Lynn Rutherford

Freelance sportswriter covering Olympic sports.

Mariah Bell is sheltering in place in the family RV

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Downsizing has its advantages, even if you’re sheltering in place due to the coronavirus.

Take Mariah Bell’s family, for example.

Bell, older sister Morgan, parents Kendra and Andrew, and Bell’s rabbit Gizmo are all practicing social distancing in the family’s 45-foot recreational vehicle (RV).

“When you see an RV driving down the street, you may not think about what it looks like in the inside,” Bell said. “It really is like a house.”

A few years ago, Kendra and Andrew confronted an empty nest. Mariah was training in Southern California in Rafael Arutunian’s group; Morgan had joined Disney on Ice. With Andrew working for a chemical company in Switzerland, and Kendra splitting her time between Switzerland and her parents’ home in Dallas, they just didn’t need their house in Colorado. So, they sold it and purchased an RV in November 2018.

“My parents can move it anywhere they like,” Bell said. “Right now, we’re in Palm Springs (California). We’ve been staying here the past few weeks and will be here through the end of April.”

Far from complaining of cabin fever, the skater considers her family more fortunate than millions of others holed up at home.

“We haven’t been able to spend this much time together in several years, so it’s been nice,” she said. “Maybe that’s the silver lining for everyone. If they are lucky enough, they can spend this time with their family.”

Bell’s longtime boyfriend, French skater Romain Ponsart, is waiting out the pandemic in his home country.

Passing April in Palm Springs – where it’s sunny most of the time and temperatures top out in the 80s – helps to cushion the blow of missing the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships, which were cancelled last month.

“I had the best, by far, season of my career and I’m obviously disappointed I didn’t get to end it with a big bang,” said Bell, who won two Grand Prix medals last fall and a silver medal at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January.

“It just puts things in perspective. Figure skating is so small. What we are dealing with now is far more important. I’m very disappointed in my athlete’s brain that I didn’t get to do worlds, but I absolutely understand.”

After a show-stopping performance of her “Hallelujah” free skate at the U.S. Championships, Bell was poised to improve on her ninth-place finish at last season’s worlds. While she admits she doesn’t know how this long break will affect her jumps – “I guess we’ll see what happens when I get back on the ice” – she is positive about her 2020-21 campaign.

“I have this upcoming season and a season after that until the [2022] Olympic Games, and this might be the perfect break I need, and maybe didn’t even know I needed,” she said. “I’m excited to build on the momentum I gained this past season.”

The Bells spend much of the day outside, where paddleboard, swimming and other outdoor activities are available. Mariah stays fit with a regimen provided by the Olympic Training Center (OTC); sometimes, Morgan and Andrew join in. In the evening, she and mom Kendra go for walks.

“The distance of the whole motor coach country club we’re at is about two miles, so I can run that or walk that,” Bell said. “People have golf carts, so they kind of drive around. Everybody in this community is very nice, but if they do stop and talk, everybody is very cautious of their spatial surroundings.”

Thus far, none of the Bells has been tempted to overdose on Netflix.

“Sometimes, we watch, but it’s honestly hard to stay inside the RV,” Mariah said. “My dad bought a VR (virtual reality gaming system) and I really enjoy watching my sister try to box, that’s really amazing for me.”

The RV has a bedroom, big enough for a king-sized bed, as well as a full kitchen, spacious living area and two bathrooms. Morgan sleeps on a pull-out couch, while Mariah has a cot. The lower portion of the vehicle is devoted to storage, with a laundry area and large freezer.

Most important, the kitchen table has a leaf, making it comfortable for all four Bells to sit down to family dinner.

“It’s been great in that respect for both Kendra and I,” said Andrew, who awakes at 2 or 3 a.m. to work remotely. “Usually, we only see the girls a couple of times a year, so to be able to spend time with them, work out with Mariah and Morgan, go paddle boarding – we can get out and do things we haven’t been able to do together in a long time.”

“Just the idea of sitting down together to have dinner, because we haven’t been together in so long, even something like that is different,” Mariah said. “Those moments are very special.”

Morgan’s career, too, was interrupted by coronavirus. For the past six years, she has portrayed the lead role of “Anna” in the Disney on Ice North American Frozen production. When the tour stopped in Ottawa, Ontario last month, cast members got word the remainder of the stops were cancelled.

“The show was scheduled to go to mid-May, so got sent home pretty early, but obviously we understood it was for the safety of everybody,” she said. “I was lucky enough to be able to come home and be able to spend time with my family and not be quarantined by myself.”

Morgan competed in three U.S. Championships before retiring from competition in 2013. She looks forward to resuming her Disney on Ice career as soon as possible after the coronavirus crisis ends.

