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Mariah Bell keeps getting better, but if you ask her, it’s just the start

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No one knew fifth place could feel this good. But Mariah Bell felt this good.

It’s early November in the Grand Prix Series and Bell, the 2017 U.S. bronze medalist, had just finished a dazzling free skate to the Lori Nichol-choreographed “The Experience” by Ludovico Einaudi.

Bell thrusts her arms overhead, jumping up and down with a beaming smile splashed across her face. The work she had put in with coach Rafael Arutunian was finally paying off. And she knew she could skate even better.

“NHK was such a great experience; it was a stacked field,” said Bell in a phone interview last week. “I think it was the hardest Grand Prix (this season). Going into it, I wanted to put out my best and see where it got me. I look back and I’m so proud of how I skated… It opened my eyes to my potential. I’m right where I want to be. I can hang with the best in the world.”

Bell was right: It was a stacked field. Rika Kihira had her senior breakthrough in a triple-Axel showdown with Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, while Satoko Miyahara and Mai Mihara also factored into the top five.

It was Bell who would bounce back from a botched triple-triple in the short program (“I was so bummed about it… But then I regrouped [in the free]”) and placed fourth in the free skate, but overall it was the kind of performance that has become familiar to her in the past four months: Consistent, passionate and strong. Yet still wanting.

“I look back and I’m really proud of what I’ve done so far. I have a lot of hopes for myself coming up,” she said in an interview with me featured on this week’s Ice Talk podcast. “I want to continue progressing. I feel like the work that I’ve put in with Rafael is really starting to show, so that’s exciting for me.”

Just over two years ago – in August of 2016 – Bell made the switch from working with Kori Ade in Colorado to signing on to “Team Raf” (which included Nathan Chen, Ashley Wagner and Adam Rippon at the time). Arutunian told Bell he needed two years to start to get the kind of skating out of her he wanted.

She wasn’t exactly thrilled about that timeline.

“I was like, ‘Two years is a long time from now!’” Bell remembered, laughing. “Raf is very blunt. It’s about trusting him. He says exactly what he thinks and what he feels. Sometimes that’s really hard to swallow. It’s about learning his language. A lot of it is you taking on responsibility yourself. He’s not going to hold your hand. You gain maturity from having to do things on your own.”

That’s where Bell believes she has improved – in addition to on the ice – over the last two years: a mature mentality. Something only experience can help you with.

“If anything, I think (my age) helps me from experience and the mental side of the sport,” said the 22-year-old.

Last year was a struggle. She came into the Olympic season feeling a kind of pressure that she never had before and it showed in her skating. She was sixth and ninth in her two Grand Prix assignments, respectively, and finished fifth at U.S. Championships a year after being third.

This fifth left a much different feeling than that NHK one 10 months later.

“I would have loved to be on that Olympic team… but to be honest, I didn’t do what I needed to during the season to have the Nationals that I needed,” she says. “I didn’t put out the best version of myself. This year, I feel like I have put out the best version of myself. I look back at Nationals and have nothing but pride for what I did. I was bummed to be fifth. Whatever happened, happened and it was the right choice. I have to continue to be honest with myself. I have felt re-focused and refreshed this season. I think I’ve grown a lot.”

It shows in her programs. For her short she went out on a whim – at the encouragement of Arutunian – and asked former training partner and good friend Rippon to choreograph it, while Nichol did her free.

Both are fan favorites, and Bell told reporters on a call two weeks ago that she listens to the Celine Dion “To Love You More” track (her music for the short) all the time. Even driving to and from practice.

This coming weekend expectations are high. Many inside the sport think it could be a showdown between reigning U.S. champ Bradie Tennell and Bell, with 2017 winner Karen Chen out with injury and neither Mirai Nagasu nor Wagner skating this season.

MORE: 3 questions with Bradie Tennell before U.S. Championships

Bell knows she has top billing with Bradie. That doesn’t intimidate her in the slightest.

“I want to win. I want to be national champion,” she says, channeling some Raf bluntness. “But I can only control what I can control, which is my skating. I need to skate the way that I train. And I truly think if I do that, the results will take care of themselves. Regardless of the outcome, I want to be proud of myself, and that’s the goal I ultimately have.”

Arutunian sees it similarly. Well, mostly…

“At minimum? She should be top three in the U.S.,” he tells me, then adds: “You should know then, what maximum is (for her)… ”

He continues: “I think she’s gotten better technically. There is more consistency, but there is still a lot of work to do. She can improve. I think it’s about her head. She has to believe what we’re doing. September has been two years (since) she’s working with us. She’s at a point where she can peak more now.”

