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

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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.

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