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.”
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 NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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