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Mariah Bell To Kick Off New International Season At Skate America

By Lynn Rutherford | Oct. 07, 2020, 12:38 p.m. (ET)

Mariah Bell competes at the 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 5, 2018 in San Jose, Calif.


When Mariah Bell looks back at her glorious free skate to k.d. lang’s “Hallelujah” at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships last January, she has to wonder when she’ll get a chance to create a moment like that again.

The setting? A packed arena, in a town — Greensboro, North Carolina — that has played host to three U.S. Championships in the past 10 years. An appreciative crowd of 7,200, who began their full-throated cheers when Bell landed the last jump in program, some 30 seconds before her music’s final note. A standing ovation.

Things are quite different this fall, as Bell, her training partner Nathan Chen and other Team USA figure skating stars kick off the season in the time of COVID-19.

No crowds. No international travel. And, for some events, virtual judging panels.

“It’s a kind of a new normal,” Bell, 24, said. “It’s so interesting, but it’s kind of funny, because I feel like I love to share for the audience. I don’t want to be selfish and do it for myself, but if there are no fans there watching at the moment, you are kind of doing it for yourself.”

Anyone who has ever spent a few minutes with the U.S. silver medalist knows she isn’t one to let negativity cloud her outlook. Quickly, she looks on the bright side.

“The energy is less outward, and it can be more internal,” she reasoned. “So, maybe (no crowds) will make the performances feel even more special for the skater, and obviously the fans if they watch at home.”

Bell’s theory was put to the test late last month, when a TV Tokyo crew visited her training rink in Artesia, California, to tape programs from Bell and Chen as part of the Japan Open, which was held Oct. 3 at the Saitama Super Arena.

In 2018, Bell traveled to Saitama to compete against longtime U.S. rival Bradie Tennell, as well as top Japanese and Russian skaters. This season, her programs were shown at the arena as filmed exhibitions. Due to travel restrictions, the event consisted of domestic Japanese skaters only.

“I’ll miss being in Japan, the fans are so receptive and appreciative,” Bell said. “I really miss traveling in general, but this is what has to happen now. We have to keep people safe and try to slow the spread (of COVID).”

The skater performed a pair of short programs for TV Tokyo: her new short, choreographed by Adam Rippon and Molly Oberstar to Pink’s “Glitter in the Air,” and last season’s popular routine to a Britney Spears medley.

“I tried extra hard while we are being videoed, to share my performance through the screen,” Bell said. “Hopefully, they can feel that in Japan when they watch.”

“Glitter in the Air,” released in 2010, has been on Oberstar’s playlist for many years. She thought it was perfect for Bell, and when she visited Bell and Rippon in California over the Fourth of July the trio created the program in a week or so.

“It is a love song, and anyone who has felt love in their life is able to think about their experience and put themselves into that place, that emotion,” Oberstar, a former U.S. competitor who works in the Minneapolis area, said. “It is completely within Mariah’s natural style. It’s good to push beyond your boundaries, but it’s also great to sink into something you are good at and try to develop it.”

“I love that we’re sticking with strong female artists,” Bell said. “I’m going through the list: I’ve done Celine, and Britney, and now I’m doing Pink. I love the program.”

As it happens, the skater is feeling a bit lovelorn these days. Her longtime boyfriend, French skater Romain Ponsart, usually trains alongside Bell and Chen in Artesia. With COVID-19 limiting travel, he’s back in his home country.

“When corona passes, Romain will be back and Nathan will be very excited, as Michal (Brezina) will, to have Raf’s group (of senior skaters) all back together, but obviously I will be the most excited,” Bell said. “We are FaceTiming for hours and hours a day. FaceTime is amazing.”

Bell’s free skate, set to a medley from “Mamma Mia,” is quite a contrast to last season’s “Hallelujah.”

“I wanted to have a collection of songs people really know, so the fans could connect with it, even if they were younger or older,” she said. “So I brought the Beatles to (my choreographer, Shae-Lynn Bourne) and she said, ‘That is great. I think it’s a little too masculine, but we I’ll keep it on my radar. ’So she said, ‘What do you think about ABBA? ’And I said, ‘I don’t think so.’”

After playing the music in her rink, though, Bell quickly changed her tune.

“The connection got stronger and stronger, and I really fell in love with it,” she said. “I’m learning to have new movements and really a new style of skating. This is a little faster, a little more upbeat. It’s a different way of telling a story. My last two programs have been more emotional, and this had ‘Dancing Queen,’ ‘Mama Mia,’ a lot of fun pieces people know well.”

I think Mariah is an example of what ladies' skating should be. Her lines are unbelievable.

Molly Oberstar

Storytelling — the magic ingredient that sets figure skating apart from other sports — is Bell’s true strength. Her maturity and elegance captivate audiences in a different way than does quadruple jumps.

“I think Mariah is an example of what ladies ’skating should be,” Oberstar said. “Her lines are unbelievable; she has great musicality and she is able to weave that together with the technical elements. Not every skater has ever been able to do that, that’s a rare ability.”

It’s tough, though, to count on performance quality when you’re competing against younger skaters able to reel off high point-earning quad and triple axel jumps. For the past two seasons, Alysa Liu, now 15, has captured the U.S. crown largely on the strength of her technical prowess.

“Something I really want to show is I am 24 and feel extremely young in the sport,” Bell said. “It’s so important to show you don’t have to count yourself out, because you think that you are too old. It’s a thought that has crossed my mind zero times. … There is room for technicians, for storytellers and for people who do both. Obviously (doing both) is the goal.”

Last season, Bell’s triple-triple combinations were more consistent than ever before. She thinks it is realistic that, working with coach Rafael Arutunian, she can add a triple axel jump to her arsenal, although she won’t divulge a timetable.

“We’re always working on new elements and I definitely believe I’m capable of doing a triple axel,” she said. “We’ve been working on setting it up for a while. … I think if you fast forward three, four years a triple axel will be something every girl is doing, because it’s just another triple jump. It will be another triple added on to the ladder of triple jumps. If you get a flip, you get a lutz; if you get a lutz, you get an axel.”

Last season, Bell opened her campaign with a win at Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany; travel restrictions made it impossible to defend the title. The skater put both of her new programs to the test earlier last month, for U.S. Figure Skating’s International Selection Pool (ISP) Challenge. Skaters submitted videos of their programs, performed in front of proctors in their home rinks, to be judged and ranked.

Bell won top honors, placing first in both the short program and free skate to defeat Tennell by more than 12 points, 202.78 to 190.17, although she did not include her most difficult combinations in her free skate. (Liu did not participate.) Virtual though it was, it was her first competition since Greensboro. Athletes have a second chance to submit programs, which Bell said she intended to do.

“This was something on our radar to train for,” Bell said. “For most people, it’s been since January or February that they have competed, so it’s nice to have an opportunity to get back into it. It’s exciting to have a starting point and know where you want to go. You’re training for something again.”

Bell’s next opportunity will be at Skate America, scheduled for Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas. Competitors are limited to U.S. skaters or skaters training in the U.S., and fans will not be in attendance.

Further in the future loom the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, and what promises to be bruising competition to make the U.S. figure skating team. Bell doesn’t let the ambition consume her thoughts.

“I really believe I can be there. It would be such an honor and so exciting and something I really want,” she said. “However, there is no use thinking of that now. What I can do now is train and be prepared for what comes. We do have some competitions coming up.

“All of these things our federation is looking at, leading up to the Olympics, I feel like my job is to be the best I can be at each moment, at each competition, and that will help me get to my ultimate goals and dreams.”

Lynn Rutherford

Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Mariah Bell