple flip-triple toe loop combination.

“I had chills,” Bell, eyeing her first title in her ninth senior nationals, said on USA Network. “I have this part of me that’s just, like, so gritty. When I really need to do something, I can tap into it.”

Bell is followed in the standings by the other pre-event favorites: Karen Chen (74.55) and Alysa Liu (71.42 with a triple Axel fall). They will make up the three-woman Olympic team barring something seismic in Friday’s free skate.

Gracie Gold, 26, is in a surprisingly high sixth place going into the free skate. Though the Olympics are a long shot, it marked the 2014 Olympian’s best program in five years and since overcoming anxiety, depression and an eating disorder.

“It was just this huge emotional moment on so many different levels,” Gold said of her skate in Nashville. “The crowd was just phenomenal. I always feel like the crowd at nationals makes it special.”

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Gold trails the three Olympic favorites, plus 14-year-old Isabeau Levito, who is too young for this year’s Olympics, and Lindsay Thorngren, a 15-year-old who makes the Olympic age cutoff.

Gold is 7.94 behind Bell and 3.81 behind third-place Liu. But nationals are not an Olympic Trials.

Rather, a committee picks the three-woman team after Friday’s free skate, taking into account the last year’s worth of results starting with last January’s nationals. That will hurt the case of Gold, who was 13th last year and 13th again in her lone international competition this season.

Gold said making it back to the Olympics has been one of her goals.

“It is, in theory, completely attainable,” she said, expressing satisfaction with her short. “Copy and paste for tomorrow.”

ON HER TURF: Gold’s remarkable comeback continues at U.S. Championships

Gold said she will evaluate after the season whether she will continue competing.

“My mom always said I had a case of the mores,” she said. “I just wanted one more of everything.

“Have we ever sent anyone to the Olympics for singles that was 30?”

Yes. Theresa Weld-Blanchard in 1924, then again in 1928 when she was 34, according to Olympedia.org.

Bell, who counts former training partner Adam Rippon as a coach and choreographer, has room for error in Friday’s free skate to still become the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater since Weld-Blanchard and Beatrix Loughran in 1928.

In her short, she landed a positively graded triple-triple jump combination for the first time this season.

Bell was a contender for the 2018 Olympic team before finishing fifth at those nationals. She pressed on at an age when many skaters who miss an Olympics would have retired.

Bell took silver at 2020 Nationals but was fifth last year and fifth in this season’s domestic rankings before an improved performance at her last pre-nationals event in November upped her to the second seed this week.

Chen is in good shape to become the first American women’s singles skater to make back-to-back Olympics since Sasha Cohen in 2002 and 2006. Chen, who didn’t compete in the 2018-19 season due to injury (and considered retirement), changed her short program before nationals.

Liu entered nationals as the favorite, even before the withdrawal of reigning champ Bradie Tennell and despite changing coaches and moving from California to Colorado since her most recent competition in November.

She was the top-performing American during the fall Grand Prix Series, ranking fifth in the world when taking out the extra Russians who won’t be at the Olympics.

Liu, the first American woman to land a quadruple jump in competition, hasn’t attempted one since the March 2020 World Junior Championships. She has tried six triple Axels this season, and five have been downgraded or under-rotated (including her attempt on Thursday).

But Liu, who in 2019 became the youngest senior U.S. champion at age 13, can still win a third U.S. title without them.

Amber Glenn, the 2021 U.S. silver medalist, struggled with her jumps and ended up 14th on Thursday. Glenn ranks fourth among U.S. senior women this season, but the deficit may be too much to overcome in the free skate to be seriously considered by the selection committee.

Earlier, Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc topped the pairs’ short program. More on that event here.

It’s possible that only one Olympic pairs’ spot is up for grabs after reigning national champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier withdrew Wednesday due to Frazier contracting COVID with severe symptoms. Knierim and Frazier are petitioning for one of two Olympic pairs’ spots.

ON HER TURF: Michelle Kwan gives birth to daughter

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John McFall, Paralympic medalist, becomes first parastronaut in Europe

John McFall
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The European Space Agency made history Wednesday by selecting an amputee who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident to be among its newest batch of astronauts — a leap toward its pioneering ambition to send someone with a physical disability into space.

John McFall, a 41-year-old Briton who lost his right leg when he was 19 and later won a Paralympic 100m bronze medal in 2008, called his selection at Europe’s answer to NASA “a real turning point and mark in history.”

