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Jason Brown reflects on nationals experience with 2022 Olympics still in play

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – For Jason Brown, coming to a national championships in Greensboro for the third time in 10 seasons meant opening a time capsule of fond memories and recalling how different his ambitions have been at each.

In 2011, Brown was 16, making his senior debut, second youngest in a field of 22. He delivered a breakthrough free skate, bringing the crowd to its feet, moving from 11th after the short program to seventh overall, leading his coach at the time, Kori Ade, to proclaim, with seeming hubris, that Brown’s goal would be to make the 2014 Olympic team.

Which, in fact, he did.

His goals going into the 2011 nationals free skate had been more modest than to begin establishing himself as an Olympic team contender. Brown simply wanted to make the 2011 U.S. team for the Junior World Championships, which he did, and get on TV, which he didn’t, much to his bemusement.

“I told all my friends I was going to be on TV because I was in one of the final two groups. But they showed just nine of the 12, and I was one of the other three,” he recalled, with a laugh, just before boarding a Thursday flight in Toronto on his way to North Carolina.

Four years later, after his 2014 Riverdance free skate had become a viral sensation and he had won an Olympic bronze in the team event, Brown returned to Greensboro aiming for the U.S. title. That changed mindset told him how far he had come.

And he won what remains his only national title, as his artistry, elegant blade flow and striking spins no longer were enough in an era when his lack of success with quadruple jumps became an insurmountable and ever-growing disadvantage against rivals landing multiple quads.

Brown’s best total score since the judging system’s calculations dramatically changed before last season is more than 70 points behind that of three-time defending U.S. champion Nathan Chen.

“I don’t look at that in any negative way,” Brown said. “Nathan is killing it, and he is so dominant I am in awe of him and respect him so much.”

The jumping side of the sport has gotten away from Brown, 25, and, with it, his chances to win again. His view of that situation is grounded in realism and, he insists, free of frustration.

Brown understands that even if Chen is out there in another galaxy, there is still a chance for him to be the best Jason Brown possible, which is a fine skater.

“It’s a competition, and you want to be atop the podium, but it’s not a disappointment when that doesn’t happen,” he said. “I’m aware I can’t push the sport in the direction they (the quadmeisters) are pushing it, so I have to push in the way I am capable of.

“My goal is just to be in the top three, to get back to worlds and help the team maintain its three spots. For me, this competition is not about being national champion as much as it is being a gateway to other events.”

The primary other event on his mind, what he calls his “biggest goal, hands down,” is the 2022 Olympics. It is why, after failing to make the 2018 Olympic team, Brown left longtime coach Ade and Colorado and moved to Canada to work with Team Orser, notably his primary coach, Tracy Wilson, on a four-year project to get him back to the Winter Games.

Both Wilson and Brian Orser have worked on changing so much of Brown’s jump technique – getting into rotation sooner, having more efficient arm positions – and even basic skating skills that his first two seasons training with them have been marked by consistent inconsistency.

“I’ve gone through a lot of change the last 18 months and with change and uncertainty comes a lack of confidence,” Brown said.

“Last season, we put the changes on pause midway through, and I kind of got my bearings. This year, they are not holding back in the amount of change being thrown at me.”

He managed to get third at last year’s nationals and go to worlds, where Brown was ninth. Chen won, and teammate Vincent Zhou took the bronze.

Wilson said the extra load this season is part of the long-term plan.

“We see what he is capable of. We know what he wants to achieve,” Wilson said. “It’s not going to come to you in your comfort zone.

“Under pressure, he has reverted to old habits. What we are looking for now is to have him keep the new technique under pressure.”

Leading up to these nationals, where the men skate the short program Saturday and the long Sunday, this season has been more of a struggle for Brown than last season.

A big piece of it undoubtedly was related to the concussion he sustained in a late August car accident in Colorado. Wilson said Brown’s training was limited for six weeks.

He withdrew from his first planned competition, Nebelhorn Trophy in late September. He was unable to do full program run-throughs until two weeks before Skate America in late October.

“After he did something in training, instead of telling him, ‘That’s good, do it again,’ we were saying, ‘Okay, how are you feeling?’” Wilson said. “That wears on you after a while.

“I feel he’s really ready for this competition. I’m curious to see how he does.”

After finishing second to Chen at Skate America, Brown was fifth at the NHK Trophy, falling twice in each program. He went on to win the Golden Spin of Zagreb for the second straight year but his skating there a month ago was so relatively desultory that his score was 21 points lower than in 2018.