The fall is proof of that, with a fourth at Nebelhorn Trophy, then the same at Skate Canada, that fifth at NHK and a bronze medal at Golden Spin, where Tennell was the winner. Bell is no longer suffering from the sort of inconsistencies that once plagued her.

That’s thanks to time, maturity, Arutunian and, well, a new outlook.

“This season has felt fresh because not only is it a new season, but it’s a start to the next four years,” she said. “My ultimate goal is to be on that Olympic team, but my goal continues to be just to improve each season. Last year I got hung up on the results of things. I got in my own way a little bit. This year I’ve just been focusing on myself and my skating.”

“My big picture is these next four years.”

While one could argue that this weekend in Detroit is ground zero for what’s to come, both Bell and Arutunian would disagree: That started back in August of 2016, the day Mariah first stepped on ice with Raf.

And if this is the skater she’s become two years later, the next three could hold very big things.

MORE: How to watch U.S. Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships 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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In his new whirlwind life, Adam Rippon keeps lessons from skating close

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NEW YORK – As Adam Rippon strolls into a conference room on the ninth floor of Rockefeller Plaza on Tuesday afternoon, the Olympian-turned-household name has a coy smile on his face.

“I’m back, everybody,” he said to the NBC team gathered, most of which was with him in PyeongChang in February. “Did you miss me?”

The opening line of course gets a laugh, but Rippon was never really gone, was he? Since February, his life has been a whirlwind of video shoots, photo ops, magazine interviews, TV filmings, sponsor obligations and much, much more.

Everywhere you look, there’s Adam Rippon.

“I’ve never worked this much in my life,” he told NBCSports.com.

But how much Rippon’s life has really changed in the past year is apparent: On this same week in 2017 he was on his way to the Grand Prix Final in Japan, and a few weeks later he’d qualify (albeit controversially) for the Olympic team at the U.S. Championships in San Jose, realizing a lifelong dream.

“It’s crazy to think about where I was a year ago,” Rippon said, clad in a black Givenchy shirt he’s donning for a holiday-themed NBC video he’s filming in the room. “I was in Lakewood, California, outside of the Long Beach airport, busting my balls every day on the ice. It feels surreal in a way, but one thing I’ve done to not lose focus on the bigger picture is not telling myself, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me!’ and instead having a more a positive mantra of, ‘Of course I can.’ It can feel overwhelming and completely strange, but I think having a positive attitude about it makes it all worth it.”

Rippon spent the evening prior at opening night of the new Broadway show, The Cher Show, and – in true fashion of what his life has become – he was whisked backstage for a meeting with Cher herself once the curtain fell.

Rippon appeared earlier in the year on the TIME 100 list – an achievement he later says in our interview that is the most treasured of his career – and Cher penned the essay on him, writing, in part: Adam shows people that if you put blood, sweat and tears into what you’re doing, you can achieve something that’s special. You can be special. And I think that’s very brave. 

Rippon relayed the story of finally meeting Cher backstage, saying she told him, “For people like us” it was important to be different.

“People like us?” he said, breaking into a smile. “I’m an ‘us’ with Cher now? Cher?! OK.”

Rippon shrugs. He’s being sarcastic, a side of Adam we’ve all come to know well, but also he takes some joy in telling the tale.

That, of course, is part of his new life, but he’s never far from the old one he led for some 20 years, which reached a crescendo with his team bronze medal at the Winter Olympics in February. He was a national champion, too, in 2016, while also winning seven medals on the Grand Prix and placing 10th as an individual in PyeongChang. He finished as high as sixth at Worlds in 2010 and 2016.

“There was nothing more that I wanted to do within competitive figure skating,” Rippon said bluntly of his official retirement. “I have an Olympic medal. I’m a national champion. When I look back on my career, the one thing I can take away from it is that the whole point of sports is to push yourself to better who you are as an athlete and as a person every day. It took me a long time to realize that… and to realize that it wasn’t about winning or losing. It’s about putting yourself out there and put it all on the line and you can be OK with whatever that result is.”

The Olympics – or actually, Rippon’s entire Olympic season – was a microcosm of that. He went to South Korea knowing that he didn’t have a shot at an individual medal in the men’s event, but did everything in his power (including taking out a quadruple Lutz from his free skate) to be selected for the team event and then – with the spotlight shone brightly on him – he delivered.

Both on and off the ice.

Rippon got to do what every professional athlete dreams about, but few of them actually get to realize: Go out at the top of their game.

By the end of February, the 28-year-old had an Olympic medal in his hand and was arguably the most well-known American athlete from the Games – or at least the biggest breakout story that the three weeks had produced.

