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Column: Mariah Bell, Karen Chen and Alysa Liu selected for U.S. Olympic figure skating team

Karen Chen touches Mariah Bell's elbows with her own.
Karen Chen, left, greets Mariah Bell during the medal ceremony for the women’s free skate program at the U.S. figure skating championships Friday.
(Mark Zaleski / Associated Press)

The abrupt end of her engagement last year was crushing for Mariah Bell. After her shock faded she began to regard the breakup as a chance to concentrate on herself and fulfill her promise as a figure skater. Bell, 25, seized the opportunity.

“I’m not coming this far to come this far,” Bell said of her thoughts at the time. “I rededicated my focus to this dream of mine.”

Her new approach lifted her to a new level. On Saturday, a day after she had won her first U.S. championship in her ninth attempt, Bell was nominated to the U.S. team for the Winter Olympics next month in Beijing. Runner-up Karen Chen and 16-year-old Alysa Liu also were nominated.

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Although Liu withdrew after the short program because she had tested positive for COVID-19, U.S. Figure Skating’s selection committee chose her based on her 2019 and 2020 U.S. titles and strong resume. Lindsay Thorngren, Amber Glenn and Gabriella Izzo were named alternates.

Nathan Chen, the five-time defending U.S. figure skating men’s champion, moved a step closer toward his sixth national title.

“This is pretty incredible,” said Bell, who trains at Great Park Ice in Irvine. “I’m pretty excited. It’s honestly a dream come true to finally say that I am an Olympian and on the Olympic team. It was not the easiest four years but I’m really excited with how everything has gone.”

The nomination also fulfilled a wish for Chen, who finished a dispiriting 11th at the 2018 Games. “I wanted to have my redemption story,” she said.

Liu, speaking via Zoom while in quarantine at her Nashville hotel, said she felt fine but didn’t know when she will be released and allowed to skate again. “I’m really excited. I’ve basically been training forever for this moment,” she said.

The U.S. women’s outlook in Beijing is bleak, so formidable are 15-year-old Kamila Valieva and other quadruple-jumping Russians. But Bell hasn’t come this far to stop believing now.

“It’s our business to do our best,” Bell said. “There could be some surprises in the rankings.”

Mariah Bell competes on her way to winning gold at the U.S. figure skating championships on Friday.
(Mark Zaleski / Associated Press)

Among the men it would be shocking only if Nathan Chen doesn’t win a medal in Beijing. The three-time world champion (no relation to Karen Chen) racked up a national-record 115.39 points on Saturday for the “La Boheme” short program he revived from two seasons ago, putting him halfway to his sixth straight U.S. title.

It was especially impressive because he didn’t have to compete in Nashville, where about a half-dozen skaters have had to sit out after testing positive for the coronavirus. Chen, who placed fifth at the 2018 Games, could have played it safe and petitioned for a spot on the Beijing team. He certainly would have gotten it.

But Chen, who hadn’t competed since October, craved one more chance to test himself before his anticipated Olympic showdown with two-time defending gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. Chen made the most of it, shining in a high-caliber, can-you-top this contest. He earned a competition-best 66.93 points for the elements he executed, including a quadruple flip jump that earned 4.87 extra points and a fine quadruple lutz-triple toe loop combination.

“This U.S. nationals short program was insane,” said Chen, who also trains in Irvine. “Every guy laid down an amazing program.”

Five-time national champion Nathan Chen competes in the men's short program Saturday.
(Mark Zaleski / Associated Press)

Vincent Zhou, who also did two quads, is second with a personal-best 112.78 points. In a surprise, 17-year-old Ilia Malinin was third with 103.46 points after a stunning, two-quad performance.

“I’m grateful to be here, competing with some of these top-tier athletes,” said Malinin, whose Instagram handle is “quadg0d.” The three-man Beijing team will be announced after the men’s free skate on Sunday.

Jason Brown ranks fourth with 100.84 points, including an event-best 49.15 for program components (skating skills, transitions, performance, composition and interpretation) in his “Sinnerman” routine. Brown, who was ninth at the 2014 Sochi Games but didn’t make the 2018 team, skated after Malinin and was aware of the youngster’s score. But Brown hasn’t mastered quadruple jumps, so he couldn’t change his plan and go for more points. “For me, it’s about what you can do in the moment,” Brown said. “I can only win at my own game.”

Madison Chock of Redondo Beach and Evan Bates won their third U.S. ice dance title, edging Madison Hubble and Zach Donohue 227.37 to 225.59. Hubble and Donohue had a higher score in their languid free dance but couldn’t erase the deficit they faced after their shaky rhythm dance. Both duos likely will be nominated to the Beijing team and should contend for a medal. Third-place finishers Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker are looking at 2026. “I feel like the momentum is good for us now going into Beijing,” Bates said.

Alysa Liu, looking to win her third U.S. figure skating title in four years, has withdrawn from competition after testing positive for COVID-19.

The U.S. can send two pairs to Beijing but medals are far beyond their grasp. Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc are likely to be nominated after winning both segments of the competition and the title with 225.23 points, to 209.87 for Irvine-based Jessica Catalang and Brian Johnson. But 2021 champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, who withdrew after Frazier tested positive for COVID-19, likely will be awarded a spot by petitioning the selection committee. Those decisions will be announced Sunday.

What’s sure is that Bell, Chen, and Liu can prepare to pack for Beijing. Bell, the oldest U.S. woman to compete in Olympic singles in nearly a century, said her experience at the elite level will be an asset. “It’s sort of my super power,” she said. “I’m happy to be ready when I was 25.”

Better relatively late than never.

Elliott reported remotely


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