In Survivor: Nashville, a first national title for Mariah Bell

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It was something of a war of attrition, the women’s singles event at these 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Nashville, with Covid or physical issues eliminating one contender after another.

So it was no surprise that the survivor, Mariah Bell, was a skater who had doggedly stuck it out, season after season, before battling through the free skate Friday to win a first national title in her ninth try.

At 25, Bell also became the oldest U.S. women’s champion in the 95 years since Beatrix Loughran won at 26 in 1927.

And, most importantly, no matter that the decision won’t be announced publicly until Saturday afternoon, Bell also claimed a spot on the U.S. team headed to the 2022 Winter Olympics next month in Beijing. The other two places will almost certainly go to Karen Chen, who finished second, and Alysa Liu, forced out of the free skate after testing positive for Covid earlier Friday.

Isabeau Levito, at 14, below the age minimum for the upcoming Olympics, staked out a path toward the 2026 Winter Games by finishing second in the free skate and third overall in her senior national debut.

“My goal was to win a medal, and here I am,” Levito said.

Levito had the highest technical score on a night when all of the top seven skaters had at least one negative grade of execution.

Wars of attrition usually aren’t pretty.

“It wasn’t a perfect skate,” Bell said. “I was fighting through it.”

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | Full Results

Bell finished with 216.25 points, the lowest winning score at nationals since Chen won in 2017 with 214.22. Chen, excited about completing her nationals medal collection by adding a silver to her gold and two bronzes, had 213.85 this time, while Levito scored 210.75.

When the free skate began Friday night, the field was missing the two skaters who had combined to win the past four national titles.

Bradie Tennell, the 2018 and 2021 champion, withdrew last week because of lingering problems from a foot injury.

Liu, 16, the 2019 and 2020 champion, withdrew after having finished third in Thursday’s short program.

And Amber Glenn, last year’s runner-up, also withdrew after a positive Covid test.

“The (Covid) news was definitely very shocking and super unfortunate to hear,” said Chen, a 2018 Olympian. “I gave myself 10 minutes to full-out freak about it and then said to myself, `You’ve got to focus on your skating.’”

Liu’s positive came in a routine test mandated by U.S. Figure Skating for those who had been in Nashville more than three days. Her self-description suggests she was asymptomatic.

“I’m feeling good physically and mentally,” Liu wrote on Instagram.

Liu has petitioned for a place on the Olympic team, and she seems a lock to get it under U.S. Figure Skating’s selection procedures. The decision was to be made soon after the free skate and announced during NBC’s coverage of the men’s short program Saturday afternoon.

Glenn said on Instagram Friday that despite taking precautions against catching the virus she had begun to feel “slower, weak and sluggish” over the previous 48 hours. That time period included a very ragged performance in the short program, where her 14th place had effectively ended her chances of earning an Olympic spot.

After initially thinking her malaise came from usual competition nerves, Glenn tested positive after the Friday morning warmup and withdrew.

“To know I was competing while sick with Covid is awful,” she wrote. “It scares me to know who might’ve been exposed.”

The surprise star of the short program, Gracie Gold, unsurprisingly struggled in the free skate, where she doubled three planned triple jumps and dropped from sixth to 10th overall.

Bell won both the short and the free after eight years of never winning either despite having had three previous podium finishes. In her Olympic debut, she will be the oldest U.S. Olympic female singles skater since 1928, when Loughran, then 27, and Theresa Weld-Blanchard, 34, were on the team.

“I’m excited that I could keep fighting for the ultimate goal that now I’ve reached,” Bell said. “I want it to be a known fact that skating doesn’t end at a certain age.”

Bell came back from a disappointing performance at the 2021 nationals, when she tumbled to fifth after having won the silver medal a year earlier. She took some time off before resolving to throw everything into this season.

“To go from nationals last year to this, I’m very proud,” Bell said.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to

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Helen Maroulis stars in wrestling documentary, with help from Chris Pratt

Helen Maroulis, Chris Pratt

One of the remarkable recent Olympic comeback stories is the subject of a film that will be shown nationwide in theaters for one day only on Thursday.

“Helen | Believe” is a documentary about Helen Maroulis, the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. Showing details are here.

After taking gold at the 2016 Rio Games, Maroulis briefly retired in 2019 during a two-year stretch in which she dealt with concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film focuses on that period and her successful bid to return and qualify for the Tokyo Games, where she took bronze.

In a poignant moment in the film, Maroulis described her “rock bottom” — being hospitalized for suicidal ideations.

In an interview, Maroulis said she was first approached about the project in 2018, the same year she had her first life-changing concussion that January. A wrestling partner’s mother was connected to director Dylan Mulick.

Maroulis agreed to the film in part to help spread mental health awareness in sports. Later, she cried while watching the 2020 HBO film, “The Weight of Gold,” on the mental health challenges that other Olympians faced, because it resonated with her so much.

“When you’re going through something, it sometimes gives you an anchor of hope to know that someone’s been through it before, and they’ve overcome it,” she said.

Maroulis’ comeback story hit a crossroads at the Olympic trials in April 2021, where the winner of a best-of-three finals series in each weight class made Team USA.

