By Nick McCarvel | March 20, 2019, 10:15 a.m. (ET)

Mariah Bell competes in the women's short program at 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 25, 2019 in Detroit.

 

Short program complete and a standing ovation surrounding her, Mariah Bell thrust her fists into the air not once but twice as she skated to take her bows at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan, Wednesday night.

“That’s good,” Bell, 22, offered minutes later, in the kiss and cry, upon receiving her score of 71.26. Good enough, actually, to place Bell in sixth and as part of the elite final group of competitors for the free skate.

It was not as strong of a performance for 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, who was called for an under-rotation on her triple toe jump in combination, leaving her with a 69.50 and in 10th place.

The U.S. needs to finish with a combined placement of 13 or below to qualify three women for the 2020 world championships, though that battle now appears to be a rather uphill one after the short program.

Reigning Olympic champion Alina Zagitova of Russia leads the women’s event by over five points following a resurgent short program herself. 

Tennell and Bell qualified for worlds following their second- and third-place finishes at the U.S. championships earlier this year. Due to age-eligibility rules, 13-year-old champion Alysa Liu is not able to compete at the senior international level.

Skating to “To Love You More” by Celine Dion, a program which was choreographed by former training mate Adam Rippon, Bell was buoyant from the start. After opening with a double axel, she pulled out her triple Lutz-triple toe combination, though the landing on her toe was rather tight.

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Bell, who trains under Rafael Arutunian in southern California, is known for her spins and artistry. But on this day, it was her technical score that propped her up, giving her that top-six finish and allowing her entry into the final group for the free.

“Everything I have done this season has prepared me for this moment,” Bell said. “I thought, ‘I’ve done this so many times, it’s just one more time.’ I knew I could do it so I’m happy I got through it.”

While Tennell maintained a strong program component score (seventh overall), the under-rotation on her triple-triple combination cost her. 

Upon finishing her “Rebirth” program, she sat in the kiss and cry in good spirits, joking to choreographer Benoit Richaud that she wanted to steal his fedora hat. Her smile dissipated as her score came across, though places fifth through 11th are separated by just 3.72 points total.

“I am a little disappointed with my performance,” said Tennell. “That first jump I have been hitting every time all week… but I did not give up and fought for everything. I think everything else went pretty well."

The U.S. had three women at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, as well as at last year’s world championships in Milan. It lost that third spot, however, when Tennell finished sixth overall and Mirai Nagasu was 10th, failing to combine for that 13 or lower. Bell was 12th last year, improving from 17th in the short program.

Sixth place after the short is much stronger for Bell, as she and Tennell now turn their focus to the long program, the skate that gave each of them issues at both U.S. championships and Four Continents.

Bell told reporters this month that she’s been working on her in-event focus. She’ll need it in the free skate, particularly being in the final group, where the pressure is the highest and the skating (usually) the best.

“Now I acknowledge stuff that I might have tried to ignore in the past,” she said of mid-competition challenges, including hearing other skaters’ scores. “But then bring my concentration back to myself.”

On Wednesday she added: “I’ve been working on staying in the moment. In the past I would let worlds - or an event like it - take over. I just have to let myself do the job I do every day.”

She’ll skate second in the final group during the free skate, after two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia. Tennell, meanwhile, will skate second in the penultimate group.

Said Tennell: "I am here to put it all out there, everything I’ve got, and as long as I do that I will be happy with the free.”