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Remembering the attack on Nancy Kerrigan at the figure skating national championships 25 years ago

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“They say history repeats itself. It’s been 25 years since Detroit was the epicenter of the figure skating world.”

— From a U.S. Figure Skating promotional video for the 2019 national championships in Detroit.

Todd Sand’s first response to the question of what he remembered most about the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit is not as surprising as it seems.

“It was the year the pros were coming back,” Sand said. “That was the main chatter leading up to the season and the nationals.”

Indeed it was.

And the 1994 nationals would be the first significant place to gauge the impact of the International Skating Union’s 1992 decision to give professionals the option to be reinstated for Olympic-style events. That put 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano and 1982 world champion Elaine Zayak into the mix for the 1994 Olympic team, a competition made more cutthroat by the U.S. having earned just two spots in both men’s and women’s singles for those Winter Games in Norway.

The denouement of those comebacks figured to be the big story in Detroit.

“Yeah, right,” Zayak said, with a hearty laugh, when reminded of that scenario this week. “I really made a comeback the right year, huh?”

Zayak’s standing-ovation-worthy skating to get fourth place after seven years away from any serious competition and Boitano’s making the Olympic team with a disappointing second to Scott Davis now are among the footnotes to the most attention-getting and notorious story in the history of figure skating in the United States.

You likely remember it: The attack on Nancy Kerrigan by associates of Tonya Harding that marks its silver anniversary on Sunday.

Sports Illustrated
Nancy Kerrigan, Figure Skater, Attacked at Olympic Trials January 17, 1994 credit: Manny Millan

But after 25 years, as the national championships return to Detroit for the first time, even that story has become somewhat fuzzy ancient history to most of those who will compete there Jan. 23-27, notwithstanding its revival in the 2017 mockumentary, “I, Tonya,” which brought actress Allison Janney the 2018 Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Harding’s mother.

“I joke around that we’re going back to the scene of the crime,” Sand said.

Sand, a three-time Olympian, was 30 when he won the 1994 U.S. pairs’ title with Jenni Meno, then 23, whom he married a year later. He and Meno, who live in suburban Los Angeles, are coming back to Detroit for nationals as coaches of two senior pairs, including reigning U.S. champions and 2018 Olympian team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim.

“I’ll think about it, for sure,” Sand said. “But it’s pretty far in the past for everyone except our generation and older. The skaters now don’t know what you’re talking about, really.”

So, with a little help from Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine (that’s a Rocky & Bullwinkle reference, young’uns), let’s revisit an episode that would have fit right into one of the TV cartoon show’s segments of “Peabody’s Improbable History.”

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Thursday, January 6, 1994 was a gray winter’s day in Detroit, with the temperature hovering in the mid-20s and a brisk wind. It was the second day of senior competition at the 1994 nationals, with the pairs’ short program (then called the technical program) starting at 2:20 p.m. and the men’s free skate at 6:45 p.m., both in venerable Joe Louis Arena on the city’s riverfront. The women’s singles event would begin Friday afternoon at 3:35.

Nearly all the several dozen media covering nationals, me included, were in Joe Louis Arena for the pairs’ competition. Twenty-five minutes before the pairs began, the women’s singles practice group C, whose six skaters included reigning U.S. champion Kerrigan and a 13-year-old prodigy named Michelle Kwan, took the ice for a 50-minute practice session one-half mile away at Cobo Arena. It was one of three women’s practice groups.

Dana Scarton, then a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, went to the practice to interview skaters and coaches for a feature story. As the group C practice ended at 2:40 p.m., Scarton moved into the hallway skaters entered after coming off the ice and going through a split blue curtain. Security was lax in those pre-9/11 days, allowing media and other credentialed personnel access to nearly all backstage areas but dressing rooms, even though tennis star Monica Seles had been stabbed by a fan of a rival eight months earlier at a tournament in Germany.

“Skating was really innocent back then,” Sand said. “That helped make what happened even more surreal.”

Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding
This Jan. 12, 1992 file photo shows Tonya Harding, left, and Nancy Kerrigan at the 1992 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Orlando, Fla. AP Photo/Phil Sandlin, File

Scarton, whose story in the Jan. 7, 1994 Post-Gazette is the best eyewitness account of what happened, wrote that she introduced herself to Kerrigan and asked for a brief interview as the skater passed through the blue curtain. Before Kerrigan could answer, Scarton reported, a large man charged the skater from behind, crouched near her and swung “something that looked like a crowbar,” then swung it again, hitting Kerrigan in the legs both times. The attacker fled, not only from the arena but the city, leading to several wildly inaccurate suspicions about his identity over the next several days.

The immediate aftermath, with Kerrigan sitting on the hallway floor screaming in pain and crying, “Why? Why? Why?” was captured by cameras from a Chicago-based sports and entertainment company, Intersport, in a clip that would be widely re-used for years to come. The Intersport crew had been following Kerrigan to get footage for a TV special.

Kwan, the youngest skater at the 1994 nationals, came off the ice at that practice just after Kerrigan.