“I totally feel incredibly lucky to finish the way that I did,” Rippon said of his career arc. “But I also think that was because I had gotten to that point that I was talking about earlier, knowing what sports is all about. That happened for me three years earlier. I actually feel like even if I hadn’t gone to the Olympics, I would walk away from my skating career feeling the same thing.”

He continued: “Yes, I’m lucky to be living the life I am right now, but it’s a repercussion of the attitude I’ve lived by and the mission statement that I’ve had these past few years.”

This week is a busy one for Rippon, but most of them mirror it in one way or another. Monday he filmed with comedian Samantha Bee, teaching her how to skate. Tuesday he stopped by Rockefeller Plaza between interviews with GQ and The Players’ Tribune. Wednesday morning he’ll appear on The TODAY Show for a special announcement tied into more to come on Thursday.

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There’s no flight to Vancouver for the Grand Prix Final, obviously, though Rippon does continue to skate when he’s back in Los Angeles as much as he can, and says he’s watched the Grand Prix Series this season with great interest.

“What Nathan Chen has done this season is incredible,” with going to Yale and competing, Rippon said. “He seems to have this new challenge but is able to balance it so well. As a skater and as a teenager, right now this is developmentally where he should be. Sure, we all want him to keep winning, but he’s stepping out on his own and that will benefit him as he heads towards Beijing 2022.”

But while Rippon watches from afar to see what Chen can create moving forward, it might surprise you at what he says is his singular favorite skating moment from his own career when looking back: It’s his 2015 free skate at the U.S. Championships, where he finished in second place to Jason Brown.

It was a program in which Rippon, in fifth after the short, landed his opening quad Lutz and then delivered a spell-binding, clean-as-they-come performance to Franz Liszt’s “Piano Concerto No. 1.” He finished the skate to a standing ovation in Greensboro, and roared on the ice with excitement before placing his head in his hands in disbelief.

“Brilliant, Adam!” Johnny Weir declared on the NBC broadcast. Rippon remembers every second.

“It was a life-changing moment,” Rippon explained. “I try to go back to that moment because there are so many life lessons in that moment.”

Rippon recalls spending the Thanksgiving before that Nationals with the family of former U.S. pairs skater Bianca Butler, having come off a Grand Prix season that was “really awful” (he finished 5th and 10th at his two assignments, respectively) and got a dose of reality from Butler’s mother.

“She looked at me and said, ‘You’re really skating bad,” Rippon recalled. “She said, ‘You know what Adam? You have to do it really well or you shouldn’t do it at all.’ And she was right. I had seven weeks. I don’t think I’ve ever trained harder in my life and I had nothing to lose. I went out there and skated well in the short and I was in fifth and I was like, ‘Wait, really?’ But then I realized it didn’t matter – I felt good about how I was skating.”

“I had this amazing long program,” he continued. “It was one of those moments where all the stars were aligning, and I thought, ‘I’m gonna win!’ But then Jason comes out and has this amazing skate and he wins. In that moment, I felt like I had put it all on the line and I didn’t win. I was pretty crushed.

“And then I stopped myself and thought, ‘I’m happy for Jason, first,’ and then I asked myself, ‘Does your silver feel like gold?’ And it did. That’s the whole point. It didn’t matter who the winner was; I still felt like a champion. Those are two different things: Being a champion is something completely different from winning and in that moment, I was a champion. That whole experience changed my life.”

It’s essentially the same thread that Rippon produced at the Olympics, only this time the whole world was watching – and took notice.

It’s an unexpected life lesson from the person whose life has taken the most unexpected of paths in 2018. It only begs the question: What will 2019 bring? Some sort of Rippon-as-a-champion performance, we hope.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series 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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Nathan Chen may need to ante up at Grand Prix Final

Starr Andrews, 17, could be a figure skating star in the making

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As Starr Andrews struck the final pose of her free skate at the U.S. Championships this January, and the whole of the SAP Center in San Jose rose to its feet in approval, Tara Lipinski couldn’t help herself on the NBC broadcast. “This is our future!” she declared. “It’s so great to see a little junior come out as a senior skater and skate a program like that.”

“She’s blown the roof off this building,” Johnny Weir added.

Some nine months later Andrews, now 17, is making her senior Grand Prix debut at Skate America this coming weekend in Everett, Wash., and while she’s still little – she stands just 4 feet, 11 inches – she’s fully a senior competitor. And with senior expectations.

“I want to be in Beijing in 2022,” she told NBCSports.com in a recent phone interview. “Even though it’s far away, it’s in the back of my mind. But I’m focusing on what’s in front of me this season.”

That first means Skate America, but then also Skate Canada, which Andrews was extended an invitation to last minute. That means she’ll skate back-to-back weekends on the Grand Prix circuit, rare for any skater – especially one in her debut season.