“I’m trying to be patient and trying to see it as objectively as I can,” he said. “But when you’re in it, you’re wondering, `What’s happening to me? Why aren’t I as consistent? What’s going on? Why can’t I perform the way I used to?’

“I’m not the kind of skater who will get super, super (mentally) defeated. I’m always able to take a step back, regroup, refocus and move forward.

“I’ve had these glimpses as the year goes on of what could be, of how bright and shiny the future can be. That has carried me to be so positive and continuing to trust (his coaches’) judgment.”

The dark cloud on the horizon remains, as always, the quad issue.

According to skatingscores.com, Brown has attempted 16 quads in international competition and one at the U.S. Championships, including 15 toe loops and two salchows. They have resulted in eight falls, seven downgrades and seven under rotations. Three have received full rotational credit, but none of the 17 has been landed cleanly.

Brown laughed when I brought up the subject by saying, “This wouldn’t be a conversation between Phil and Jason if I didn’t ask about the quad.”

“Of course,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a conversation with anyone without it coming up.”

Brown intends to try a quad toe loop in the free skate as he did last year, when it was downgraded.

This year, at least, Brown won’t need to live through the four-day costume drama of a year ago, when he discovered while packing for nationals in Detroit that his competition costumes had been left behind in Zagreb.

He was prepared to do the short program in black pants and plain black turtleneck, but his parents worked logistical miracles to get the costumes to the arena just before he skated.

“I couldn’t put my mother through that again,” Brown said. “The costumes are in my suitcase.”

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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Bradie Tennell delivers her punch, seizes figure skating nationals lead

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Bradie Tennell punched the air when she finished her winning short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Thursday night.

For most athletes, that is a common reaction to a strong performance.

For Tennell, whose default mood is self-containment, it was an unusual outpouring of emotion.

And maybe it showed just how well she understood the way her choreographer, Frenchman Benoit Richaud, wanted her to perform a program in which her confident, sometimes sassy skating complimented the staccato, robotic music.

After all, she would be skating it in a look-at-me bright red dress.

When they first began working on the program, Richaud felt Tennell was characteristically trying to disappear into the woodwork by turning what were meant to be bold physical statements into understated movements.

“You need to make a splash,” he told her. “You need to feel like you’re the center of everyone’s attention.”

That is the last thing Tennell normally wants to be.

“It’s weird,” said Tennell, who revealed in the post-program press conference that she couldn’t bend one of her arms on Wednesday due to an infection. “I guess when I’m on the ice, that’s what I’m aiming for, but when I’m off the ice, I’m more introverted, so it’s not something I’m used to.”

Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion, commanded the judges’ attention with a flawless performance begun with a strong triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination and ended with consecutive eye-catching spins. They gave her 78.96 points, leaving her 3.56 ahead of Alysa Liu, 14, who last year became the youngest senior champion in U.S. history.

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That is almost exactly the same situation as last year, when Tennell had a 2.71-point lead over Liu going into the free skate. Mistakes by Tennell and Liu’s higher-valued jump content reversed the order in the final standings.

Tennell has spent all season getting beaten by young Russians with more formidable jump arsenals. She insists being at such a disadvantage is not frustrating.

“I don’t think about it that way,” she said. “Luckily, I don’t have to compete against them here, so it’s not really on my mind this week.”

Yet a glance at the short program scores shows just how much an impact Liu’s more difficult jumps can have.

Liu started with a technical base value 5.18 points higher than Tennell’s. Despite Liu’s weaker spins and a wonky landing on a triple Axel, which resulted in a loss of 1.94 points on grade of execution, her overall technical score was only .16 behind Tennell’s.

“I did make a few mistakes,” Liu noted.

Liu’s base advantage increases in Friday free skate, where she plans to do two triple Axels and a quadruple lutz. Those three jumps are worth 10.4 points more than Tennell’s three highest-value jumps.

Of course, Liu has to execute those things, and ice is slippery, as Mariah Bell showed in falling on footwork at the end of her strong short program.

Bell (73.22) was third, 2.18 behind Liu. Amber Glenn was a close fourth (73.16) after giving the most captivating performance of the evening, flush with speed, power and emotion.

Karen Chen, the 2017 champion returning to nationals after a 2019 season lost to injury, was a solid fifth (70.41).

Two-time champion Gracie Gold, whose comeback from depression and an eating disorder has been widely celebrated, struggled to 13th. She botched the landing of a triple lutz and got no points after singling a planned triple loop.

The top three finished in the same order as a year ago. Once again, it was Tennell’s night. It isn’t so bad being the center of attention.

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

MORE: Gracie Gold rebuilds herself to return to 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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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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TB to the gelato from Italy🍦

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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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!