“I didn’t see her being hit,” Kwan said in a text message this week. “I heard her crying and screaming, which was scary.”

At 28, Zayak was four and a half years older than anyone else in the women’s event (Kerrigan, 24, was next oldest). A decade had passed since her last “amateur,” or OIympic-style, competition, a sixth place at the 1984 Olympics and a third at the 1984 world championships.

Zayak said this week she had decided to return to the sport because the erratic skating she saw from Kerrigan and Harding at 1993 nationals made her think, “Is this really all we have for the Olympics?”

As an amateur, she was, like Harding, famed for her jumping, which included Zayak’s unprecedented six triple jumps at the 1982 worlds. Because four were the same jump, a triple toe loop, the ISU soon passed the “Zayak Rule,” limiting triple jump repetitions to one of each type, and one of those repeated triples needed to be in a jump combination.

Zayak, in the Jan. 6 afternoon practice group after Kerrigan’s, said she was going into a dressing room when she saw the chaos and heard Kerrigan screaming. “There was too much screaming for it to be just from a fall,” Zayak recalled. Then she found out Kerrigan had been hit and heard others say, “We think it has to do with Tonya.”

“I was like, ‘What, you’re saying Tonya hit somebody?’” she said. “I was scared and a nervous wreck. I didn’t want to go out on the ice. I just fooled around out there. It was hard to concentrate. I was thinking there might be somebody trying to get me out of the competition, too.”

In the middle of the pairs’ competition, someone came running into the press area at Joe Louis Arena with news of the attack. As we all headed immediately for the press room to begin reporting that story, which would consume most of our lives for the next three months, Mark McDonald of the Dallas Morning News joked, “Where was Tonya?”

Boitano, resting before the men’s free skate that night, said his reaction upon learning Kerrigan had been attacked was the same as McDonald’s. The rough-edged Harding already had earned a reputation for unusual behavior – an asthmatic who smoked, a skater prone to equipment malfunctions and a chip on her shoulder against the sport’s establishment.

“We found out right after we skated the technical program,” Sand said. “We couldn’t understand what was happening or why. The thought it could happen to anyone passed through our minds. We were very focused on what we were doing and pretty confident things would be locked down after that. But you were more aware of your surroundings when you were just walking around.”

Tonya Harding in action for the U.S. during the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Credit: Rick Stewart/ALLSPORT

Harding, in the practice group after Zayak’s, later said she was still in her hotel room when the attack occurred. But the jokesters were onto something, no matter that Harding would steadfastly and implausibly maintain she learned of who was involved and the plans for it only after it happened.

Over the next few days, Zayak found herself on the same shuttle bus to the rink as Harding.

“She talked like she didn’t have a care in the world,” Zayak said. “All she talked about was the inhaler she was using.”

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At 26, pair skater Jason Dungjen was excited about competing at the 1994 nationals because they were taking place in his hometown for the first time in the event’s then 80-year history. Dungjen, now a coach at the Detroit Skating Club, grew up 20 miles north in suburban Troy, Mich., and he spent many days watching the NHL Red Wings play at Joe Louis Arena.

“Now I was going to be out on that ice trying to make the Olympics,” he said.

Dungjen and partner Kyoko Ina of New York were 13th of 16 in the starting order for the pairs’ technical program. They had yet to skate when he heard about the attack.

“People started running around and yelling about someone who had been hit on the knee,” Dungjen recalled. “I wasn’t sure what was going on but I thought, ‘OK, I feel bad for whoever it was, but I’ve got to focus.’

“Once you step on the ice, everything hopefully goes away, which, thank God, it did. It became a massive distraction after that.”

Dungjen and Ina would finish second in both the short program and the free skate two days later to make the Olympic team. They finished ninth in the 1994 Winter Games and fourth four years later in Japan. Meno and Sand were fifth in 1994 and eighth in 1998.

Veterans like Boitano, then 30, and Zayak were experienced enough not to be rattled by the unsettling circumstances.

“All the medals and titles I had won outdid most of the girls that were there,” Zayak said. “I had been to the Olympics and five world championships. I could handle myself. I expected to skate great.”

When Zayak went into her hotel lobby a day after the attack, she saw a media swarm that included a reporter from the National Enquirer. Figure skating, perceived as the most genteel of sports, had hit the supermarket tabloids and, even in an era before social media, went viral on national TV and print news outlets for the next two months. One revelation after another about Harding and her associates ultimately turned the story into something even a B movie screenwriter would have rejected as too bizarre and too improbable – even for Mr. Peabody.

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Kerrigan withdrew from nationals soon after the attack because the damage to her knee, while fortunately not serious in the long term, would not allow her to skate in Detroit. U.S. Figure Skating officials, unaware of their own rules, first said the withdrawal would keep her out of the Olympics, only to learn shamefacedly that was not necessarily true from Newsweek writer Mark Starr, who found a rulebook and noted it allowed Olympic selection of athletes who had not competed at nationals.

