Alysa Liu

AP

Alysa Liu, reigning national ice queen, has no pomp in her daily circumstances

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OAKLAND, Calif. – Every weekday morning when she is at home, Alysa Liu makes the 30-minute drive with her father, Arthur, from their house in Richmond, Calif. to her home away from home, the Oakland Ice Center on the edge of downtown.

Arthur Liu, a single father of five, drops off Alysa, 14, his oldest child, just after 8 a.m., and then heads to his law office nearby. She will stay at the rink for nearly all the next nine or so hours before he picks her up for the trip back to Richmond.

Alysa, a 10th grader, rolls a wheeled suitcase with her skating necessities into the small lobby of the 25-year-old facility, which is not aging gracefully. She leaves the bag behind one of the lobby tables, which are woven metal covered in plastic, like the narrow benches attached to them.

The lobby is one of the few almost-warm places in a building where the temperature everywhere else runs from bone-chilling to Ice Station Zebra. Liu wears two coats as she sits at one of the lobby tables. She has a laptop with online homework in front of her, smartphone close at hand and ear buds in place during the lengthy stretches when she is not skating one of her three daily practice sessions or doing off ice-training or walking to a nearby restaurant with friends for lunch.

Alysa and Kate Qian, also a skater, do biology homework in lobby of the Oakland Ice Center. (Phil Hersh/ NBC Sports)

The ice center has no gym and no weight room. It has no space to do physical training other than the lobby or a walkway above its two ice surfaces or a dark, ground-floor area under the stands, so off-ice work is necessarily limited. For cardio, coach Laura Lipetsky has Liu and some of her other pupils run on the sidewalks near the building.

The competitive skaters share some of their ice time with the public, often younger kids from the Oakland School for the Arts, the school a block away Liu attended for a month before her skating schedule made online home schooling more practical. Even the freestyle practice sessions, presumably for more advanced skaters, draw relative newbies, few of whom know they are on the ice with figure skating royalty.

Such is the environment in which Liu, the reigning national ice queen, goes about her daily routine of skating and schooling.

“I tell my skaters, ‘You get what your get, and you don’t get upset,’” said Lipetsky, punctuating the mantra with her high-pitched, staccato laugh.

“Nobody is spoiled here. It makes you tougher. In a way, I feel like we’re Rocky.’’’

And Liu clearly has no trouble punching above her weight, which is somewhere south of 100 pounds.

At this week’s national championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, she will try to become the youngest ever to win two U.S. figure skating titles.

Liu already is the youngest national champion ever, having won last year while six months shy of her 14th birthday. She did it by becoming the first U.S. woman to land a triple Axel jump in a nationals short program and the first to land two triple Axels in any free skate.

“Yes, she has this title, but there is so much more she wants,” Lipetsky said. “Yes, she is trying to become the best, but she is still just a 14-year-old girl doing something she loves.”

She is a 14-year-old girl who can’t get enough of Disneyland, especially the churros for sale at the amusement park (“I’ll eat five a day.”) Who posts pictures on her Instagram of the gelato she scarfed down in Italy during the week after competing at December’s Junior Grand Prix Final in Turin. Who used some of that extra time in Italy to work on choreography and skating skills with former world champion Carolina Kostner at a rink near Rome and some to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Vatican and the Castel Sant’Angelo. Who plays volleyball in the park with younger sister, Selina, 12. Who can do homework in the noisy lobby and during lunch at a Japanese restaurant but insists she is easily distracted. Who describes herself with amusingly incisive observations.

NATIONALS PREVIEWS: Nathan Chen | Alysa Liu | Vincent Zhou | Pairs | TV Schedule

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“I sometimes procrastinate,” she said. “I think skating has taught me to not procrastinate as much. Some days I’ll be like, ‘Next week I’m going to stop procrastinating.’ But that’s procrastination.”

After a flurry of everyone-loves-the-ingénue attention following her win at nationals, Liu had time to put some things off because she was too young for even international junior competition. So, her 2018-19 competitive season ended in late January.

