Mariah Bell reacts after skating in the Ladies Free Skate during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 7, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee.
When Adam Rippon offered words of advice to Mariah Bell this week, he thought back to the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where he made his bid for the PyeongChang Olympics.
Rippon, fourth in the U.S. that season, snagged one of the three men’s spots. But he did not make it easy for himself.
“In the Olympic year, I felt everything I did was one step closer to the Games, especially at nationals,” said Rippon, a team bronze medalist in 2018. “As soon as I got to a certain point in my free skate, I felt like, ‘Oh, I made it.’ And then suddenly, I made these two random mistakes.”
Rippon has coached Bell for the past few seasons, working alongside Rafael Arutunian in Irvine, California. He wanted his pupil to learn from his missteps.
“I wasn’t totally present,” Rippon said. “I told Mariah to stay totally present. Give everything 100 percent. If you do, you will walk away satisfied. It’s a level playing field and you just have to go out and do your stuff.”
Bell took the ice in Nashville, Tennessee, on Friday, carrying Rippon’s words with her: Stay the course. Never lose focus. Do not take even the simplest move for granted.
Four minutes later, she had turned in a performance that made her the U.S. women’s champion.
“I was fighting through a lot of it,” Bell said. “I really fought for every point. ... I’m really looking forward to taking this and figuring out how to make things a little more solid, going into what’s next.”
Bell’s free skate, set to k.d. lang’s rendition of “Hallelujah,” was far from perfect. She did not try a triple-triple combination, and the second jump of an improvised triple lutz-double axel sequence was shaky. It earned 140.70 points, far less than programs from the past two U.S. champions, Bradie Tennell and Alysa Liu, garnered. Combined with her short program, her 216.25 points edged Karen Chen, who took the silver medal with 213.85.
Each of Bell’s moves was polished and finished, the performance brimmed with emotion and Shae-Lynn Bourne’s open, free-flowing choreography suited the skater to a tee. Bell first performed to “Hallelujah” during the 2019-20 season, so returning to it for the Olympic year was a natural decision.
“This program, I have such a connection to it, just from the moment the music starts,” Bell said. “I feel like I’m able to be in my own little world. It’s really something I love training, and I try to smile when I’m training it as well, so it feels natural when I’m here. But to be honest, it really is (natural). I just really love this program.”
Bell and “Hallelujah” is a near-perfect marriage of skater and material that is unlikely, if not impossible, to happen with a young, teenage champion. After her victory, questions inevitably centered on Bell’s age: at 25, she is the oldest U.S. women’s champion since 1927.
“I personally think it’s really exciting to be sort of a little bit older and showing you can do it at a young age and also an older age,” Bell said, adding that landing a triple axel in competition is a big motivator. I want it to be a known fact that skating doesn’t end at a certain age. I think the idea of wanting to show age is just a number is part of what keeps me going.”
Skating to “Butterfly Lovers,” Chen also produced a mature, polished free skate, with six clean triple jumps. But her opening double axel-triple toe loop combination had the second jump judged under-rotated, while her closing triple loop combination had a shaky landing.
The 2017 U.S. champion, who placed 11th at PyeongChang, spoke of what kept her in the sport.
“I love skating, I love being out on the ice, I love training, I love competing, whether it goes well or it doesn’t go well,” Chen said. “Also, that drive to continue to improve. I know I am capable of skating well and doing good jumps.”
Like Bell, Chen added that landing a triple axel was high on her priority list.
“Both Mariah and I have nice, high double axels,” she said. “We should be able to do triples.”
Isabeau Levito, a 14-year-old from Mount Holly, New Jersey, grabbed the bronze medal with a balletic free skate to selections from Swan Lake that included two triple-triple jump combinations, as well as superb spins. She placed second to Bell in the free skate with 139.75 points and ended with 210.75 points.
Levito is too young to be considered for the Beijing Olympic team. Figure skaters must turn 15 by July 1 of the previous year to be eligible. Her next event is likely to be the 2022 World Junior Figure Skating Championships, scheduled to take place in Sofia, Bulgaria in March.
U.S. Figure Skating will announce the three-member women’s team for Beijing on Saturday. It will certainly include Bell and Chen. Liu, a two-time U.S. champion, is likely to snag the third spot.
Liu, who was third in Thursday’s short program, tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the free skate and could not compete Friday. Drew Meekins, her coach, said they have petitioned for Liu to make the team.