Alysa Liu, reigning national ice queen, has no pomp in her daily circumstances
OAKLAND, Calif. – Every weekday morning when she is at home, Alysa Liu makes the 30-minute drive with her father, Arthur, from their house in Richmond, Calif. to her home away from home, the Oakland Ice Center on the edge of downtown.
Arthur Liu, a single father of five, drops off Alysa, 14, his oldest child, just after 8 a.m., and then heads to his law office nearby. She will stay at the rink for nearly all the next nine or so hours before he picks her up for the trip back to Richmond.
Alysa, a 10th grader, rolls a wheeled suitcase with her skating necessities into the small lobby of the 25-year-old facility, which is not aging gracefully. She leaves the bag behind one of the lobby tables, which are woven metal covered in plastic, like the narrow benches attached to them.
The lobby is one of the few almost-warm places in a building where the temperature everywhere else runs from bone-chilling to Ice Station Zebra. Liu wears two coats as she sits at one of the lobby tables. She has a laptop with online homework in front of her, smartphone close at hand and ear buds in place during the lengthy stretches when she is not skating one of her three daily practice sessions or doing off ice-training or walking to a nearby restaurant with friends for lunch.
The ice center has no gym and no weight room. It has no space to do physical training other than the lobby or a walkway above its two ice surfaces or a dark, ground-floor area under the stands, so off-ice work is necessarily limited. For cardio, coach Laura Lipetsky has Liu and some of her other pupils run on the sidewalks near the building.
The competitive skaters share some of their ice time with the public, often younger kids from the Oakland School for the Arts, the school a block away Liu attended for a month before her skating schedule made online home schooling more practical. Even the freestyle practice sessions, presumably for more advanced skaters, draw relative newbies, few of whom know they are on the ice with figure skating royalty.
Such is the environment in which Liu, the reigning national ice queen, goes about her daily routine of skating and schooling.
“I tell my skaters, ‘You get what your get, and you don’t get upset,’” said Lipetsky, punctuating the mantra with her high-pitched, staccato laugh.
“Nobody is spoiled here. It makes you tougher. In a way, I feel like we’re Rocky.’’’
And Liu clearly has no trouble punching above her weight, which is somewhere south of 100 pounds.
At this week’s national championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, she will try to become the youngest ever to win two U.S. figure skating titles.
Liu already is the youngest national champion ever, having won last year while six months shy of her 14th birthday. She did it by becoming the first U.S. woman to land a triple Axel jump in a nationals short program and the first to land two triple Axels in any free skate.
“Yes, she has this title, but there is so much more she wants,” Lipetsky said. “Yes, she is trying to become the best, but she is still just a 14-year-old girl doing something she loves.”
She is a 14-year-old girl who can’t get enough of Disneyland, especially the churros for sale at the amusement park (“I’ll eat five a day.”) Who posts pictures on her Instagram of the gelato she scarfed down in Italy during the week after competing at December’s Junior Grand Prix Final in Turin. Who used some of that extra time in Italy to work on choreography and skating skills with former world champion Carolina Kostner at a rink near Rome and some to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Vatican and the Castel Sant’Angelo. Who plays volleyball in the park with younger sister, Selina, 12. Who can do homework in the noisy lobby and during lunch at a Japanese restaurant but insists she is easily distracted. Who describes herself with amusingly incisive observations.
“I sometimes procrastinate,” she said. “I think skating has taught me to not procrastinate as much. Some days I’ll be like, ‘Next week I’m going to stop procrastinating.’ But that’s procrastination.”
After a flurry of everyone-loves-the-ingénue attention following her win at nationals, Liu had time to put some things off because she was too young for even international junior competition. So, her 2018-19 competitive season ended in late January.
She had time to work on getting a consistent quadruple jump. She had time to begin working with Kostner, a collaboration developed through their mutual choreographer, Toronto-based Lori Nichol. (In the last month, she has also started working on choreography and skills with another Italian, three-time Olympic ice dancer Massimo Scali, who is based in Oakland.)
“I need to improve everything,” Liu said.
In the revolution sweeping women’s figure skating, with quads and triple Axels the paramount weapons, Liu is the only U.S. woman with a jumping arsenal to compete with the sport’s global leaders. U.S. Figure Skating has been looking for a young woman with her talent and potential for nearly all the time since Michelle Kwan left competitive skating in 2006, a period in which U.S. women have won just one medal in 13 World Championships and three Olympics. That’s a lot of hope piled on the shoulders of her 4-foot, 10-inch body.
Such expectations could be a problem for a young woman who was once such a perfectionist that failure to put on a headband just right would leave her near tears. Liu remains self-critical about schoolwork and skating but has learned to be satisfied with very good at those moments when human frailty leaves her short of great.
“I don’t feel [outside] pressure to be the best in the world,” Liu said. “I just take it step by step and work hard for myself.”