She had time to work on getting a consistent quadruple jump. She had time to begin working with Kostner, a collaboration developed through their mutual choreographer, Toronto-based Lori Nichol. (In the last month, she has also started working on choreography and skills with another Italian, three-time Olympic ice dancer Massimo Scali, who is based in Oakland.)

“I need to improve everything,” Liu said.

In the revolution sweeping women’s figure skating, with quads and triple Axels the paramount weapons, Liu is the only U.S. woman with a jumping arsenal to compete with the sport’s global leaders. U.S. Figure Skating has been looking for a young woman with her talent and potential for nearly all the time since Michelle Kwan left competitive skating in 2006, a period in which U.S. women have won just one medal in 13 World Championships and three Olympics. That’s a lot of hope piled on the shoulders of her 4-foot, 10-inch body.

Such expectations could be a problem for a young woman who was once such a perfectionist that failure to put on a headband just right would leave her near tears. Liu remains self-critical about schoolwork and skating but has learned to be satisfied with very good at those moments when human frailty leaves her short of great.

“I don’t feel [outside] pressure to be the best in the world,” Liu said. “I just take it step by step and work hard for myself.”

The first steps have been reassuring. In this, her first junior season internationally, Liu has become not only the first U.S. woman to qualify for the Junior Grand Prix Final since Polina Edmunds in 2013 but also the first to win a medal (silver) since Hannah Miller’s silver in 2012.

For all that, Liu is not leap years ahead of the other top skaters in the senior field in the U.S. Championships.

Despite the inherent problems of comparing scores where different judging panels are involved, numbers compiled by skatingscores.com show that Liu winning a second straight U.S. title is far from a given.

The two women who finished second and third last year, Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell, have slightly higher mean total scores for their international events this season: 207.90 for Bell, 207.16 for Tennell, 205.28 for Liu. Even if you add about four points to Liu’s score, since it came from junior events, to make up for the extra free skate element (choreographic sequence) in senior events, the totals still are close.

“In a way, I feel like we’re Rocky.” – Laura Lipetsky, Liu’s coach

Both Bell, 23, and Tennell, 21, have nearly a 14-point advantage over Liu in mean program component scores (PCS) this season. Those scores reflect the greater speed of movement, interpretive skills and overall sophistication that come with their experience and maturity.

Liu overcame a slightly smaller PCS gap between her and both Tennell and Bell and at nationals last year by doing two nearly clean programs with the three triple Axels (an under-rotated triple toe loop in the short produced her only negative grade of execution (GOE), just -.08.)

Tennell, who led Liu by nearly three points after the short program, and Bell both had less difficult jump content, and both fell once in the free skate. A big gap in technical scores allowed Liu to win by 3.92 overall over Tennell and 5.11 over Bell.

And then there is the old maxim saying it is harder to successfully defend a title than to win it the first time because the reigning first-time champion suddenly faces the stress of the spotlight.

“I’ve actually never heard the saying that defending is harder,” Liu insisted. “I think defending and winning is the same.”

Of the eight women before Liu who have defended an initial title in the 13 seasons since the international judging system has been used at nationals, only Ashley Wagner won two in a row.

“I don’t feel very stressed…yet,” Liu said, with a smile, in late fall.

Asked about it again last week, she said, “I don’t feel pressure that much. I don’t think I will as it comes closer, either. I think I’ve trained well, and I’m ready for nationals.”

Lipetsky looks at it from a different perspective.

“Never do I put in her head, ‘You are now defending champion’ and put on that pressure,” Lipetsky said. “It doesn’t make a difference whether you’re trying to win your first or second. This is a new day, and she keeps wanting to push the limits.”

She did that in her debut season on the Junior Grand Prix, winning two events while adding a quadruple Lutz to her triple Axels, becoming the first U.S. woman to land a quad in competition. She might have pushed too hard at the Junior Grand Prix Final, where she finished second after winning the short program, by trying a second quad Lutz along with the two triple Axels in the free skate.