Maroulis won the opening match against Jenna Burkert, but then lost the second match. Statistically, a wrestler who loses the second match in a best-of-three series usually loses the third. But Maroulis pinned Burkert just 22 seconds into the rubber match to clinch the Olympic spot.

Shen then revealed that she tore an MCL two weeks earlier.

“They told me I would have to be in a brace for six weeks,” she said then. “I said, ‘I don’t have that. I have two and a half.’”

Maroulis said she later asked the director what would have happened if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo. She was told the film still have been done.

“He had mentioned this isn’t about a sports story or sports comeback story,” Maroulis said. “This is about a human story. And we’re using wrestling as the vehicle to tell this story of overcoming and healing and rediscovering oneself.”

Maroulis said she was told that, during filming, the project was pitched to the production company of actor Chris Pratt, who wrestled in high school in Washington. Pratt signed on as a producer.

“Wrestling has made an impact on his life, and so he wants to support these kinds of stories,” said Maroulis, who appeared at last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival with Pratt.

Pratt said he knew about Maroulis before learning about the film, which he said “needed a little help to get it over the finish line,” according to a public relations company promoting the film.

The film also highlights the rest of the six-woman U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Tokyo. Four of the six won a medal, including Tamyra Mensah-Stock‘s gold.

“I was excited to be part of, not just (Maroulis’) incredible story, but also helping to further advance wrestling and, in particular, female wrestling,” Pratt said, according to responses provided by the PR company from submitted questions. “To me, the most compelling part of Helen’s story is the example of what life looks like after a person wins a gold medal. The inevitable comedown, the trauma around her injuries, the PTSD, the drive to continue that is what makes her who she is.”

Maroulis, who now trains in Arizona, hopes to qualify for this year’s world championships and next year’s Olympics.

“I try to treat every Games as my last,” she said. “Now I’m leaning toward being done [after 2024], but never say never.”

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IOC recommends how Russia, Belarus athletes can return as neutrals

Thomas Bach

The IOC updated its recommendations to international sports federations regarding Russian and Belarusian athletes, advising that they can return to competitions outside of the Olympics as neutral athletes in individual events and only if they do not actively support the war in Ukraine. Now, it’s up to those federations to decide if and how they will reinstate the athletes as 2024 Olympic qualifying heats up.

The IOC has not made a decision on the participation of Russian or Belarusian athletes for the Paris Games and will do so “at the appropriate time,” IOC President Thomas Bach said Tuesday.

Most international sports federations for Olympic sports banned Russian and Belarusian athletes last year following IOC recommendations to do so after the invasion of Ukraine.

Bach was asked Tuesday what has changed in the last 13 months that led to the IOC updating its recommendations.

He reiterated previous comments that, after the invasion and before the initial February 2022 recommendations, some governments refused to issue visas for Russians and Belarusians to compete, and other governments threatened withdrawing funding from athletes who competed against Russians and Belarusians. He also said the safety of Russians and Belarusians at competitions was at risk at the time.

Bach said that Russians and Belarusians have been competing in sports including tennis, the NHL and soccer (while not representing their countries) and that “it’s already working.”

“The question, which has been discussed in many of these consultations, is why should what is possible in all these sports not be possible in swimming, table tennis, wrestling or any other sport?” Bach said.

Bach then read a section of remarks that a United Nations cultural rights appointee made last week.

“We have to start from agreeing that these states [Russia and Belarus] are going to be excluded,” Bach read, in part. “The issue is what happens with individuals. … The blanket prohibition of Russian and Belarusian athletes and artists cannot continue. It is a flagrant violation of human rights. The idea is not that we are going to recognize human rights to people who are like us and with whom we agree on their actions and on their behavior. The idea is that anyone has the right not to be discriminated on the basis of their passport.”

The IOC’s Tuesday recommendations included not allowing “teams of athletes” from Russia and Belarus to return.

If Russia continues to be excluded from team sports and team events, it could further impact 2024 Olympic qualification.

The international basketball federation (FIBA) recently set an April 28 deadline to decide whether to allow Russia to compete in an Olympic men’s qualifying tournament. For women’s basketball, the draw for a European Olympic qualifying tournament has already been made without Russia.

In gymnastics, the ban has already extended long enough that, under current rules, Russian gymnasts cannot qualify for men’s and women’s team events at the Paris Games, but can still qualify for individual events if the ban is lifted.

Gymnasts from Russia swept the men’s and women’s team titles in Tokyo, where Russians in all sports competed for the Russian Olympic Committee rather than for Russia due to punishment for the nation’s doping violations. There were no Russian flags or anthems, conditions that the IOC also recommends for any return from the current ban for the war in Ukraine.

Seb Coe, the president of World Athletics, said last week that Russian and Belarusian athletes remain banned from track and field for the “foreseeable future.”

World Aquatics, the international governing body for swimming, diving and water polo, said after the IOC’s updated recommendations that it will continue to “consider developments impacting the situation” of Russian and Belarusian athletes and that “further updates will be provided when appropriate.”

The IOC’s sanctions against Russia and Belarus and their governments remain in place, including disallowing international competitions to be held in those countries.

On Monday, Ukraine’s sports minister said in a statement that Ukraine “strongly urges” that Russian and Belarusian athletes remain banned.

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