Harding won the event, with Kwan second and Nicole Bobek third. Harding and Kerrigan were named to the team, provided Kerrigan could show fitness. Kwan became the first alternate.

Elaine Zayak, Nicole Bobek, Tonya Harding, and Michelle Kwan on the podium in 1994. Courtesy Elaine Zayak

Uncertainty over Kerrigan’s condition meant U.S. Figure Skating sent Kwan to Norway to train in case she was needed as an 11th-hour substitute. It was the first time U.S. Figure Skating sent an alternate to the Olympic site in advance of the competition.

Kwan’s 1993-94 U.S. Figure Skating media guide bio said, “…she lists Tonya Harding as having had a major impact on her career,” a connection that drew on Kwan’s being known as a jumping jack at that point in a career when artistry eventually became her calling card. Ironically, even after Kerrigan’s fitness was clear, Kwan nearly wound up replacing Harding.

“I didn’t know many details but was prepared just in case I was told that I was on the team last minute,” Kwan recalled in the text message.

Four days after nationals ended, the Portland Oregonian reported the FBI was investigating allegations that Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, were involved in the attack. Over the next several weeks, the likelihood increased that Harding herself was aware of – and had not objected to – a plan to attack Kerrigan, the 1992 Olympic bronze medalist whose on-ice elegance made her a Madison Avenue darling.

The motive was money: without Kerrigan in the competition, Harding, who was fourth at the 1992 Winter Games, and the gang who couldn’t whack straight stood a better chance to reap rewards that would accompany an Olympic medal.

“When it comes right down to it, I see those little dollar signs in my head,” Harding had said before the 1994 nationals. “Nancy has already seen some of that.”

Harding’s lawyers threatened a $25 million lawsuit if USFS and the U.S. Olympic Committee barred her from skating in Norway. Utterly overmatched by Harding’s legal team, the USOC agreed to keep her on the team if the suit was dropped. Early in the morning after the Feb. 12 Opening Ceremony, the USOC held a press conference to announce Harding could compete. The media circus had just moved into a fourth ring.

Tonya Harding during her first press conference at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. Credit: Phil Cole/ALLSPORT

Kerrigan recovered well enough to win the Olympic silver medal behind Oksana Baiul of Ukraine. Harding finished eighth, famously delaying the free skate with a broken skate lace. Boitano had a disastrous Olympic technical program and wound up sixth.

“At the time, it bothered me that this dark cloud overshadowed everything else about nationals,” Boitano said. “I had done photo shoots for the cover of TV Guide and Newsweek, and both were taken over by the attack.

“I didn’t think at first it helped the sport a lot, and it hadn’t even become the hype it would at the Olympics, where it was all Tonya and Nancy, all the time. I could have gotten straight 6.0s (perfect scores under the old system) in the Olympics, and people would have asked, ‘Well, what are Tonya and Nancy doing?’

“In retrospect, it was good for most of us. It catapulted skating to another level of interest, one that it will never get back to. I was able to work at a high level for many more years to come.”

Or, as Dungjen said when asked about the edgy message about history repeating itself in the USFS promotion for 2019, “At this point, any press is good press.”

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Tonya Harding’s autographed, broken Olympic lace. Courtesy Phil Hersh

Tonya Harding pleaded guilty March 16, 1994 to conspiracy to hinder prosecution and was sentenced to three years’ probation, a $100,000 fine and 500 hours community service.

Three months later, U.S. Figure Skating stripped her of the 1994 national title and banned her from participating or coaching in USFS-sanctioned events. The USFS media guide says “Vacant*” in the box for the 1994 women’s champion. The asterisk is explained at the end of the list of annual champions.

The senior events at this year’s nationals will take place at Little Caesars Arena, about one mile from where Joe Louis Arena stood. “The Joe,” site of the Skate America Grand Prix event in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2013, is scheduled for demolition. Cobo Arena now is used as exposition space in the Cobo Center, a meeting and convention facility.

“Even without the same arenas, I think there will, of course, still be memories for anybody who was there in 1994,” Dungjen said. “It will be in the back of your mind.”

At this year’s nationals, Dungjen will be coaching lower-level skaters whose events take place at the Detroit Skating Club in suburban Bloomfield Hills. Boitano is coming for the USFS athlete alumni event.

Zayak, who lives and coaches in northern New Jersey, will not attend. She has been back to the Detroit area just once, for her 2013 induction into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.

As her 16-year-old son, Jack, has become more involved in sports, Zayak has reduced her coaching to three days a week, working with local rather than national-level skaters. She has come to terms with the idea that her heralded 1994 comeback was swallowed up by what the mockumentary scriptwriter called, “THE INCIDENT.”

“I don’t think anyone outside the world of figure skating would remember I was part of that nationals,” she said. “Even my son asked me, ‘You were there, mommy?’

“The first thing that comes to my mind about it was I got two standing ovations. Even with all that craziness, it’s a memory I will never forget. I couldn’t have asked for a better year to come back.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating. Look on this site for his stories at the 2019 U.S. Championships.

