Still just 16, Alysa Liu has met the challenges of going from insouciant prodigy to world medalist

FSKATE-FRA-ISU-WORLD-WOMEN-FREE-PODIUM
Getty Images
0 Comments

You look at Alysa Liu, and you see a 16-year-old with braces, and it doesn’t seem possible she still is that young because of how much has happened to her in the past four years, all of it in the public eye.

Liu has gone through adolescence under the relentless glare of a spotlight she attracted in January 2019, at age 13, by becoming the youngest U.S. women’s singles champion ever. She was a prodigy who would bear huge expectations for two seasons before she was even eligible to compete at the senior level in her sport.

It all was so easy at the start, with one landmark achievement after another, a second U.S. title in 2020, victories on the Junior Grand Prix circuit, history-making triple axel and quadruple jumps.

Suddenly it wasn’t so simple, as one challenge followed another, including two surprising coaching changes and physical growth and injuries and a pandemic. As time passed, the kid with the infectious smile at 13 would look as if she would rather be anywhere but at a skating competition.

“I lost my motivation,” Liu said of the months following the onset of the pandemic. “I was barely going to the rink, not doing off ice (training).”

And then this Olympic season arrived, her first as a senior international competitor, and it became even more complicated.

There would be a coaching change in November that took Liu from her from the comfort zone of her San Francisco area home and family and friends to train in Colorado Springs. And a positive test for Covid after the short program at the 2022 U.S. Championships, forcing her to withdraw.

Then she would go to an Olympics in Beijing after she and her father, who was forced to leave China after he protested the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, were aware they had been alleged targets of spying by Chinese operatives, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Somehow, despite all that, Liu not only began to skate with renewed aplomb but also did it with renewed joy. Her enjoyment was evident both at the Olympics last month, when she was the top U.S. finisher in seventh, and at these World Championships in Montpellier, France, where a bronze medal Friday made her the first U.S. woman to win a world medal since Ashley Wagner’s silver in 2016.

“I came into this competition not thinking about medals, just wanting to do good programs for myself,” Liu said. “When I saw I had medaled, I didn’t believe it.

“I don’t know how I got motivation back. I have no idea how I got to this point.”

Everything she had gone through seemed to hit Liu all at once when she finished the free skate that moved her from fifth after the short program to third overall behind Kaori Sakamoto of Japan, a runaway winner, and Loena Hendrickx of Belgium. Liu would take her bows through tears that reflected relief and happiness and every emotion except sadness.

“For everybody, it has been a challenging year, but obviously for her there has been a few more factors,” said Mariah Bell, who finished fourth.

“She has handled herself really well. She is young but she has really matured on the ice over the past couple seasons, and that paid off. I am super happy for her.”

Bell, the team’s elder stateswoman at nearly 26, and Liu combined to easily earn the U.S. three women’s spots at the 2023 worlds. Two-time Olympian Karen Chen finished eighth.

Whether any of the three will compete next season is uncertain.

Bell has said she will wait before making a decision about her future in the sport. Chen, 22, will start her sophomore year at Cornell in the fall semester and “reorganize my priorities so college is number one.”

Liu, now permanently back in California, originally had planned to start college this year but could not get her applications finished in time.

“I still haven’t decided about next season,” Liu said. “I’m going to my (Stars on Ice) shows first and then see about college and competing again.”

Liu had returned to California after the Olympics, where Victor Pfeifer of her Colorado Springs coaching team accompanied her. She took a week off to decompress and catch up with friends, then returned to training with a Bay Area coach, Phillip DiGuglielmo, who had previously worked with her.

“Phillip is really funny,” she said. “It’s really lighthearted on the ice even when training is hard. It’s always fun.”

She found more fun in sharing some recent training sessions in San Francisco with an all-star team: 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano, 2014 Olympian Polina Edmunds and four-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott, who had been one of Liu’s coaches until November.

“I didn’t feel I could do better than at the Olympics,” she said. “I was thinking it’s going to be hard to do it again so soon after.

“I trained really hard for the little time I had (about three weeks). It really paid off, and I’m so happy.”

Her scores were very close at the two events – at worlds, Liu was two points higher in the short program and less than two-tenths of a point lower in the free. That her worlds finish was substantially higher owed to the absence of Russian women, barred from worlds as a sanction for their country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The Olympics had long loomed in front of Liu – first it seemed a lock she would be there, then less of one after her struggles in the 2020-21 season and the uncertainty over how she would recover from Covid. When she got to Beijing, Liu realized her objective had been reached, and that was something to celebrate.

At that moment, the smiles returned to her face, even if she isn’t completely sure how the joy came back.

“I think it’s because the Olympics are very exciting, and that’s why I continued to skate,” Liu said. “I was really happy I got there because that was my goal.”

She had once been way ahead of herself, both insouciant and mature beyond her years. You listen to her now, giggling over how her cat provided emotional support and her shock at winning a medal, and you hear a person who sounds just like a 16-year-old should.

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

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

LA 2028, Delta unveil first-of-its-kind emblems for Olympics, Paralympics

Delta LA 2028
LA 2028
0 Comments

Emblems for the 2028 Los Angeles Games that include logos of Delta Air Lines is the first integration of its kind in Olympic and Paralympic history.

Organizers released the latest set of emblems for the LA 2028 Olympics and Paralympics on Thursday, each with a Delta symbol occupying the “A” spot in LA 28.

Two years ago, the LA 2028 logo concept was unveiled with an ever-changing “A” that allowed for infinite possibilities. Many athletes already created their own logos, as has NBC.

