U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

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.

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TB to the gelato from Italy🍦

A post shared by Alysa Liu (@alysaxliu) on

“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: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

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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2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

Nathan Chen, Alysa Liu
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Nathan Chen and Alysa Liu headline the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, airing live on NBC and NBCSN and streaming live for NBC Sports Gold subscribers from Thursday through Sunday.

Skaters are competing not only for national titles, but also spots on March’s world championships team.

Chen, undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics, looks to become the first man to win four straight national titles since Brian Boitano in 1988. He is a massive favorite, outranking the next-best American this season (Jason Brown) by 80 points in fall international competition.

Liu, who last year became the youngest U.S. champion in history at age 13, added a quadruple Lutz to her triple Axel this season.

She will not be old enough for major senior international competitions until the 2022 Olympic year, making Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell the favorites to comprise the team for the world team for a second straight year.

Ice dance figures to be a battle among training partners Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and Madison Chock and Evan Bates. Hubbell and Donohue won the last two national titles, but the 2015 U.S. champions Chock and Bates outscored them at December’s Grand Prix Final.

Four different pairs won the last four national titles, and all of them are in this week’s field.

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MORE: Canadian ice dancers overcome hair-raising wardrobe malfunction

Day Time (ET) Program Network
Thursday 4:30-7 p.m. Pairs’ Short NBC Sports Gold | STREAM
5-7 p.m. Pairs’ Short NBCSN | STREAM
7:30-11 p.m. Women’s Short NBC Sports Gold | STREAM
9-11 p.m. Women’s Short NBCSN | STREAM
Friday 4:30-6 p.m. Rhythm Dance NBC Sports Gold | STREAM
5-6 p.m. Rhythm Dance NBCSN | STREAM
7:25-11 p.m. Women’s Free NBC Sports Gold | STREAM
8-11 p.m. Women’s Free NBC | STREAM
Saturday 1:30-4:30 p.m. Men’s Short NBC Sports Gold | STREAM
2:30-4:30 p.m. Men’s Short NBC | STREAM
6-9 p.m. Pairs’ Free NBC Sports Gold | STREAM
8-11 p.m. Pairs’ Free/Free Dance NBCSN | STREAM
9:30-11 p.m. Free Dance NBC Sports Gold | STREAM
Sunday 2:30-6 p.m. Men’s Free NBC Sports Gold | STREAM
3-6 p.m. Men’s Free NBC | STREAM

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.