MORE: 13-year-old skating prodigy set to make her senior national debut in 2019

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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Skating prodigy Alysa Liu, a senior national competitor at 13, is using the present to avoid future shock

U.S. Figure Skating/Jay Adeff
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The idea was to show Alysa Liu what her future might look like and for her to get comfortable seeing herself in that picture.

So Samuel Auxier, U.S. Figure Skating’s international committee chair, arranged for Liu and her coach, Laura Lipetsky, to attend the junior and senior Grand Prix Final competitions earlier this month in Vancouver.

“Having judged and watched the Junior Grand Prixes, it was clear our skaters competing their first time in them were often very intimidated by the Russian and Japanese ladies,” Auxier said.

He soon realized that Liu isn’t intimidated by much.

“At first, she was amazed by the Russian ladies, but then (she) wanted to get out there and show them her triple Axels,” Auxier said.

That’s right, triple Axels.

The triple Axels Liu, 13, plans to show in the senior competition at next month’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit.

The jumps that make 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski think Liu is good enough to take the senior national title three seasons before she will be age eligible for senior international events.

Lipinski, who will be commentating at nationals for NBC, knows whereof she speaks on the subject of precocious success. She is the youngest Olympic champion in history (age 15) and the youngest world champion in history (14), and she finished 15th in the senior world championships at 13 (age eligibility rules then were different.)

“If Alysa does all her elements, she has a very real chance to win the event,” Lipinski said. “I think we will definitely see her on the podium unless something goes terribly wrong.”

The idea of standing not just on the senior national podium but on the top step is among the goals that motivate Liu as she trains at the Oakland, Calif. Ice Center. That objective is born not out of excessive self-confidence but out of relentless competitiveness and desire to excel in this effusive, engaging young lady from Richmond, Calif.

“I hope to win, obviously,” Liu said. “I’d never go into a competition hoping I medal. I always strive for first, even if it’s not possible.”

Liu already has defied probability at a speed that makes anything seem possible right now.

In 2016, at age 10, she became the youngest intermediate U.S. champion in history. Last year, at 12, a six-clean-triple-jump free skate (with two triple-triple combinations) made her junior national champion in a 12-skater field where she was the youngest by nearly 15 months.

This year, Liu will be the only one of 22 senior women’s entrants at nationals under 15 years old. Defending champion Bradie Tennell turns 21 a week after nationals, and the leading title contender, Mariah Bell, is 22.

Even Liu is a bit surprised by how fast this has happened.

“Sometimes I’m overwhelmed,” Liu said. “I’m like, ‘Omigod, I have a triple Axel, and not a lot of people in the world have it.’ Then I tell myself, ‘Don’t think you’re the best in the world. You’re not the best yet.’”

Comparing scores – especially comparing international and national scores, since the latter usually are more generous – can be a fool’s errand. But the total, short program and free skate numbers Liu racked up while qualifying for nationals by winning November’s Pacific Coast Sectional event are higher than the best scores of any U.S. woman this season at any event above club level.

The numbers themselves mean less than how she got them. Her short program at sectionals included a clean triple Axel and a clean triple Lutz-triple toe combination. Her free skate there had a clean triple Axel-double toe combination and two clean triple-triple combinations.

And, just for the fun of it in practice last April, she tossed off a triple Axel-triple toe-triple toe-double toe combination.

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3 axel + 3 toe + 3 toe + 2 toe

A post shared by Alysa Liu (@alysaxliu) on

It is such advanced technical ability that explains the decision to have Liu move up to the senior level nationally this season, even given her being too young for even junior competition internationally until next season. (Her 13th birthday was Aug. 8, five weeks past the July 1 cutoff.)

“After I won (the junior national title), I didn’t want to stay in juniors two years,” Liu said. “I want to get the experience of competing against the best seniors.”

That logic also helps explain why four of the five Russians who qualified for this season’s Junior Grand Prix Final are scheduled to compete in seniors at the Russian Championships this week. The Russians began letting juniors compete with the seniors as part of what became a stunningly successful rebuild of their women’s skating program leading to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

For example: Elizaveta Tuktamysheva was barely 12 when she finished eighth as a senior at Russian nationals in 2010. Tuktamysheva, 22, has gone on to win the 2015 World title and the bronze medal in the senior Grand Prix Final last month. And Yevgenia Medvedeva, eventually a two-time world champion and 2018 Olympic silver medalist, was 12 when she finished eighth in her first senior nationals.

Athletes whom the legendary Dick Button famously called “baby ballerinas” competed as seniors in the U.S. Championships in the 1990s. They included Lipinski, 2002 Olympic champion Sarah Hughes and Michelle Kwan, all 13 or younger in their senior debuts.

Kwan was 12 when she finished sixth at her first senior nationals in 1993. At the time, Kwan said, innocently, of competitors Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, “It’s kind of fun skating with the older people. They’ve been around for a couple hundred years. I’m just starting to rise.” Kerrigan then was 23, Harding 22.