Of those four jumps, only the first triple Axel was called fully rotated, and she fell on that one. She got negative GOEs on all four. The mistakes cost Liu the title, won by Russia’s Kamila Valieva.

“I think I should had done only one quad, but I really wanted to go for it just for the fun of it,” Liu said at the time. “It was a big risk. Even though I didn’t complete any of them, I am glad to have attempted them.”

Liu said last week she plans to do just one quad Lutz and the two triple Axels in her nationals free skate. But, she added, “Things can change unexpectedly.”

Trying the extra quad – and perhaps a quad Salchow next season – is part of the long game to get Liu on the same level as 15-year-old Russian quadsters Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova by the 2022 Olympics, during what is to be her first senior season.

Her schooling is also part of that plan. Liu, who did first and second grade in one year and takes courses in the summer, expects to finish her high school education at age 15 just before the 2021-22 season. That will allow her to concentrate fully on a transition to senior skating that she hopes will include not only a place on the U.S. team for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games but also a shot at a medal.

After that, she could start college, likely at the University of California-Berkeley, whose intercollegiate skating club team trains at the Oakland Ice Center. While she would not compete for the school, being part of the club would help her with travel to the rink some days.

But after last year’s nationals, planning Liu’s future became more complicated – and expensive.

She had been a prodigy at lower levels – youngest intermediate national champion ever at age 10, junior champion at age 12 in a field where she was the youngest by nearly 15 months. And then, boom! At 13, the youngest ever to win a U.S. senior title – and too young to meet the age minimum for the Junior World Championships.

In an nbcsports.com story a month before the 2019 nationals, she was not shy about her desire to win. In the same story, 1998 Olympic champion and NBC sports commentator Tara Lipinski, who also had a career marked by historically precocious global triumphs, predicted Liu could win and expected her to be on the podium.

That it happened is something Lipetsky said “hasn’t sunk in yet” and left Liu feeling it was a dream.

“After the long program (at nationals), I was like, ‘Is this real? Did I actually do that?’” Liu said.

To help improve her chances of doing it again – and becoming a major factor internationally – Arthur Liu estimates he will spend between $150,000 and $200,000 this season. That includes coaching fees, choreographer fees, costumes, weekly visits to a physical therapist and travel. He accompanies her at competitions, and they spent a month in Toronto last spring so she could work with Nichol and Kostner.

U.S. Figure Skating gives Liu an unspecified amount of direct support funding (it was $40,000 annually for a reigning national champion at times during the previous decade). USFS pays for the skater’s flight and her coach’s flight and hotel at international events. (The International Skating Union covers the skater’s hotel.)

Liu's autograph
Liu autographed some promotional materials for her blade company, Jackson Ultima. (Phil Hersh/ NBC Sports)

The supportive Oakland Ice Center management has waived her ice time fees for group sessions and given her an hour of ice all to herself twice weekly if no one has bought the time. Jackson Ultima provides her blades and Edea her boots in sponsorship deals.

Liu earned $11,500 in International Skating Union prize money and bonuses for her Junior Grand Prix medals. And Arthur Liu, who is unmarried, is fortunate to have a partner who can care for the four other children, including 10-year-old triplets, while he is traveling with Alysa.

Even after all that, there remain substantial annual skating expenses.

“It’s a very expensive sport,” he said, in a resigned, matter-of-fact tone.

Arthur Liu said his rewards for that investment come from things other than her medals.

“It makes me happy that she has a smile on her face every day,” he said. “It makes me happy when she says, ‘Daddy, I did a clean long program today.’ It makes me happy when at the end of the day she will say, ‘I love you, Daddy, I love you very much.’’’ His response is to echo her affection.

Familial love is a big piece of his story and a reason why he has created a large family. His five children were born to two surrogate mothers via egg donors.

Arthur Liu, 54, who earned an MBA from Cal State Hayward and a law degree from the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, grew up in a tiny mountain village in southwestern China as one of six children. His mother, Shu, farmed, and his father, Cai Fu, managed a government agricultural coop.