“You can make your own,” LA28 chairperson Casey Wasserman said in 2020. “There’s not one way to represent Los Angeles, and there is strength in our diverse cultures. We have to represent the creativity and imagination of Los Angeles, the diversity of our community and the big dreams the Olympic and Paralympic Games provide.”

Also in 2020, Delta was announced as LA 2028’s inaugural founding partner. Becoming the first partner to have an integrated LA 2028 emblem was “extremely important for us,” said Emmakate Young, Delta’s managing director, brand marketing and sponsorships.

“It is a symbol of our partnership with LA, our commitment to the people there, as well as those who come through LA, and a commitment to the Olympics,” she said.

The ever-changing emblem succeeds an angelic bid logo unveiled in February 2016 when the city was going for the 2024 Games, along with the slogan, “Follow the Sun.” In July 2017, the IOC made a historic double awarding of the Olympics and Paralympics — to Paris for 2024 and Los Angeles for 2028.

The U.S. will host its first Olympics and Paralympics since 2002 (and first Summer Games since 1996), ending its longest drought between hosting the Games since the 28-year gap between 1932 and 1960.

Delta began an eight-year Olympic partnership in 2021, becoming the official airline of Team USA and the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

Athletes flew to this year’s Winter Games in Beijing on chartered Delta flights and will do so for every Games through at least 2028.

Previously, Delta sponsored the last two Olympics held in the U.S. — the 1996 Atlanta Games and the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record was the product of pain, rain

Eliud Kipchoge
Getty
0 Comments

When Eliud Kipchoge broke the marathon world record in Berlin on Sunday, he began his celebration near the finish line by doing the same thing he did upon breaking the record in Berlin four years earlier.

He hugged longtime coach Patrick Sang.

The embrace was brief. Not much was said. They shook hands, Kipchoge appeared to stop his watch and Sang wiped his pupil’s sweaty face off with a towel. Kipchoge continued on his congratulatory tour.

“It felt good,” Sang said by phone from his native Kenya on Thursday. “I told him, ‘I’m proud of you and what you have achieved today.'”

Later, they met again and reflected together on the 2:01:09 performance, chopping 30 seconds off his world record in 2018 in the German capital.

“I mentioned to him that probably it was slightly a little bit too fast in the beginning, in the first half,” Sang said of Kipchoge going out in 59 minutes, 51 seconds for the first 13.1 miles (a sub-two-hour pace he did not maintain in the final miles). “But he said he felt good.

“Besides that, I think it was just to appreciate the effort that he put in in training. Sometimes, if you don’t acknowledge that, then it looks like you’re only looking at the performance. We looked at the sacrifice.”

Sang thought about the abnormally wet season in southwestern Kenya, where Kipchoge logs his daily miles more than a mile above sea level.

“Sometimes he had to run in the rain,” said Sang, the 1992 Olympic 3000m steeplechase silver medalist. “Those are small things you reflect and say, it’s worth sacrificing sometimes. Taking the pain training, and it pays off.”

When Sang analyzes his athletes, he looks beyond times. He studies their faces.

The way Kipchoge carried himself in the months leading into Berlin — running at 6 a.m. “rain or shine,” Sang said — reminded the coach of the runner’s sunny disposition in the summer of 2019. On Oct. 12 of that year, Kipchoge clocked 1:59:40 in the Austrian capital in a non-record-eligible event (rather than a traditional race) to become the first person to cover 26.2 miles on foot in less than two hours.

Sang said he does not discuss time goals with his students — “Putting specific targets puts pressure on the athlete, and you can easily go the wrong direction,” he said.

In looking back on the race, there is some wonder whether Kipchoge’s plan was to see how long he could keep a pace of sub-two hours. Sang refused to speculate, but he was not surprised to see Kipchoge hit the halfway point 61 seconds faster than the pacers’ prescribed 60:50 at 13.1 miles.

“Having gone two hours in Monza [2:00:25 in a sub-two-hour attempt in 2017], having run the unofficial 1:59 and so many times 2:01, 2:02, 2:03, the potential was written all over,” Sang said. “So I mean, to think any differently would be really under underrating the potential. Of course, then adding on top of that the aspect of the mental strength. He has a unique one.”

Kipchoge slowed in the second half, but not significantly. He started out averaging about 2 minutes, 50 seconds per kilometer (equivalent to 13.2 miles per hour). He came down to 2:57 per kilometer near the end.

Regret is not in Kipchoge’s nature. We may never know the extent of his sub-two thoughts on Sunday. Sang noted that Kipchoge, whose marathon career began a decade ago after he failed to make the London Olympic team on the track, does not dwell on the past.

“If you talk to him now, he probably is telling you about tomorrow,” Sang joked.

The future is what is intriguing about Kipchoge. Approaching 38 years old, he continues to improve beyond peak age for almost every elite marathoner. Can Kipchoge go even faster? It would likely require a return next year to Berlin, whose pancake-flat roads produced the last eight men’s marathon world records. But Kipchoge also wants to run, and win, another prestigious fall marathon in New York City.

Sang can see the appeal of both options in 2023 and leaves the decision to Kipchoge and his management team.

‘If we can find the motivation for him, or he finds it within himself, that he believes he can still run for some time, for a cause, for a reason … I think the guy can still even do better than what he did in Berlin,” Sang said. “We are learning a lot about the possibilities of good performance at an advanced age. It’s an inspiration and should be an inspiration for anybody at any level.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!