Kwan, whom Liu cites along with 2010 Olympic champion Yuna Kim of South Korea as her favorite skaters, rose to the sport’s stratosphere. She became a two-time Olympic medalist, five-time world champion and nine-time national champion.

Yet the step up to seniors is a challenge, no matter how gifted the young athlete.

“It’s always a little intimidating turning senior and skating senior nationals for the first time,” Lipinski said. “There isn’t pressure at the junior level. You competed all the time there, and nerves didn’t get to you, so you became almost oblivious to pressure.

“I do remember feeling so nervous and jittery at my first seniors [she was bronze medalist at age 13]. I definitely needed that year, needed to go to worlds and mess up [23rd after the short program; only 24 made the free skate] to learn about dealing with the nerves from competing on the top international level. Skating is about talent, but it’s also about timing. That was on my side.”

Liu’s timing is more complicated because of rules changes about minimum international competition ages that became effective over the last 15 years.

Alysa Liu as a junior skater at the 2018 U.S. National Championships. Credit: U.S. Figure Skating/Jay Adeff

The 2022 Olympic season would be Liu’s first as a senior internationally (the senior age minimum is 15 by July 1 preceding the season). In her lone international competition this season, the Asian Open last August in Bangkok, Liu had to compete in the advanced novice division, which she won – but in which the program length and number of elements performed are fewer than in seniors.

“It is a little frustrating to wait,” Liu said. “But then again, I need more practice before I can be against the best.”

Russia’s Alina Zagitova was able to go from world junior champion to 2018 Olympic champion in just one year.

“But that’s really rare,” Lipinski said. It had, indeed, never happened before.

“I try to look at the international situation as a positive,” Lipetsky said. “Alysa has time to get stronger and stronger and stronger and have the tools so we can compete for first place.”

Such discussions about the Olympics are, of course, a bit premature in Liu’s case. But they are behind why Lipetsky wanted her to gain senior experience as soon as possible. It is also why she has begun working on quadruple jumps, as several of the Russian juniors are doing.

The timetable and the plan changed when Liu won last season’s U.S. junior title a year after finishing just fourth in novice.

“Winning juniors showed her it’s possible to be the best,” Lipetsky said. “It was a step towards the ultimate goal of trying to be national champion and world champion and win the Olympics. It’s a step-by-step process.”

The first step came when her father, Arthur, brought 5-year-old Alysa one weekend to the Oakland Ice Center, where Lipetsky teaches.

A journey of one thousand miles had begun.

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Arthur Liu’s narration of how they got to that point describes a journey that was much longer and more unusual.

He was born 54 years ago in Mingxing, a mountain village of 200 inhabitants in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province, as one of six siblings of a father who had a government job and a mother who farmed. He said the village did not have electricity during his childhood there.

He had the good fortune to reach high school age just after the end of the brutalizing Cultural Revolution, in which intellectual development was not only scorned but often punished. From test results, Arthur Liu would win a place in a boarding school in Chongqing, now a city of eight million.

He got bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Chinese universities and left China at age 25 for California, where he went on to an MBA at Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), a law degree at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and a career as a legal general practitioner. He also is a single father of five children ranging in age from Alysa to 9-year-old triplets. They were born to two surrogate mothers through anonymous egg donors.

Liu told Alysa about the circumstances of her birth about five years ago, when she asked, “Why do I look different?  Why don’t I look Chinese?” She had met the woman who bore her before knowing of the link between them. They have visited each other since.

“Alysa and a friend had almost figured it out on their own,” Arthur Liu said. “So she wasn’t surprised when I told her.”

His mother, Shu, spent some eight years in California helping him raise the five young children, returning to China two years ago. Since then, a friend has taken over some of those parenting duties, which became a logistical high-wire act as Alysa began to spend more and more time at the rink.

The first skating trip had led immediately to group lessons with Lipetsky that ended with a skills test. The coach told Arthur Liu his daughter had done well and asked if they wanted to try private lessons.

“You could see how eager she was to learn and the love she had for skating,” Lipetsky said. “Over time, I saw she could be good. She wanted to learn, and I wanted to guide.”

For the first few years, that meant getting up at 4:30 a.m. at their home in suburban Oakland so she could do skating lessons and regular school. By the time she was 10, that arrangement became untenable because of missing so much school time while traveling to competitions, so Arthur Liu decided to have Alysa home schooled via Connections Academy courses.

Now she wakes at 6:45. Before he goes to work, her father takes the four younger children to school, then drops Alysa at the rink for the first of what can be three training sessions spaced over eight hours during the week. She does homework between sessions, usually eats dinner in the car on her way home with her dad and is asleep by 8:30. (A friend picks up the other children at school, feeds them and gets them ready for bed.) She skates for an hour on Saturday and Sunday.

Lipetsky, a married mother of two, has been coaching some 20 years. At 15, the coach finished ninth in the 1995 U.S. Championships. Injuries derailed her competitive career, and she went on to get a degree from the University of California.