“Skating is such a small thing, but at the same time it would be nice to get back to shows, because I feel shows offer a moment for families to step outside everything that is happening in the daily world, have fun and make a memory,” she said.

Amidst family time, staying fit and, perhaps, stargazing at Palm Springs’ famously beautiful night sky, Mariah is strategizing for the 2020-21 season. She’s sticking with the same choreographers: Adam Rippon for her short program, and Shae-Lynn Bourne for the free skate.

“We have in mind what I am going to use for my short, but we don’t have anything for the long yet,” she said. “With Adam, we figure it out further in advance. With Shae-Lynn, it’s (closer) to the time frame of doing the work, maybe a few days before. She is so great at understanding and relating to a skater and what they want.”

Great though it was, Bell is not tempted to use “Hallelujah” a free second season.

“The last time I performed that program at nationals is a great memory to have,” she said. “I could never foresee me doing any better than that.”

MORE: Takeaways from the abbreviated 2019-20 figure skating season

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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Chock, Bates charge to second U.S. title; Hubbell, Donohue charge the wrong way

Madison Hubbell, Zach Donohue
AP
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Evan Bates, who had just won his second U.S. ice dance title with partner Madison Chock, put it best.

“Ice dance is a strange sport in some ways,” he said.

Chock and Bates have had their share of unusual mishaps in their near 10-year career, but on Saturday night at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, everything was smooth sailing.

The couple’s exotic “Egyptian Snake Dance” free dance went off without a hitch, gaining the highest possible levels for nearly all of its elements and impressing judges with its intricacy, synchronization and striking lifts. It earned 134.23 points, giving the Montreal-based team the win with 221.86.

“It was (our coach Marie-France Dubreuil’s) idea for me to be a snake, and Evan a traveler who finds me,” Chock said of the routine. “It was just such a fun process, cool new characters for us to dive into, and we’ve really been enjoying it. It shows when we skate.”

Greensboro has been lucky for the skaters, who teamed up in 2011; they won their first U.S. title here in 2015. The five-year title gap is the longest in history for U.S. ice dance champions.

“It feels longer than five years,” Chock said with a breezy laugh. “It feels so much has changed, and in us as people as well (as dancers). We’re in a very good place, we could not be happier with the way the season has been going.”

If Chock’s humor was lighthearted, Madison Hubbell’s can only be described grim.

Hubbell and her partner, Zach Donohue, trailed their long-time rivals and Montreal training partners by about 1.3 points following Friday’s rhythm dance. A stellar outing of their Star is Born free dance might have won a third consecutive U.S. title; instead, it became a living nightmare.

“Out of the first element, the dance spin, we got turned around somehow and came out the wrong direction,” Hubbell said. “The next four elements, which are pretty valuable elements, all were facing the wrong direction.”

(Video available here for NBC Sports Gold subscribers; Hubbell and Donohue skate at the 1:06:50 mark.)

Not until their fifth element, a step sequence, did the skaters get back on track. In between, there was a world of hurt, likely unnoticed by many members of the audience but readily apparent to the judges, who had seen the free dance in  practice.

“Our twizzle sequence, it’s a high-scoring element, is supposed to charge right at the judges, and today it charged away from them,” Hubbell said. “In the rotational life, there’s a large leg flare that looks very cool going the opposite direction, and today I just opened my crotch right in front of the judges.”

The score was far from disastrous; Hubbell and Donohue’s 130.88 points for their “wrong-way” free dance gave them 217.19 overall. But it was a missed opportunity to show judges, and fans, the improvements they had made to A Star Is Born since the Grand Prix Final in December.

“It was probably one of the hardest performances, and not the most enjoyable,” Hubbell said. “It was a really thoughtful focus on the elements, and somehow putting one portion of the brain aside to fix things as best we could.”

The silver medal was Hubbell and Donohue’s first. They also won bronze medals in 2012, and 2015-17.

Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, whose rhythm dance to Saturday Night Fever stole the show on Friday, felt their Flamenco-style free dance didn’t pack the same punch.

“Yesterday was such a high for us, in terms of (audience) reaction and performance, that tonight didn’t have the same euphoria when we finished,” Hawayek said. “Both Jean-Luc and I see the potential for it being much higher than what we were able to put out today.”

Despite the disappointment, the third team in the Montreal troika earned 118.57 points and won a second consecutive bronze medal with 201.16.

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NATIONALS: TV/Live Stream Schedule | Full Results

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.

Vincent Zhou’s new coaches impressed with renewed dedication

Vincent Zhou
Getty
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – When Vincent Zhou stepped off of the ice after a clean short program at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday, he must have breathed several sighs of relief.

