Alice Liang knew from the start that the second of her three daughters was destined to become an athlete.
"She used to do cartwheels when she was 2 years old," Alice Liang said of Beatrisa, nicknamed Bebe by family and friends. "When we had visitors, she'd use the man's arm and swing back and forth from it, so we put her in gymnastics.
"The skating thing came when her older sister watched the 1994 Olympics and said she wanted to skate. Bebe wanted to go too, and at the very beginning her instructor said she had talent. I didn't know anything about skating, but we knew about gymnastics."
The Liang family of Granada Hills has learned quite a bit about figure skating from Bebe, who's now 17 and will contend for a spot on the Turin Olympic team this week in St. Louis at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
At 5 feet tall, with a sprinkle of freckles across her face and a smile illuminated by shiny braces that she begged her orthodontist to remove last week, Liang looks like a quiet, demure young woman. Which she is, besides being an accomplished pianist, avid reader and model home-schooled student who's applying to UCLA and USC.
Put her on the ice and she's a dynamo. Through her smooth stroking and assured carriage she generates a distinctive sense of power and assertiveness, which complement her strong jumping and the flexibility she learned in gymnastics before she quit the sport to concentrate on figure skating.
"When everything's going well you can really see it," said Ken Congemi, who collaborates with Frank Carroll in guiding her career but is her primary coach.
"She can spin well, she's got good footwork, and she has a beautiful quality out on the ice. When her jumps are working she really does have the total package. And with this new judging system, every one of those elements earns points."
She first won raves in 2001, when she finished sixth at the U.S. championships as a tiny 12-year-old. She finished ninth in 2002, seventh in 2003 and 2004 and fifth last year, battling hip problems and puberty as she sought consistency in her skating.
Hampered this season by pain in her right ankle and uncomfortable skate boots, Liang finished third at the Nebelhorn Trophy event in Germany and fourth at Skate America, her only Grand Prix assignment. At Skate America, "I gained confidence in my programs and got really comfortable kind of putting it out there in front of the judges and in front of the audience," she said. "It's kind of like a nationals."
With the real national championships coming up and the pain in her ankle tolerable, she has set her sights on winning one of three U.S. berths for the Turin Games. She has visualized it often.
"I have that goal, and I think it's important for me to really believe in it," she said last week, during a break between practice sessions at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo.
"It helps me a lot to kind of see myself there and know that I have the ability to get there."
Her chances could be helped by Michelle Kwan's injury-induced withdrawal. But Liang might be inadvertently drawn into a controversy if Kwan is granted a medical bye onto the Olympic team and bumps Liang or another skater off the squad.
Without Kwan, a nine-time U.S. champion and five-time world champion, the women's title is likely to be won by Sasha Cohen of Corona del Mar, a two-time world silver medalist and four-time runner-up to Kwan. But after that, nothing is sure.
Alissa Czisny of Bowling Green, Ohio, had a strong season but faltered in the Grand Prix Final. Emily Hughes of Great Neck, N.Y., sister of 2002 Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes, had meningitis last summer and lacked stamina as she finished fifth in each of two Grand Prix events. Kimmie Meissner, a sensation last season when she landed a difficult triple axel jump at the U.S. championships and finished third at age 15, has struggled recently.
That creates an opportunity for Liang, although she said her strategy would be the same if Kwan had competed in St. Louis.
"I still have to go to nationals and do the same program. It doesn't really matter," she said. "But it is going to be different. Ever since I've competed at nationals Michelle has been there. I'm sure a lot of people are going to wonder what's going to happen, but I know I have to focus on my programs and not let anything distract me."
Congemi said he talked to Liang about the potential ripple effects of Kwan's decision.
"I told her that no matter what happens, what we can control or what we can control to the best of our ability, is her skating and having her be prepared and be the best that she can be," Congemi said. "We have no control over the judging, the marks, the placement, who goes, who doesn't go....
"I kind of classify her as a peaker, a skater that continuously improves as the competition gets closer. I can look at her and see a program where maybe she misses a jump or two but I just know what she's about and I know that as the competition gets closer, things fall into place. This past week I'm really happy with where she's at. Physically, I think her body is in a good place. I think that her mind is in a good place and she has to constantly work on that type of focus, on just being present and not let any external influences affect her."
Liang, who hasn't decided if she'll continue to compete past this season, is ready for her big moment.
"I'm a little nervous but that's kind of natural before I go to competitions," she said. "I'm actually really excited. All these girls are doing really well and it's going to be a good competition."