Liu is Lipetsky’s first student to qualify for nationals. It is not surprising that some in the skating community have questioned the idea of Liu staying with such a little-known coach. Lipetsky has heard the questions but is not concerned.

“Alysa is a very smart girl, and she knows what works for her,” Lipetsky said. “She understands me very well, and she and her dad have trust in me. I know when to give her easy days and when to push her. It has been proven in the results.”

The eligibility peculiarities created by Alysa’s August birthday have given the coach more time to have her try more difficult elements. With no major competition open to her after last year’s nationals, they began perfecting the three-and-a-half-revolution triple Axel, which no other top U.S. skater is likely to do at nationals.

Only three U.S. women – Harding, Kimmie Meissner and Mirai Nagasu – had been credited with landing one in competition before Liu hit the jump in the Asian Open, making her the youngest in the world ever to land it in an international event. She now is doing one in the short program and two in the free skate, with a success rate of about 50 percent clean in her competitions this season.

“I had a ‘wow’ feeling for a little while after she began landing them consistently in practice,” Lipetsky said. “Then I felt it was just part of getting all the tools to put into the bag. It was just another tool for us to have.”

The same is true of quadruple jumps. Liu tried two quad Lutzes in the free skate at this season’s regionals, singling the first and falling after under-rotating the second. The quads then were set aside until after nationals, when, once again, she will have time to practice them.

“They wanted to experiment at regionals,” Arthur Liu said. “Sectionals, we wanted clean programs going to nationals. So no quads.”

That Alena Kostornaia of Russia just won the Junior Grand Prix Final without a quad, while two of her countrywomen badly botched attempts at them, does not dissuade either Lipetsky or Liu from wanting to master them.

“You can’t get stuck in a mindset of, ‘We won’t need quads,’” Lipetsky said. “You always want to push the envelope and challenge yourself. If you stand still, someone else will come out there and do more than you.”

Alysa Liu as a junior skater at the 2018 U.S. National Championships. Credit: U.S. Figure Skating/Jay Adeff

Liu’s immaturity as a performer notwithstanding, the triple Axels – and her triple-triple combinations – already can give her a substantial advantage at the U.S. Championships.

“But you don’t know how someone will react to the pressure of being on the senior level and knowing her technical score is what is going to give her that gold,” Lipinski said. “She has to hit those jumps.”

No matter what happens, when someone asks Liu what comes next, she will be able to say, “I’m going to Disneyland.”

That has become a post-nationals ritual for the Liu and Lipetsky families the last few years.

“It’s sooooo much fun,” Liu said, the emphasis in her voice making her sounding every bit the kid she still is.

There’s no need to rush to the future.

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

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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James and Cipres may be on the verge of a swan song, but first must conquer the Grand Prix Final

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Before they retire from competitive figure skating, French pairs team Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres should skate a program either to “The Long and Winding Road” or to “Truckin,” which includes the famous phrase, “what a long, strange trip it’s been.”

Or maybe one program to each. After all, the Beatles’ song title and the words in the Grateful Dead song cover a big part of their story, both individually and together.

Their lives’ itineraries have encompassed significant stops in Scarborough, Ont.; Bermuda; Great Britain; Melun, France; Paris; Moscow; Coral Gables and Wesley, Chapel, Fla. And that doesn’t count all the places where they have competed, a list expanded this week to include their first joint competitive visit to Vancouver, B.C., one of the most significant stops in nine seasons as a team on the ice.

James, 31, and Cipres, 27, made it to Vancouver by qualifying for the Grand Prix Final for the first time by winning both their Grand Prix “regular season” events. Those were their first victories in 14 appearances on the annual circuit.

Not only that, but they also are likely to win just the second medal by a French pair in the final, which takes place Friday and Saturday. And it would be no surprise if they topped the silver earned by compatriots Sarah Abitbol and Stephane Bernadis in the 2000 Grand Prix Final.

And, in a season of significant transition on the global pairs scene, a world title seems within the grasp of this team whose world bronze last season was their first medal at a global championship in two Olympics and seven world championships together.

“Of course, the top at worlds is our goal,” James said.

And if they reach the pinnacle of the podium, it could be their final competitive step.

“If we get the world championship this season, I think it will be the end,” Cipres said. “I don’t see a reason to keep going. The (next) Olympic Games are far from now.”

Of course, it was just three seasons ago that James and Cipres already had been on the verge of quitting, not because they had achieved their goals but because they had become frustrated by not getting closer to them. Since then, they have moved from barely in the top 10 to consistent medal contenders.

“I think they have no idea what to expect beyond what is in front of their faces, which is good for them right now,” said three-time U.S. pairs champion John Zimmerman, who coaches James and Cipres with his wife, Silvia Fontana, in Florida.

“They are a team that could have some success and feel more hungry by it. But there could be a point where they’ve run their course. I think they still have a lot more to offer. Silvia and I hope they stay three more years.”

Ah, but we’ve gone down the road too fast. Time to retrace steps and see how it led James and Cipres here.