“ESA has a commitment to send an astronaut with a physical disability into space … This is the first time that a space agency has endeavored to embark on a project like this. And it sends a really, really strong message to humanity,” he said.

The newly-minted parastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection unveiled during a Paris news conference — the conclusion of the agency’s first recruitment drive in over a decade aimed at bringing diversity to space travel.

McFall will follow a different path than his fellow astronauts because he will participate in a groundbreaking feasibility study exploring whether physical disability will impair space travel. It’s uncharted land, since no major Western space agency has ever put a parastronaut into space, according to the ESA.

Speaking with pride amid flashes of emotion, McFall said that he was uniquely suited to the mission because of the vigor of his mind and body.

“I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I lost my leg about twenty plus years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to be a Paralympic athlete and really explored myself emotionally … All those factors and hardships in life have given me confidence and strength — the ability to believe in myself that I can do anything I put my mind to,” he added.

“I never dreamt of being an astronaut. It was only when ESA announced that they were looking for a candidate with a physical disability to embark on this project that it really sparked my interest.”

The feasibility study, that will last two to three years, will examine the basic hurdles for a parastronaut including how a physical disability might impact mission training, and if modifications to spacesuits and aircraft are required, for example.

ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker said it was still a “long road” for McFall but described the fresh recruitment as a long-held ambition.

Parker said it started with a question. “Maybe there are people out there that are almost superhuman in that they’ve already overcome challenges. And could they become astronauts?”

Parker also says that he “thinks” it may be the first time the word “parastronaut” has been used, but “I do not claim ownership.”

“We’re saying that John (McFall) could be the first parastronaut, that means someone who has been selected by the regular astronaut selection process but happens to have a disability that would normally have ruled him out,” he said.

It will be at least five years before McFall goes into space as an astronaut — if he is successful.

Across the Atlantic, Houston is taking note. Dan Huot, a spokesman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home to the American agency’s astronaut corps, told the AP that “we at NASA are watching ESA’s para-astronaut selection process with great interest.”

Huot acknowledged that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remains the same” but said the agency is looking forward to working with the “new astronauts in the future” from partners such as the ESA.

NASA stressed that it has a safety-conscious process for vetting future astronauts who might be put in life-threatening situations.

“For maximum crew safety, NASA’s current requirements call for each crew member to be free of medical conditions that could either impair the person’s ability to participate in, or be aggravated by, spaceflight, as determined by NASA physicians,” Huot added.

NASA said future “assistive technology” might change the game for “some candidates” to meet their stringent safety requirements.

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Ilia Malinin in familiar position after Grand Prix Finland short program

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Ilia Malinin landed a quadruple Axel in his free skate to win his first two competitions this season. Less known was that the 17-year-old American had to come from behind to win each time.

An at least slightly injured Malinin looks up in the standings again after the short program of his third event, Grand Prix Finland. Malinin had erred landings on two of his three jumping passes in Friday’s short, where quad Axels are not allowed, then said he had a left foot problem, according to the International Skating Union.

“I’m a little bit injured, I’m playing it safe, protect it to make sure the injury doesn’t get worse,” he said, according to the ISU.

He tallied 85.57 points for second place, which is 3.39 fewer than leader Kevin Aymoz of France going into Saturday’s free skate.

Malinin, the world junior champion ranked No. 1 in the world in his first full senior season, merely needs to finish fourth or better (perhaps even fifth) to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final, which pits the top six per discipline in the world in a preview of March’s world championships.

Grand Prix Finland concludes with all of the free skates on Saturday.

GRAND PRIX FINLAND: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier Friday, world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium led the women’s short with 74.88 points, edging Mai Mihara of Japan by 1.3. Hendrickx and Mihara are in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. World champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan, South Korea’s Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito already have spots in the Final.

The world’s top ice dance couple this season, Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, improved on their world-leading rhythm dance score by tallying 87.80 points. They lead Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker by 6.87, with both couples in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini topped the pairs’ short program by 4.3 points over Americans Anastasiia Smirnova and Danil Siianytsia. The Italians rank fourth in the world this season behind three teams that aren’t in the Finland field but will be at the Grand Prix Final, including world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of the U.S.

Smirnova and Silanytsia are competing in their lone Grand Prix this season after withdrawing before Skate America, making them ineligible for Grand Prix Final qualification. Their short program score ranks fourth among American pairs this season, putting them in contention for one of three spots on the team for worlds, to be decided after January’s national championships.

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