“We know what we want to do down the road, but we take it one event at a time,” said her coach of five years, Derrick Delmore, a former world junior champion. “We debrief, re-evaluate and re-asses what has happened and where we’re going and then take it from there.”

That means the next two weeks are big ones for Andrews, who is based in the Los Angeles area and trains with Delmore at two separate rinks, one which includes standout American Mariah Bell and one of the best Japanese skaters in the world, Marin Honda.

Delmore doesn’t hesitate when he talks about goals for 2018-19 for his star pupil, however, saying that the U.S. Championships (where she was sixth this past season) is their target for now, then the world championships to follow.

Andrews would most likely have to finish in the top two in Detroit in late January to make that trip to Japan a reality.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, however, Andrews is already one of the most-watched skaters in the world thanks to a 2010 video of her – at age 9 – skating to “Whip My Hair”, dressed in fluorescent pink and (eventually) garnering some 54 million views on YouTube.

But eight years later Andrews is a much more mature presence on the ice, though she and Delmore – and her mom, Toshawa, who acts as a manager of sorts – have worked to keep her personality unique and different on the ice.

“She has this joyful, playful demeanor. She’s goofy,” offers Delmore. “She’s a breath of fresh air in that way, and we try and let that show in her skating.”

While Andrews wanted to skate to music from the movie “Black Panther” for her free skate this season, Delmore instead found a mix of music that includes “Africa Tribal Xotica” and has what Delmore describes as a “jungle theme” to it. It’s a program that does not include any lyrics, which excites Andrews, who last year sang vocals in her free skate to Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time.”

“It’s something completely different,” Andrews says. “I was super excited when I got it. It still tells a story. I want to show people what I’ve been working on through that choreography.”

Andrews is hardly the first black skater to compete at the international level, but figure skating is still a sport that has very few minority athletes outside of a strong Japanese contingent. In the U.S., Debi Thomas was a two-time national champion, world champ and 1988 Olympic bronze medalist, while Delmore – as mentioned – was a successful junior.

“For me, she’s just like every other young kid who wants to experience this sport,” says her mom, Toshawa. “While she’s African American, I don’t think it bothers her or makes her feel less than. She skates for herself.”

This past summer Andrews visited the famed New York non-profit, Figure Skating in Harlem, which services young girls of color, and Toshawa said her daughter’s presence sent ripples through the camp: The youngsters had not seen a skater of color with Andrews’ pedigree. Toshawa was moved to near tears at the connection between Starr and the program’s members.

“I want to bring more people like me to the sport,” Andrews says, pausing to reflect on what sort of impact she wants to have on the sport. “There’s not a lot of skaters of color. I want to bring a different look.

Separately, she adds: “I want to bring a beauty back into skating, too. It’s not just about the jumps.”

Speaking of jumps, however, Andrews is one of the few women in the world to attempt a triple Axel, an element she and Delmore will consider using this weekend and moving forward. While she is “so, so close” in practice, Delmore says, she works off ice on conditioning with a local trainer in Southern California, Tyler Poor, often in the swimming pool or on the elliptical. She takes ballet once a week.

It’s a pivotal moment in the U.S. scene for the American ladies: Three-time American winner Ashley Wagner’s future is up in the air, while fellow former U.S. champ Gracie Gold is attempting a comeback from stepping away for personal reasons. Mirai Nagasu is not competing this season, and while Bradie Tennell is the reigning champ, there is no clear favorite moving into this season.

While Andrews has a ways to climb to be a title contender, her statement of intent for Beijing 2022 is heard loud and clear. She’ll still only be just 20 years old.

“I’m in for whatever she wants,” says Toshawa. “I am the one in the background encouraging her. I’m not pushing her to do any of this, but kids have to be guided. … I’ve taught her to never look at anything like you’re losing – you’re always just learning. You take something from every opportunity and experience and you grow from that. It’s never a loss. And you always compete only against yourself.”

This weekend Andrews will also compete against some of the best in the world, including Honda, Tennell, Satoko Miyahara and Kaori Sakamoto.

Andrews names her personal heroes as her mom and Delmore, who she says have been with her to “lift her up when [she’s] not doing well.

And when she thinks back to that viral video some eight years ago, it’s outright incredible that she’s developed into the elite skater that she has – Willow Smith included or not.

“I think my younger self would be proud of me,” she says, smiling through the phone. “It makes me think of the movies when a character closes her eyes and sees herself in the future. It feels like that. When I was little, I would watch skating and now I’m at that level, it feels so cool to be where I am now.”

And where does she go next? That’s for all of us to watch and see this weekend – and beyond.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series 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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

More: How to watch Skate America