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Vanessa James and her twin sister, Melyssa, were born in Ontario to a Canadian mother, June, now a real estate agent, and a Bermudan father, Kevin, who now works in IT security for the Washington, D.C., airports. The family soon moved to Bermuda, where they lived until the girls were 9, when they relocated to North Carolina to help care for an ailing grandparent. The three generations then moved together to the Virginia suburbs of Washington.

It was in Virginia the sisters began skating. Melyssa, more passionate about the sport at first, went on to represent Great Britain as an ice dancer, skated in ice shows, coached on the East Coast and now is studying in Grenada to be a dermatologist. Vanessa started in singles, competing in U.S. events as a novice and junior, then switching to Great Britain (she had British citizenship as a Bermudan and would become a French citizen in 2009.) She won the 2006 British senior singles title and finished 27th at the 2007 World Junior Championships.

Later in 2007, Vanessa James turned to pairs, first with British skater Hamish Gaman, then with Frenchman Yannick Bonheur, whom she had found on the web site, icepartnersearch.com. By 2010, James and Bonheur won the French title and went to the Olympics, finishing 14th. They split after finishing 12th at the 2010 Worlds.

“We weren’t progressing, and we weren’t able to work well together anymore,” she said.

Cipres, meanwhile, was growing up in the Paris suburb of Melun, the son of an elementary schoolteacher mother, Beatrice. He first tried skating at age 5 and eventually began competing in singles, getting 13th at the 2010 World Junior Championships. At that point, he was encouraged to try pairs and, knowing James was looking for a new partner, he contacted her via Facebook, leading to a tryout showing potential that soon began being realized – to a degree.

In a country with fewer than a half-dozen senior pairs – this year, only three are entered for next week’s national championships – it took James and Cipres just two seasons together to win the first of five French titles. Moving up globally was more difficult, especially in an era when the quality of the top 16 teams in the world has consistently improved.

After the 2014 season, when they finished 10th at both the Olympics and Worlds, James and Cipres thought they could benefit, especially on technique for their twist, by working with a Russian coach, Stanislav Morozov, in Russia, which has dominated world pairs skating for most of the last six decades. They also hoped training with other elite pairs in Moscow would help raise their level.

“The point was to go to a great technician in pairs and work with some of the best, because you become your surroundings,” she said.

That experiment ended quickly. It became clear to James that Russian skating officials were disinclined to help a team they saw as a possible threat, especially at a time when Russian pairs were in relative decline.

“We ended up with very short, very early training times, and we were skating with babies, which was dangerous,” she said. “Stanislav was great with us, but it was out of his control. And our twist did get better.”

Within four months, they were back in France, training with Cipres’ former singles coach, Claude Peri-Thevenard. They were all trying to teach themselves – and each other – the refinements needed to be more than workmanlike pairs skaters. James and Cipres had become a couple off the ice – a part of their relationship that would end five years ago – but remained strangers on it.

“We still skated like two singles skaters next to each other,” she said. “We weren’t a real team, and we didn’t have proper technique.”

Their results, ninth and 10th at Worlds in 2015 and 2016, showed stagnation. They were spending time and money and beating up their bodies with little to show for it.

“Morgan and I hit a point where we said, ‘Either we improve, or we stop,’” she said. “There was no point in anything else.”

So, they began looking for a dramatic change – new coach, new environment. That led them to Florida.

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John Zimmerman, now a 45-year-old father of three with Fontana, his wife of 15 years, was part of the last U.S. pairs team to win a world medal. He and Kyoko Ina took the bronze in 2002 after having had a strong fifth-place finish with an excellent free skate at the 2002 Winter Games. After several years performing in shows and TV specials, he began coaching in 2009.

From having watched videos, James and Cipres saw Zimmerman and Ina looked like them in many ways, from style (athletic and innovative, not classically balletic like the great Russian pairs) to size (Cipres and Zimmerman are both 6-feet tall; James is 5-2, Ina, 5-0.)

“That was the only thing they had to go on, because we didn’t know each other,” Zimmerman said.

James and Cipres did not even know where Zimmerman was coaching (at that point, it was Coral Springs, near Fort Lauderdale.) Contacts were made in the summer of 2016 through mutual acquaintances. A key factor in the French team’s decision was Zimmerman’s being able to make them his primary focus, since he had no other senior pair at the time.

“I was a little nervous, since it’s always hard to take on an established, adult team,” Zimmerman said. “It’s easy in one way, because they already know what they want, but at the same time, they already know what they want.

“I told them, ‘If you’re going to come, you have to be willing to make changes. If not, let’s save ourselves the time and trouble.’”

Zimmerman realized immediately the problem wasn’t work ethic but rather the value of the hard work James and Cipres were doing and some issues in their working relationship. He felt they needed more dedication to what he called “the craft of their skating.”

“It’s technique, like the quality of their crossovers, and maturity in realizing the look you are trying to capture isn’t just facial expressions,” Zimmerman said. “It’s the quality of the relationship with each other, the one-ness that a team together for a long time has, a one-ness about furthering their development.