He was a first-year graduate student in British and American literature at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou when Chinese students began pro-democracy protests in the spring of 1989. Fearing reprisals because he had taken an active part in Guangzhou demonstrations before and after the government’s June, 4 1989 massacre of student protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Liu soon fled China for the United States, which granted him refugee status.

He had no family in his new country. He would not see his father for a dozen years, returning to China briefly just before his death in 2001. Memories of the separation remain so painful Arthur Liu cried when talking about them last fall.

“(Traditional) Chinese parents never say they love you to their children,’” Liu said. “So when I heard my father sound really sick and really emotional on the phone, I knew I had to go back, even if I was a little worried.”

Eating an apple, checking her phone in lobby of Oakland Ice Center, where (rink and lobby) she spends 10 hours a day. (Phil Hersh/ NBC Sports)

Arthur Liu says he has no fears about returning to China with Alysa should she make the U.S. team for the Beijing Olympics. Truth be told, such a trip still seems a little surreal to him.

“I didn’t expect this when I first took her to an ice rink at age five,” he said. “She continues to amaze me.”

Over the last year, Alysa Liu has amazed everyone in the sport. But she is too busy to think of what she has already done. She has to finish the biology homework started over lunch at a sushi restaurant. Then have another practice. And some off-ice training, such as it is – crunches, push-ups, floor jumps.

She munches an apple while checking her phone at the lobby table. A poster with her picture hangs on a bulletin board a few feet to her right. She sees it all the time but never notices it anymore. Her focus is elsewhere. On the laptop. On the ice. This is a new day.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Canadian ice dancers overcome wardrobe malfunction at nationals

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Grand Prix Final results show women’s figure skating revolution progressing quickly

Grand Prix Final podium
AP
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The revolution in women’s figure skating is being televised.

That’s a turn of phrase on an admittedly dated reference (Google it). The point is we all have been able to witness, from TV broadcasts or live streams, a season with the most radical change in the sport since child prodigy Sonja Henie, then age 11, began doing jumps in her programs nearly a century ago.

What we watched other child prodigies do at last week’s Grand Prix Final boggled the minds of even those who saw it coming, because no one imagined it coming this soon and to this degree.

This essentially Russian revolution, which has taken maximum advantage of the scoring system and youthful body types to overthrow longtime technical norms of women’s skating, has split the discipline into haves and have-nots.

There are those who have the high-scoring quadruple jumps or multiple triple Axels to seize all the medals. And those who do not have those big jumps and, as of now, no chance to regain the podiums from which they have been summarily ousted.

Given what already had happened this season, it was not surprising that Russian first-year seniors Alena Kostornaia, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova swept the medals in the senior Final. Each had qualified by winning two of the six events in the Grand Prix series.

What is surprising is how far and fast the Troika – as NBC commentator and two-time Olympian Johnny Weir artfully nicknamed them, in a reference to a traditional Russian three-horse sled – has pushed the envelope and how far and fast they have left everyone else behind.

And imagine what the gap could be if women were allowed to do quads in the short program, which likely will be proposed at next year’s International Skating Union congress.

A year ago, it was shocking when the Troika, then all juniors internationally, swept the medals at the senior Russian Championships. Now it will be shocking if they don’t do it again at this year’s Russian Championships, which take place Dec. 24-29.

No women were regularly doing quads until last season. Consider what the Troika has done just this autumn:

*Kostornaia, 16, did not attempt a triple Axel in international competition before this season. Now she is doing one in the short program and two in the free, and all three were very well executed as she took gold at the Grand Prix Final.

*Shcherbakova, 15, began her international season the way she had finished last year at junior worlds, with one quad Lutz in the free skate; at the Grand Prix Final, she did two quad Lutzes (one clean, one under-rotated) and attempted her first quad flip (fall) in finishing second.

