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.”