Mariah Bell competes in the women's short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 6, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For the first time in her nine years as a senior competitor at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Mariah Bell leads after the women’s short program.
The 25-year-old skater still has a lot of work to do in Friday’s free skate, though, to win her first U.S. title.
Karen Chen, the 2017 U.S. champion, is just a point behind Bell. Two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu (2019, 2020) is four points off the lead.
But Thursday night in Nashville belonged to the effervescent Bell, who skated a light, joyful program to “River Flows in You,” a piano composition by Korean musician Yiruma.
The Southern California-based skater opened with a key element that eluded her earlier this season: a clean triple flip-triple toe loop combination. She added a strong triple Lutz in the second half of her program, as well as nifty spins and steps, to earn 75.55 points.
“I’ve been in pretty much every position possible going into the long program, and the goal is always the same,” Bell said. “But definitely, I feel like I have good confidence heading into the free.”
Much of that confidence is likely rooted in the strong triple-triple, which earned a solid 10.33 points.
“It’s the first triple-triple I’ve delivered this season, so of course, it’s the best,” Bell said. “I learned from the Grand Prix, figured out what we needed to do better. … And then here, it was a matter of attack.”
Adam Rippon, one of Bell’s coaches, emphasizes there is a lot more to Bell’s skating than one jump element.
“She’s in great shape, she’s super solid, and the quality of all of her elements is where her points lie,” Rippon, a 2018 Olympic team bronze medalist, said.
“Her triple-triple (combination) hasn’t been great all year, (but) she’s worked on it a lot and she’s giving her best attempts here,” he added. “Aside from that, it’s one element in a stew of elements. The only thing she has to do is focus on one element at a time.”
About that, Bell surely agrees.
“I’ve really worked, the last couple of years, on trying to stay in the moment throughout the program,” she said. “When things are going well, there’s an excitement that’s building, but years ago I fell on my footwork because I was a little ahead of myself, so I was trying to keep myself mellow today. … I remember thinking on my last two spins, ‘Hey, just don’t trip here.’”
Chen arrived in Nashville with a new program set to “Requiem for a Dream,” music she first used during the 2014-15 season.
The skater, who is known for frequently changing her programs, decided to make the switch soon after her Grand Prix event in France. It worked: skating with speed and confidence, Chen performed a near-clean routine, including a triple Lutz-triple toe combination and the best spins of the event.
“I wasn’t feeling my other short anymore,” Chen, 22, said, adding, “I remembered how much I loved skating to (“Requiem for a Dream”) and how fearless I was (in 2015). It was my first year skating senior. I wanted to embrace that fearlessness and chase my goals and dreams with courage. That’s what I wanted to embody.”
After some consideration, Chen’s longtime coach Tammy Gambill, who trains the skater in Colorado Springs, Colorado, endorsed the change.
“Karen didn’t feel that energy coming from her last short program (and) she has always had a great connection to this music,” Gambill said. “I said, ‘Let’s see how you skate to it. You’re a different skater now, you’re much more mature (than in 2015).’ So, she brought it in, played around with it, and it was amazing. Right away I knew it was great, especially since she had such a good feeling about it. … I actually had goosebumps when she finished the program.”
Liu took a risk: instead of playing it safe with a double Axel — which may have given her a clean program, and the lead heading into Friday’s free skate — she tried a triple Axel, a jump she has not landed cleanly all season. She fell on the attempt, losing at least four to five points.
The rest of her energetic program, set to the fast-paced “Gypsy Dance” from the ballet “Don Quixote,” was clean and crisp, including a triple Lutz-triple toe combination.
“Of course, I want to land my triple Axel,” Liu said. “It’s satisfying to land jumps, it’s not really satisfying to fall on jumps.”
The 16-year-old arrived in Nashville with a new look — bangs cut straight across her forehead — and a new coaching team. In late November, she announced she had moved from her home training site in Oakland, California, to Colorado Springs, where she is coached by Christy Krall, Drew Meekins and Viktor Pfeifer.
According to Meekins, the focus of Liu’s coaching team in Colorado is improving the skater’s stamina and conditioning, to enable her to land consistent, high-quality jumps.
“I think the biggest thing that has helped her has been a stronger structure to her training and a little bit more intense regimen to running the program, doing sections (of the program), running jump drills,” Meekins said. “She has a strong technical foundation, so getting the jumps higher and cleaner has been about getting her consistency up through repetitions and training structure. That’s been the biggest thing we’ve focused on in the last six weeks.”