Alysa Liu was 13 when she became the youngest woman to win a U.S. figure skating championship, topping the field in 2019 by landing three tricky triple axel jumps.
Climbing to the top step of the podium to get her medal was a tougher challenge for Liu, who needed a boost from second- and third-place finishers Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell to ascend to her rightful spot.
In the subsequent year Liu turned 14, grew 3 inches to 4-foot-10, and continued to leap into history. Last summer she became the first American woman to land a quadruple lutz jump in competition, a feat she repeated a few weeks later in a Junior Grand Prix event in Poland. Earlier this year she became the first woman to land a quad lutz at the U.S. championships, and although it was flawed she repeated as champion. But she still couldn’t reach the top step for the awards ceremony, again needing help from Bell and Tennell.
“I was kind of looking at the podium and they were like, ‘We can help you up again,’” Liu told reporters in Greensboro, N.C., in January. “And I was like, ‘OK!’ And so we just kind of recreated that moment from last year.”
The teenager, who was born in Clovis, Calif., and trains in Oakland, is the best hope to revive the faded fortunes of American women figure skaters. She’s the only one who can match the quadruple jumps reeled off by so many young Russian women.
No American woman has won an Olympic singles figure skating medal since Sasha Cohen took silver in 2006; at the world level, Ashley Wagner’s 2016 silver medal is the only top-three finish in the last 13 competitions. The placements of Tennell (ninth), Mirai Nagasu (10th), and Karen Chen (11th) at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics underscored the technical decline in a discipline American had women long dominated.
Enter Liu, whose poise and remarkable jumping ability are generating high expectations in advance of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Quads are almost second nature to her now.
The skater is the oldest of five children of single dad, Arthur Liu, a lawyer who emigrated to the U.S. from China in the 1990s. He was a fan of Michelle Kwan, also the daughter of immigrants and a winner of two Olympic medals, five world titles, and nine U.S. championships. That inspired him to bring Alysa to the rink. “Of course I watched her skate. I just look up to her because she’s so good,” Alysa says.
Like Liu, Kwan was a jumping prodigy early in her career. Kwan later added the polish and mesmerizing artistry that transformed her into an icon, a progression that Liu aspires to follow. “Yeah,” she says. “At the same time I want to be myself, you know?”
How would she describe herself? “I don’t really care what others think about me. I just think of myself as outgoing.”
And fearless? “Yeah, I guess,” she says, although that’s a certainty.
Arthur Liu is proud of how his daughter has dealt with the fame that has accompanied her success. “I think she’s really mature about the media and also [the] comments people post on the internet,” he says.
As he speaks, his daughter interrupts him. “I don’t really read the comments,” she announces, which prompts a laugh from her father. “She even tells me not to read them or listen to them. She’s really mature about that,” he says.
For now, Liu’s sights are set on making the U.S. team for the 2022 Games. “It feels pretty close,” she says. And she’s right: it feels like a few successful quadruple jumps away.