With personal best in worlds short, Mariah Bell aging like a fine wine

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In women’s singles skating, where youth has been served over the last 30 years, it is easy to think of a 25-year-old as a woman of a certain age.

So it was a big talking point in January when, at 25, Mariah Bell became the oldest U.S. women’s champion in 95 years and again in February when she became the oldest U.S. woman to compete in Olympic singles in 94 years, finishing 10th.

Now here we are in late March, less than a month before Bell’s 26 birthday, and she is doing the fine wine thing, getting better as time passes.

Call it aging gracefully, which describes Bell’s fluid, elegant skating in Wednesday’s short program at the World Figure Skating Championships in Montpellier, France.

In opening the final competition of a long season – perhaps the final competition of her lengthy career? – Bell had her highest short program score ever and her highest finish ever, third place, in any program at a global championship.

“I absolutely think I’m getting better,” Bell said. “As long as you want to and are dedicated, you can continue to improve.”

FIGURE SKATING WORLDS: Results | Broadcast Schedule

It took 10 tries at the U.S. Championships for Bell to win any program, let alone the title. It took seven seasons of skating internationally for her to make the Olympics. It took three seasons for her to get a new short program personal best.

This score, 72.55, was more than a point better than her 71.26 from 2019 worlds. She improved the score despite one mistake, the second jump of her triple-triple combination being judged one-quarter turn short.

Going into Friday’s free skate, Bell trails reigning Olympic bronze medalist Kaori Sakamoto of Japan, whose 80.32 also was a personal best, and Loena Hendrickx of Belgium, who had 75.00 despite skating with her right thigh strapped after a recent groin injury.

Young You of South Korea was fourth (72.08), just ahead of Alysa Liu (71.91). Karen Chen stumbled into eighth, undone again by a big mistake on a triple loop jump, as she had been by that jump all six times she attempted it at the Olympics, where she was 16th.

Chen thought of replacing the loop with a triple flip but has had improper edge issues with the flip. So she changed the pattern and the entry to the loop, but that made no difference Wednesday, as she turned it into a single loop.

Bell is the first U.S. woman to make the top three in the short program at worlds or the Olympics since Gracie Gold won the short at the 2016 worlds.

“It’s a huge honor for me to be in the top three,” Bell said.

Without doubt, Bell’s placement owed in part to the absence of Russian skaters, barred from international skating events for at least the rest of this season as a sanction for their country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Russian women swept the singles podium at last season’s worlds, won five of the previous six world titles and the top two medals at the last two Olympics.

“Obviously, it’s strange not having them at an event, but I’ve never thought about that,” Bell said. “I’ve always thought about my own skating. For my personal experience, it feels no different.”

“I’m sure all of us kind of feel it is weird they are not here,” Chen said.

Also absent: Bell’s coaches, Rafael Arutunian and Adam Rippon. She said Arutunian was worn out after guiding Nathan Chen to the 2022 Olympic gold medal, and Rippon had commitments that kept him from traveling.

Rippon did attend virtually, as Bell revealed by holding up her cell phone so a camera could see him on FaceTime. She talked with Rippon before her final warmup, again before she skated and again after she got the scores.

“He did the same stuff he would usually do,” Bell said of Rippon’s counsel. “It was just nice to have him to talk to, because I’m so used to talking to him at competitions.”

Missing, of course, was seeing Rippon swept away physically by his excitement while standing at the boards when Bell skates.

“I could still feel his energy through the phone,” Bell said.

Liu’s clean skate brought her best international score since early in the season. When she finished, tears filled her eyes.

“Very happy and relieved,” said Liu, whose seventh at the 2022 Olympics led the U.S. women. “They were happy tears, I think. I don’t know if I looked sad. Maybe I did.”

Liu, 16, has had an Olympic season fraught with more than the usual stress.

A positive Covid test forced her to withdraw from the U.S. Championships after the short program. Last week, as Liu prepared for her senior worlds debut, the U.S. Justice Department charged five men accused of acting on behalf of the Chinese government by stalking and harassing Chinese dissidents in the U.S., including Liu’s father, Arthur. The charges said both Arthur and Alysa were targets of a spying operation.

“It wasn’t too distressing for my skating,” she said of the news about the harassment. “It bothered me a little bit, obviously, because I was worried about the safety of everybody in my family. It is what it is.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Elena Fanchini, medal-winning Alpine skier, dies at 37

Elena Fanchini
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Italian skier Elena Fanchini, whose career was cut short by a tumor, has died. She was 37.

Fanchini passed away Wednesday at her home in Solato, near Brescia, the Italian Winter Sports Federation announced.

Fanchini died on the same day that fellow Italian Marta Bassino won the super-G at the world championships in Meribel, France; and two days after Federica Brignone — another former teammate — claimed gold in combined.

Sofia Goggia, who is the favorite for Saturday’s downhill, dedicated her win in Cortina d’Ampezzo last month to Fanchini.

Fanchini last raced in December 2017. She was cleared to return to train nearly a year later but never made it fully back, and her condition grew worse in recent months.

Fanchini won a silver medal in downhill at the 2005 World Championships and also won two World Cup races in her career — both in downhill.

She missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics because of her condition.

Fanchini’s younger sisters Nadia and Sabrina were also World Cup racers.

USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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