*Trusova, 15, began this season after having landed quad Lutz, quad Salchow and quad toe loop as a junior, but she was not attempting more than two in a program. In her senior Grand Prix debut at Skate Canada, she did four quads (three clean). At the Grand Prix Final, she added an excellent quad flip for five free skate quads, one of which she doubled and three of which were clean. She also attempted (and under-rotated) a triple Axel for the first time in the short program.

Even with the mistakes, the quads still racked up enough points for Shcherbakova that she beat a flawless Kostornaia in the free skate. And they gave Trusova a 20.71-point overall margin over fourth finisher Rika Kihira, 17, of Japan, who already had mastered triple Axels but has dropped so far from contention against the Troika that Kihira tried (and fell on) her first quad in competition.

And you have to feel a little sorry for reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova of Russia, at the technical cutting edge of her sport less than two years ago, now utterly overmatched – and still just 17 years old.

Zagitova’s free skate, an error-filled mess, dropped her from second after a fine short (less than six points behind Kostornaia) to sixth overall, more than 42 points behind Kostornaia and nearly 28 behind the third-place Trusova.

Even had she skated cleanly, having a long program with no quads or triple Axels meant the base value of Zagitova’s elements was more than 30 points less than Trusova’s, more than 20 less than Shcherbakova’s and about five less than Kostornaia’s. Zagitova would have needed otherworldly Grades of Execution marks and program component scores to compete for a medal.

Zagitova acknowledged the futility of her current situation by telling a Russian TV station Friday she was effectively putting her competitive career on hold by withdrawing from the Russian Championships and not asking to be considered for selection for either the European or world championships.

According to a Eurosport summary of the interview, Zagitova said she needed to find new motivation to continue competing. The story quoted her as saying she intended to do shows and keep training under her longtime coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who also coaches the Troika.

Zagitova also said she intended to learn new elements and ways to go into jumps.

“I need to find the desire to want to go into a competition,” she said, according to a translation. “The athletes who have gone down that road will understand me.”

Those who decry how much the quads have thrown the sport’s athletic-artistic balance out of whack found some satisfaction in Kostornaia’s having won with a performance and interpretive quality rare for a skater of her age.

Yet Kostornaia also accumulated some 21 free skate points for her triple Axels, about 13 more points than fifth-place finisher Bradie Tennell of the U.S. got for two clean double Axels. Even if Tennell had not made some relatively small mistakes, there was no way she could make up that difference.

And remember that if Trusova had cleanly landed the quad she doubled and the quad that resulted in a fall, she could have overcome not only her short program mistake but also the margin Kostornaia built in program components with clearly superior skating skills and artistry.

Tennell, 21, the top U.S. woman at the 2018 Olympics (ninth) and the last two World Championships (sixth and seventh), this season has displayed the best overall level of skating in her career. But a lack of quads and triple Axels has dropped her exponentially further behind the leaders.

Yet Tennell presses on.

“She may never catch them, but we keep pushing forward, trying to improve on both components and technical,” said Denise Myers, who coaches Tennell. “She is not settling for where she is now.”

About a month ago, I began to wonder if changing the factoring of the five Program Component Scores (PCS) so that they were the same for women as for men would level a playing field that has tilted so dramatically toward the jumpers.

Since the International Judging System was introduced in 2004, factors of .8 (short program) and 1.6 (long) have been applied to the raw total of each woman’s component score. They are 1.0 and 2.0 for men.

The logic behind the difference was until last season, a men’s free skate was 30 seconds longer with one more element. (Why it also applied to the short program is unclear, since the number of elements and time have been the same.)

“The idea of possible new factors for the program components for men was evaluated in the past season, because for the top skaters the technical score in the last years had considerably increased,” Italy’s Fabio Bianchetti, chair of the ISU technical committee for singles and pairs, said in an email.

“At the moment, for the majority of the [men], the [PCS] is still corresponding to about 50 percent of the total score. In some cases, the relation might not be exact, but a rule must consider all the skaters and not only the top five.

