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Column: Mariah Bell’s triple jump combo gives her U.S. figure skating championships lead

Mariah Bell skates in the ladies short program at the U.S. figure skating championships in Nashville on Thursday.
(Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

Mariah Bell’s timing was as impeccable as her technique and style.

Bell, who trains at Great Park Ice in Irvine, hadn’t landed a triple-triple jump combination in a figure skating event this season. Competing Thursday night in the U.S. championships, which will influence the selection of the U.S. team for the Beijing Olympics, Bell landed a clean triple flip-triple toe combination to help her lead the field after the first phase of the women’s competition.

Bell earned 75.55 points at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, boosted by 41.14 points for the technical elements of her performance to “River Flows in You” by Yiruma. When the pressure was on, she delivered a mesmerizing program. “We’re all very lucky to be here and have this amazing opportunity to make our dreams come true,” said Bell, whose coaching team includes 2018 U.S. men’s Olympian Adam Rippon.

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“Today felt really awesome. I’m really lucky to be able to be here and be in good health.”

Three-time world champion Nathan Chen and others are sticking with some of their favorite programs for this week’s U.S. figure skating championships.

Karen Chen is close behind at 74.55, with two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu in third with 71.42 points as she pursues her first Olympic spot. The women’s event will end Friday with the free skate. Defending champion Bradie Tennell withdrew earlier in the week because of a foot injury.

A selection committee will consider skaters’ performances in national and international competitions over the last year when awarding the Olympic berths. Three men’s singles competitors, three women’s singles competitors, three ice dance teams and two pairs teams will go to Beijing.

Chen, who finished 11th at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, was marked down by the judges on Thursday because she underrotated the second jump of her triple lutz-triple toe loop combination. Her superb artistry saved her, as did the deep emotion she felt during a revised version of the “Requiem for a Dream” program she had used during the 2014-15 season. “I’m really proud of how I delivered the program,” Chen said. “It was definitely a risk to change my short program coming here but I also knew it would be risky if I kept something that I just wasn’t enjoying.”

Liu was a phenomenal jumper as a young teen but has lost her consistency as she matured. Newly eligible for the Olympics at 16, she fell on her first jump , a triple axel. She recovered and pulled off a good triple-triple combination later in her program. She said she won’t attempt a quadruple jump Friday. “I’m pretty happy with how I did,” Liu said. “I had a fun time skating here with the audience.”

Karen Chen competes at the U.S. figure skating championships Thursday.
(Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

In one of the most stirring moments, Gracie Gold, who won U.S. titles in 2014 and 2016 before anxiety and depression derailed her career, hit a peak in her brave comeback. Gold, 26, skated a strong and expressive performance to “East of Eden” to stand sixth with 67.61 points. “I was overwhelmed that I did everything that you can really want,” she said. Starr Andrews of Los Angeles, who skated to her own recorded vocal of “At Last,” was 11th with 59.43 points.

Earlier Thursday, Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc performed a challenging and elegant short program to set a national record for pair skaters and take the lead after the first part of the competition.

Their score of 79.39 (44.54 points for technical elements and 34.85 for program components) broke the record of 77.48 points set a few minutes earlier by Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, who train at Great Park Ice.

Catalang and Johnson earned a standing ovation for their assured performance to “Come Together.” Cain-Gribble and Johnson also got an enthusiastic reception for their “The White Crow” program. “We’re thrilled,” said Cain-Gribble, who developed asthma after contracting COVID-19 last summer. “We knew we had to be perfect because of the program before us.”

Calalang and Johnson, who finished second at two previous U.S. championships, earned 43.25 points for their technical elements and 34.23 points for their program components. Calalang was suspended a year ago after testing positive for a banned substance but her sentence was lifted in October after it was determined a substance in cosmetics she had used had metabolized into a form of a banned stimulant. She credited Johnson for supporting her while her eligibility was in doubt. “That made us so strong as partners and just as people,” she said in a post-competition news conference.

The pairs competition will end Saturday, with the free skate phase. Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, who also train in Irvine and were favored to repeat as U.S. champions, withdrew Wednesday after Frazier tested positive for COVID-19. They planned to petition for an Olympic spot contingent on him proving his full recovery.

Elliott reported remotely.


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