“Two weeks before Skate America (in 2016, their first Grand Prix event under Zimmerman’s tutelage), I could see their impatience with each other in wanting to be already amazing. That led them to boiling points that needed to be addressed and to going back to old habits as pressure mounted.

“What stopped them before wasn’t their abilities. It was their inability to cope and work with each other. It’s a skill to survive a relationship like this.”

Their progress became inexorable. They fell three times in the free skate of that 2016 Skate America. They won a bronze medal in their second Grand Prix of that season, beginning a streak of five straight Grand Prix event medals. They won their first European Championships medal in 2017 (bronze). Rebounding from her shoulder dislocation that kept them out of last season’s French Championships, they finished fifth at the 2018 Winter Games among one of the strongest Olympic pairs fields in history, a group that showed mastery of the most difficult elements ever done.

They moved with Zimmerman 18 months ago when he shifted his training base to a rink in Wesley Chapel, 20 miles north of Tampa. They love life in Florida, as evidenced by James’ Instagram posts from the beach. They are proud of keeping their skating relationship alive after the romantic one ended.

“Good weather changes your mood,” she said. “We’re lucky we have a great dynamic – indoors, outdoors and with each other.”

Her current boyfriend, former French national team judo athlete Jordan Amoros, has a judo academy in Miami. Cipres said merely, “I’m okay, I’m okay” when asked if he had a significant other.

None of the three 2018 Olympic medalist pairs has competed this season (one has retired; another is taking an indefinite break; the third is recovering from an injury), opening the way for James and Cipres to move to the top of the world. Even knowing that was not enough for them to move unhesitatingly forward into this season.

“We finally just decided to keep going because we didn’t reach our best level,” Cipres said. “It’s good for us to just do it year-by-year.”

Watching Germany’s Aljona Savchenko win her first Olympic pairs title (with Bruno Massot) at age 34 last winter has shown James that age should not be a limit on her career. Sort of.

“I don’t think Aljona is human,” James said, laughing. “She is a very strong woman, mentally and physically. I need to stay healthy mentally and physically to continue this.”

Savchenko and Massot remain on Zimmerman’s mind as a standard to which James and Cipres should aspire.

“Our job is to try to improve whether the other people are out there or not,” Zimmerman said. “We don’t want to be just the de facto best team. We want to be a reputable team against anybody in its own right.”

So they have taken on artistic challenges this season, eschewing the old warhorses of pairs music and choreography in favor of more recent music and innovative programs choreographed by two of the finest ice dancers in history.

“Dancers are the best at partnering,” she said.

Guillaume Cizeron of France, the still-competing three-time world champion and 2018 Olympic silver medalist with Gabriella Papadakis, did the short program to an Alanis Morissette version of “Uninvited.” Charlie White of the United States, 2014 Olympic champion and two-time world champion with Meryl Davis, did the free skate to music by Chris Isaak (“Wicked Game”) and Maxime Rodriguez (“The Last Feeling.”)

“Having watched their ascent over the years, I believe they would be succeeding at this time, regardless of the specifics of the choreography or even music,” White said

It is the execution of subtle things, like transitions and body positions, especially in lifts, that stand out more than the big tricks (throws, twists and jumps) in these programs. In fact, they have stopped doing a throw quad salchow, partly because their success rate on that element was very low and partly because it is worth 20 percent less (8.2 to 6.5) in the revised code of values this season.

They begin the short program lift with James’ left leg stretched upward so her ankle is on Cipres’ left shoulder. Cipres picks her up from there and, 10 seconds later, tips her upside down before the exit from the lift.

In the free skate, the signature move comes after the opening triple twist, when Cipres does a spread eagle while drawing her gracefully to him by pulling her leg into a camel spin 90-degree position. James accentuates the line his feet and her legs make by placing her arms parallel to the ice.

“One of the best pair programs I’ve ever seen,” said Eurosport commentator Simon Reed after their free skate performance at Skate Canada.

“I think they have always been good, have the skills, but (they) seemed to fall at the final hurdle,” said Chris Howarth, a 1980 British Olympian singles skater who also is a Eurosport Commentator. “This year, they really seem to believe in themselves. They are skating as if they believe they are champions.”

The Grand Prix Final will be the first meeting this season between James and Cipres and their current main rivals, reigning world silver medalists Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov of Russia. The Russians also won two Grand Prix events after a badly flawed free skate (four errors) at their season debut in a Challenger Series event. Both teams have won all three of their competitions this season.

But James and Cipres have received negative grades of execution on just four of the 54 elements in their six programs this season (to nine negatives for the Russians.) The French team’s only serious blips came in a third-place short program at the French Grand Prix two weeks ago, when she doubled a planned side-by-side triple jump, and they had a wonky throw. They rallied with a strong free skate.

“That was a very important moment,” Zimmerman said. “Sometimes you are thinking, ‘OK, I’ve got this competition,’ and then something happens, and you get freaked out, and you don’t know if you will bounce back. This was just a little bit of a hiccup.”

Or just one of the inevitable bumps on a long and winding road.

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

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.

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