A year ago, Alysa Liu became the youngest US women’s figure skating champion in history at the age of 13. At 4’ 7”, she was so short she needed a helping hand from the two women she defeated to reach the top spot on the medal podium.
Last month, Alysa became the youngest two-time US women’s skating champion at the age of 14. She may have grown to 4’ 10”, but she is still too short to get on the podium, and again needed a hand from the same two women she defeated to reach the top spot.
“We can help you up again,” runner-up Mariah Bell kindly offered as Alysa approached.
Bell is nine years older than Alysa. Third-place finisher Bradie Tennell, the 2018 national champion, is seven years older. They have this down by now. With big smiles and a delighted laugh from the audience, each woman extended a hand and pulled Alysa up to her rightful place – the very top of US women’s skating.
“We recreated that moment from last year,” Alysa said with a laugh.
If Alysa stays healthy and the skating gods oblige, it’s likely they’ll recreate it next year, and even the next, which will be when it really matters: the year of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
If the United States is to finally win another Olympic medal in women’s figure skating after being shut out in 2010, 2014 and 2018, Alysa is by far the nation’s best bet to do it.
She became the first woman to attempt a quadruple jump in the history of US nationals with her quad lutz 40 seconds into her four-minute long programme. Even though it was under-rotated, it was a breathtaking achievement. It was also an important signal that she can play ball with the seemingly endless stream of awesome jumpers Russia keeps producing, such as current world champion, 17-year-old Alina Zagitova.
In the 1960s and 70s, beautiful skating won the day, especially in women’s competitions. Not anymore. It’s great if a teenage skater can attain an air of maturity on the ice – and Alysa is in the process of doing just that with choreographer Lori Nichol, who worked wonders with Michelle Kwan a generation ago – but she must be able to land jumps in competition that were unthinkable for women’s skating even a few years ago.
In the first 65 seconds of her long programme, Alysa landed two triple axels – the toughest triple jump there is, the one done almost exclusively by men for several generations – and made that game attempt at the quad. Then she reeled off six more triple jumps. That is how to compete with your fellow tiny teenagers in the increasingly high-stakes world of international jumping contests we call figure skating.
Interestingly, when Alysa took to the ice for her majestic long programme, the crowd was still buzzing over the strongest performance of Bell’s career. In any other year, Bell would have won her first national title with a seven-triple-jump programme that brought spectators to their feet well before her music finished.
She was in tears and overjoyed, but not as giddy as her choreographer, part-time coach and friend, 2018 Olympian Adam Rippon, who paced and leaped through every glorious moment of Bell’s performance, then swallowed her in a mighty bear-hug, raising her arm as if she had just won a prize fight.
Entering to a raucous ovation for someone else might have spooked some young skaters.
“I didn’t get nervous or excited,” she said.
“I was just kind of like, ‘OK, she did well and so I also have to do well.’ ”
When it was over, and the crowd was again on its feet, and she had become the first woman to be crowned US champion for two consecutive years since Ashley Wagner in 2013, the 14-year-old offered her unique perspective on the evening’s developments.
“I still think last year was more special because it was my first,” she said.
“This year, I’m thinking, the new decade, like, wow, what a good start.”