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.”
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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