Alysa Liu poses with her gold medal at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 25, 2019 in Detroit.
Each month, Team USA Awards presented by Dow celebrates outstanding achievements of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Figure skater Alysa Liu won Female Athlete of the Month for January 2019 after landing three triple axels and becoming the youngest U.S. figure skating champion in history at age 13. In Liu's Diamond Club feature, presented by Dow, she shares what it’s like to be a 13-year-old who can’t compete at the international senior level for nearly three years.
Jimmy Fallon asked Alysa Liu to sing on “The Tonight Show.”
“I said no because I don’t know how to sing,” said Liu.
She was invited on the show not because she’s a triple threat – acting, singing and dancing – but because she has the triple axel.
And that makes her a virtuoso on the ice.
Liu landed three triple axels, including two in her free skate, en route to becoming the youngest U.S. figure skating champion in history at age 13.
How many people appear on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” before they’re old enough to watch it in its late-night time slot?
Liu said she catches the show in her free time on YouTube. She actually has more free time nowadays than skaters she defeated in Detroit two weeks ago.
That’s because Liu is too young to enter any more events this season.
Instead of representing Team USA at the recent Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Anaheim, California, Liu appeared at the opening ceremony to perform her short program. With no warmup and under a spotlight, she landed her triple axel (though it appeared a tad under rotated).
Not only is Liu too young for senior worlds, she’s too young for junior worlds.
She would have had to turn 13 by July 1 last year to compete at junior worlds, and Liu’s birthday is Aug. 8.
She can’t compete at senior worlds for three more years, which is the same season as the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
She’ll be 16.
Does that seem like a long time to wait? “No!” Liu said.
Why not? “Time goes by fast,” she said with a sunny smile.
And by not competing, she said, “Then I have more time to practice.”
Liu nailed down the triple axel when she was 12, becoming the youngest skater to land the 3 ½-revolution jump in international competition at the 2018 Asian Open.
She landed a total of three triple axels in Detroit. The only other U.S. women who have landed the jump in competition are Tonya Harding, Kimmie Meissner and Mirai Nagasu.
What does a triple axel feel like? “It’s hard,” Liu said.
Does she have any thoughts while doing it? “No. It’s too quick.”
Now Liu wants to become the first American woman to add a quadruple jump to her arsenal. (Sasha Cohen landed a quad salchow in warmup and practice at Skate America in 2001, but popped the jump in competition).
“I haven’t worked on it in a while because I was focusing on triple axel,” Liu said.
She tried a quad at regionals last October. “I fell,” Liu said. “It was under (rotated), so not too great, so I’m going to start working on it soon again.”
She is mainly focused on the quad lutz and salchow, and will get a feel for them while in a harness.
Liu also wants to work on her skating skills and components. “I want to improve everything,” she said.
Liu said being at an event like Four Continents and not competing did not feel “too weird actually. It’s really fun to watch.”
She said she didn’t look at the athletes and think, “I can beat her, I can beat her” “No,” Liu said, “I just enjoy it.”
Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell, who joined her on the podium at nationals, finished fifth and sixth at Four Continents.
“They skated so well!” Liu said. “I’m so happy for them! Team USA!”
One iconic photo from Detroit shows Tennell and Bell helping Liu step onto the podium. At 4-foot-7, she wasn’t quite tall enough to get up by herself.
“It’s a cool photo,” Liu said.
The legendary Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was only 11 when she competed in her first Olympic Winter Games in 1924 in Chamonix. She finished last, then won the next three Olympic gold medals.
Liu supplanted Tara Lipinski as the youngest U.S. champion. Lipinski, whose birthday is June 10 – before the cut-off – became the youngest Olympic gold medalist at age 15.
Asked about the minimum age requirements which restrict her from competing, Liu said, “I don’t really know my opinion on that quite yet. But I do get more time to prepare myself before going into internationals.”
A proposal to raise the minimum age at senior events to 17 was rejected at last year’s ISU Congress.
“I actually wasn’t aware of that,” Liu said.
She was too busy progressing from U.S. intermediate champion in 2016 at age 10, to junior champion last year and then senior gold medalist.
Liu told Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb on the “TODAY” show that every time she watches her performance, she thinks, “I did this! I did this!”
She said Lipinski, now an NBC commentator, told her she was proud of her and they hugged in Detroit.
Liu then spent a whirlwind two weeks, including the trip to New York in which she also skated at Chelsea Pier.
After Four Continents, she said she planned to go to Disneyland. While Liu and her father Arthur were in Detroit, her four younger siblings – Selina and triplets Julia, Joshua and Justin – were at the amusement park.
Were they promised they could do something fun while she was away? “Yep,” Liu said emphatically. “Exactly.”
She said that rather than enjoying the ride with her as she rockets up the figure skating rankings, her brothers and sisters are “definitely not excited. At least they watched me (on television).”
Liu has an unusual family background. Arthur left China after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and became an attorney in the U.S.
According to The Mercury News, the children were conceived through anonymous egg donors and surrogate moms.
Arthur told the newspaper that when Alysa was young she asked, “Daddy, why do I look different? I don’t look Chinese.” Then about three years ago, he explained that she had a biological mother and a surrogate mother.
Liu gave her gold medal from nationals to her father. “I think he puts in a lot of effort and deserves it,” she said on “TODAY.”
“I had confidence in her,” Arthur said on the show. “I knew that she was going to deliver.”
Liu has already been to Disneyland often, and enjoys the rollercoasters. The Guardians of the Galaxy drop ride is her favorite.
And then it’s back home to Richmond, California, and skating in nearby Oakland with coach Laura Lipetsky, who once trained alongside Michelle Kwan.
“It’s still pretty normal right now,” Liu said. “Wake up, skate, eat lunch, do homework, hang out with my friends, skate again and off-ice training with my coach and all my friends.”
She is in ninth grade and does her schoolwork online. Her favorite subjects are English, science and Chinese.
Liu likes to listen to Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish, who is just 17.
She said she doesn’t feel like she has to sacrifice too much for her sport.
“I do spend time with my friends,” Liu said. “I do still get to do what a normal teen does, but I don’t get to go to normal school, I don’t get to eat junk a lot – maybe like once in a while – that’s fine. And then I also don’t get to have sleepovers every single day, I know some people do. It’s mainly because I have to train and travel so much.”
She didn’t indulge in a special treat after nationals. “I don’t like most candy bars actually,” she said. “I don’t really like candy. I’m more salty.”
However, she did come home to a new dog, a terrier mix named Zeus, or Zuzu. She thinks her dad gave her the dog as a reward for winning nationals.
Lipetsky started working with Liu when she came to her group skills class at age 5.
“I just enjoyed working with her and saw the love and passion she has for skating and that drew me to her,” Lipetsky said. “It reminded me of myself as far as loving the sport and skating and just wanting to pass on my knowledge to her.”
Some young girls who can do triple jumps lose that ability as they get older and their bodies change.
“We’re just taking it one day at a time,” said Lipetsky, “just trying to work hard and improve the technique and improve her skating and just trying to become a better skater.”
Liu said she looks up to the Russian skaters, including Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, and looks forward to eventually facing them in competition.
“I know what it’s going to take,” she said, “but they’re more inspiration right now that I can’t compete against them.”
It’s just a matter of time.