NASHVILLE — Mariah Bell, a newly minted national champion, knows that she is considered “ancient” in the sport of women’s figure skating. But she wants you to know that she is proud of it.
At 25, she is finally a champion equipped to handle the pressure of the Olympics after nearly a decade at the top level of her sport. She is an example of why there should be no expiration date for skaters, she said, especially when they are still having fun.
“I want it to be a known fact that skating doesn’t end at a certain age,” she said of her discipline, which is known to celebrate youth.
On Friday, Bell became the oldest U.S. women’s national champion in 95 years, solidifying her spot on the U.S. team for the Beijing Olympics next month. At those Games, she will be the oldest American woman to compete in Olympic singles skating since 1928.
U.S. Figure Skating named Bell, Karen Chen, 22, and Alysa Liu, 16, to the Olympic team on Saturday after considering their body of work over the past year or so. Chen, a 2018 Olympian, won the silver medal at nationals on Friday. Liu, who won the national championship at 13 in 2019, and again in 2020, withdrew from nationals on Friday after testing positive for the coronavirus.
With an Olympic berth finally in hand, and after a stressful and chaotic week, Bell savored her victory and exhaled long and hard.
She and the other top American skaters have been on edge at nationals, and not only because Olympic berths are at stake. They have been practicing and competing in Nashville as the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus has swept around the world just weeks before the Beijing Games.
At least six skaters tested positive this past week and withdrew from nationals, including Brandon Frazier, who skates with Alexa Knierim in pairs and won the national title with her last year. They are likely to be named to the Olympic team despite not competing this year.
With two American pairs teams headed to Beijing, the other spot will most likely be filled either by Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who won the pairs event on Saturday, or by Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, who finished in second place. The team will be announced on Sunday.
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In ice dance on Saturday, Madison Chock and Evan Bates won the national title, with Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue in second. Those two couples are nearly locks for the Olympic team, while the third Olympic berth will be up for grabs when the selections are announced on Sunday.
Liu, who has been isolated in her hotel room since her positive test, appeared on the big screen at Bridgestone Arena on Saturday and waved to the cheering fans after being announced as an Olympic team selection. Later, she said that she was feeling good mentally and physically and that she had watched the women’s free skate on Friday with some friends joining her for a virtual viewing party. It was fun to be a spectator for a change, she said.
Liu, who is from Richmond, Calif., wasn’t sure when she would be able to return to Colorado to resume her training, but the Olympic clock is ticking. Many competitors are planning to leave for China in less than three weeks, and they must follow strict rules, including testing negative for the virus, to be allowed into the country. In some cases, people who have contracted the virus have continued to test positive for weeks.
“It depends on how quickly I can test negative again,” Liu said of her leaving for her training rink in Colorado. “I’m guessing I’m just going to stay here until I don’t have Covid anymore.”
The positive tests at nationals shook the top female skaters as they prepared to compete, but Chen and Bell said they had taken only a moment to worry about it before snapping back into competition mode.
“I gave myself like 10 minutes to just full-on freak out,” Chen said.
Their idea of focusing solely on things they can control will come in handy in Beijing, where the Americans will be up against highly skilled competitors from Russia (which swept the medals at last year’s world championships), Japan and South Korea. Some of those competitors have demonstrated advanced elements that were barely even imaginable four years ago, including landing quadruple jumps not just once but several times during a single program. Those advanced elements equal more points — so many more points that the Americans probably won’t be able to keep up with them.
Neither Bell nor Chen is able to land a quadruple jump or a triple axel, moves that have become almost necessary to win on the world stage. And neither skater, in her free skate on Friday, executed a triple-triple jump combination, a foundation for medal contenders at international events.
While Liu was the first American woman to land a quad in international competition and was the first woman in the world to land a quad and a triple axel in the same program, she hasn’t seriously practiced a quad since March 2020, she said, and doesn’t plan to do one anytime soon.
Chen, who is from Fremont, Calif., is not giving up hope that the Americans can place well at the Olympics, considering her fourth-place finish at last year’s world championships.
“I really went there just thinking, I’m going to skate my absolute best and perform the heck out of my program,” she said, adding, “So, you know, anything can happen.”
Adam Rippon, an Olympic bronze medalist who coaches Bell, also believes that the Americans shouldn’t dwell on medals or placement. He has advised Bell to skate only for herself, which is exactly what brought him joy in the sport.
“The thing that Mariah needs to focus on is that, at the end of the day, people don’t always remember the results, but they’ll remember the skates and they’ll remember the way that you made them feel,” he said.
Bell, who is from Westminster, Colo., easily bought in. She has stuck around the sport for so long because she loves the way it makes her feel, thanks to her parents.
Once when she was very young, she recalled, her parents bought her a package of skating lessons, and she soon told them that she wanted to quit. Her parents shrugged and said, “That’s fine.” But without any prodding, she went back to the rink. Again and again. Her mother and father never pushed her into the sport, she said, and that nurtured her love for it.
On Friday, that love for skating permeated Bell’s performance. During her elegant and ethereal free skate to K.D. Lang’s version of “Hallelujah,” she smiled and glowed, making her hardest elements seem simple. In her sparkly burgundy dress, she looked like a prima ballerina spinning and floating above the ice, landing six triple jumps softly, as if she were weightless.
It was the moment she had worked toward for years — especially this past year.
When her former fiancé broke off their engagement last year, it nearly crushed her, she said, but in the end it refocused her. No more distractions. With the Beijing Olympics in sight, she redoubled her efforts to reach her skating goals, vowing to use her life experience, both good and bad, both on and off the ice — the experience of an “ancient” skater, shall we say — to push her toward success.
“For me, it’s sort of like my superpower,” she said.