“Now we are dealing with the same situation for the ladies. This is something totally new, and we will study the problem during the season. But again, we cannot look at a couple of skaters only.”

In a recent interview with Nick Zaccardi of NBC Sports, Weir seconded the idea of giving the women’s PCS scores the same weight as the men’s.

“It would give them a little better chance,” Samuel Auxier, an international judge and former U.S. Figure Skating, said in a text message last month.

So much has changed on the jump front since then that it turns out using the men’s PCS factors would have had almost no impact on the women’s results at the Grand Prix Final.

With some computational help from skatingscores.com, I recalculated the PCS scores from the Final with the 1.0 and 2.0 factors, added them to the TES scores and found just one difference: Kostornaia would have moved from second to first in the free skate. The overall and short program finish order would have been the same.

Actual Grand Prix Final scores
One of these (factor .8 / 1.6) shows the actual scores. Skatingscores.com
A re-imagined scoring of the Grand Prix Final
The Refactored scores show what they would be with factors of 1.0 and 2.0. Skatingscores.com

So, the 20% adjustment of PCS factor gender equality is not enough to put women without the most difficult jumps into medal contention.

And as Bianchetti pointed out, making that change or a more substantial one in the women’s factoring must take into consideration not only a few exceptional new talents.

“I truly do not believe that anyone seriously thought a lady would deliver four quads so quickly and especially at such a young age,” Ted Barton of Canada, who was involved in the creation of IJS, said in a text message last month. “Alysa Liu is a good American example of what the present is and future might be.”

(And, yes, there is an elephant in the room: whether the young talents are getting exaggerated PCS scores from judges smitten by their jumping. That’s a question for another day – or lifetime.)

Yet there is every indication the Troika are only the leading edge of a blizzard of jumping phenoms, not only from Russia. After all, Junior Grand Prix Final silver medalist Liu, 14, last season became the youngest singles champion in U.S. history with three triple Axels, and she has added a quad Lutz this season.

“The factoring and [other] calculations were developed on what was being done at that point,” Barton said. “Now that skaters have shown new possibilities, the technical committees will look to see what adjustments can and should be made. Interesting times, indeed.”

For now, though, we are seeing in real time the unsettling effect revolutions can have.

And it seems surreal.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: What’s next for Nathan Chen after third consecutive Grand Prix Final win?

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Alysa Liu, attempting unprecedented jump list, takes silver at Junior Grand Prix Final

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Alysa Liu took silver at the biggest international competition of her young career, attempting a historic set of jumps at the Junior Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy.

Liu, the 14-year-old who in January became the youngest U.S. senior champion in history, attempted two triple Axels and two quadruple Lutzes in her free skate Friday. She fell on the first Axel, and the other three landings were judged as under-rotated.

“It’s a relief it’s over, but I’m disappointed,” Liu said, according to the International Skating Union. “My goal is always to skate a clean program, but I didn’t do it. It went OK, but it could have been better in a lot of things.”

Earlier this season, Liu became the first woman to land both a triple Axel and a quad of any kind. She was attempting Friday to become the first woman to land two triple Axels and two quads in one program.

Liu, the leader after Thursday’s short program, was overtaken in the free skate by Russian Kamila Valieva, who was not alive when Turin hosted the 2006 Olympics. Valieva is the latest star pupil of coach Eteri Tutberidze, who guided Olympic and world champions Alina Zagitova and Yevgenia Medvedeva.

Valieva, who has a quad in her arsenal, was recently injured, according to the ISU broadcast, and did not attempt a four-revolution jump. She relied on artistry and other elements, tallying 207.47 points. She beat Liu by 2.82 points to become the 10th straight Russian to win the event.

Liu became the first U.S. woman to earn a Junior Grand Prix Final medal since Hannah Miller took silver in 2012.

Liu, previously undefeated in her first junior international season, appears likeliest to disrupt the Russians come the 2022 Beijing Winter Games. First, she must compete at the junior international level through next season. She is expected to defend her senior national title in January.

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