After a stressful few months, including fights to find ice time, his studies at Brown University and a late-December coaching change and move to Toronto, the reigning world bronze medalist was back in the game.

“I mean, obviously it was not up to the level I was at when I had my success at the end of last season, but give a little time and we’ll keep building and building,” Zhou said of his short, which included a quadruple Salchow and triple Axel and earned 94.82 points, good enough for fourth place behind Nathan Chen, Jason Brown and a surprising Andrew Torgashev.

With three U.S. men’s spots available for the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal in March, Zhou is just a bit over three points out of third place. (A skater’s body of work is also considered in naming the world team.) He’s about 20 points behind Chen, but hey, a guy’s got to start someplace.

“We started officially on the ice December 23rd, and the big push had been obviously on getting his stamina up, so the emphasis is on program run-throughs,” said new coach Lee Barkell, who trains his skaters at the Toronto Granite Club.

“(There’s) that fine line about not pushing too much at the beginning, you don’t want to go full bore and get injured, etc.,” he continued. “You really have to have specific goals, and our theme has been one session at a time, to get Vincent’s confidence back in his skating.”

Lori Nichol, Zhou’s choreographer and another of his coaches in Toronto, thinks Zhou was chafing at the bit to put another quad into his short here, but caution prevailed.

“The main goal is to get him to nationals healthy physically, healthy emotionally, healthy mentally, doing the best he could for step one,” she said. “It’s so tempting, he wants to do all the other quads and we’re beginning them, but the goal is to do it when his body is really ready.”

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

The move to Toronto, where Zhou will share the ice with skaters including Japan’s Satoko Miyahara and Canada’s Gabby Daleman, was made possible by a leave of absence from Brown, which permits students to take indefinite time away.

On Saturday, Zhou said he planned to skate “school-stress free through the 2022 Olympics.” Finding adequate ice time near Brown, located in Providence, Rhode Island, proved too difficult.

“Obviously the first option was Brown’s main auditorium, which is the rink on campus, but the ice there is mostly given to hockey skaters,” Zhou said. “Also, I skated a session or two there and the ice was so thin, my toe pick hit sand on a triple Lutz. Then the hockey coaches were complaining I did permanent damage to the ice. I mean, fill the hole in with snow and cut the ice down. So that was out of the picture.”

Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson’s rink near Boston was a possibility, but traffic stretched the commute to over four hours a day, which wasn’t feasible. Other rinks were considered and rejected for one reason or another. Finally, Zhou withdrew from his Grand Prix events and focused on his classes.

“It’s best for me if I can fully dedicate myself to one at a time, so that I can produce the best result possible instead of having to split my attention and energy and focus between two things that are hugely important to me,” he said.

Nichol was a big draw to Toronto. The renowned choreographer, who has helped polish the skating skills of skaters ranging from Michelle Kwan to Patrick Chan and Carolina Kostner, can now work with Zhou regularly to strengthen his performance quality. Over the past month, she and Barkell targeted skating skills and landing positions.

“We wrote down all of the things we would love to see him improve, to be the best he can be,” Nichol said. “We just start pulling out the things that can be done now, and if he is blessed to go to worlds, we can do some next week and the next and the next, and (have the changes) be attainable and sustainable for worlds.”

According to Nichol, Zhou is an intense and willing student.

“I will say one thing about a landing position on Friday and he’ll come in the next week and say, ‘I’ve been constantly thinking about that,’” she said. “You don’t have to force anything on him, he loves learning. And we’ve created an environment where we work with him, share everything we know, and then we’re strong enough that the rest comes from him.”

Barkell added that Zhou’s years of training under coaches including Tammy Gambill and Tom Zakrajsek has built a strong technical base.

“I’m coming in more from the technique aspect and, again, the overall package,” he said. “With (Vincent) being new, too, it’s kind of a little bit of watch and see how he works independently. You don’t change stuff that doesn’t need to be fixed, you need to be find little weaknesses and tweak them.”

Thus far, Zhou gives that approach a big thumbs-up.

“I think Lee has been very, very good with understanding me as a skater and helping me build toward this competition in a way I feel comfortable with,” the skater said, adding that he didn’t think a complete do-over of his jump technique was necessary.

“Let’s say you work with one coach and you have a pile of bricks that represents the technique they’ve given to you,” Zhou said. “You’re not just going to just put that all aside, you’re going to build it, apply it in different ways. I really look forward to seeing what I can accomplish with Lee in that way.”

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MORE: Nathan Chen ‘in control of everything’ going for fourth straight national title

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.