The first steps have been reassuring. In this, her first junior season internationally, Liu has become not only the first U.S. woman to qualify for the Junior Grand Prix Final since Polina Edmunds in 2013 but also the first to win a medal (silver) since Hannah Miller’s silver in 2012.
For all that, Liu is not leap years ahead of the other top skaters in the senior field in the U.S. Championships.
Despite the inherent problems of comparing scores where different judging panels are involved, numbers compiled by skatingscores.com show that Liu winning a second straight U.S. title is far from a given.
The two women who finished second and third last year, Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell, have slightly higher mean total scores for their international events this season: 207.90 for Bell, 207.16 for Tennell, 205.28 for Liu. Even if you add about four points to Liu’s score, since it came from junior events, to make up for the extra free skate element (choreographic sequence) in senior events, the totals still are close.
Both Bell, 23, and Tennell, 21, have nearly a 14-point advantage over Liu in mean program component scores (PCS) this season. Those scores reflect the greater speed of movement, interpretive skills and overall sophistication that come with their experience and maturity.
Liu overcame a slightly smaller PCS gap between her and both Tennell and Bell and at nationals last year by doing two nearly clean programs with the three triple Axels (an under-rotated triple toe loop in the short produced her only negative grade of execution (GOE), just -.08.)
Tennell, who led Liu by nearly three points after the short program, and Bell both had less difficult jump content, and both fell once in the free skate. A big gap in technical scores allowed Liu to win by 3.92 overall over Tennell and 5.11 over Bell.
And then there is the old maxim saying it is harder to successfully defend a title than to win it the first time because the reigning first-time champion suddenly faces the stress of the spotlight.
“I’ve actually never heard the saying that defending is harder,” Liu insisted. “I think defending and winning is the same.”
Of the eight women before Liu who have defended an initial title in the 13 seasons since the international judging system has been used at nationals, only Ashley Wagner won two in a row.
“I don’t feel very stressed…yet,” Liu said, with a smile, in late fall.
Asked about it again last week, she said, “I don’t feel pressure that much. I don’t think I will as it comes closer, either. I think I’ve trained well, and I’m ready for nationals.”
Lipetsky looks at it from a different perspective.
“Never do I put in her head, ‘You are now defending champion’ and put on that pressure,” Lipetsky said. “It doesn’t make a difference whether you’re trying to win your first or second. This is a new day, and she keeps wanting to push the limits.”
She did that in her debut season on the Junior Grand Prix, winning two events while adding a quadruple Lutz to her triple Axels, becoming the first U.S. woman to land a quad in competition. She might have pushed too hard at the Junior Grand Prix Final, where she finished second after winning the short program, by trying a second quad Lutz along with the two triple Axels in the free skate.
Of those four jumps, only the first triple Axel was called fully rotated, and she fell on that one. She got negative GOEs on all four. The mistakes cost Liu the title, won by Russia’s Kamila Valieva.
“I think I should had done only one quad, but I really wanted to go for it just for the fun of it,” Liu said at the time. “It was a big risk. Even though I didn’t complete any of them, I am glad to have attempted them.”
Liu said last week she plans to do just one quad Lutz and the two triple Axels in her nationals free skate. But, she added, “Things can change unexpectedly.”
Trying the extra quad – and perhaps a quad Salchow next season – is part of the long game to get Liu on the same level as 15-year-old Russian quadsters Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova by the 2022 Olympics, during what is to be her first senior season.
Her schooling is also part of that plan. Liu, who did first and second grade in one year and takes courses in the summer, expects to finish her high school education at age 15 just before the 2021-22 season. That will allow her to concentrate fully on a transition to senior skating that she hopes will include not only a place on the U.S. team for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games but also a shot at a medal.
After that, she could start college, likely at the University of California-Berkeley, whose intercollegiate skating club team trains at the Oakland Ice Center. While she would not compete for the school, being part of the club would help her with travel to the rink some days.
But after last year’s nationals, planning Liu’s future became more complicated – and expensive.
She had been a prodigy at lower levels – youngest intermediate national champion ever at age 10, junior champion at age 12 in a field where she was the youngest by nearly 15 months. And then, boom! At 13, the youngest ever to win a U.S. senior title – and too young to meet the age minimum for the Junior World Championships.
In an nbcsports.com story a month before the 2019 nationals, she was not shy about her desire to win. In the same story, 1998 Olympic champion and NBC sports commentator Tara Lipinski, who also had a career marked by historically precocious global triumphs, predicted Liu could win and expected her to be on the podium.
That it happened is something Lipetsky said “hasn’t sunk in yet” and left Liu feeling it was a dream.
“After the long program (at nationals), I was like, ‘Is this real? Did I actually do that?’” Liu said.
To help improve her chances of doing it again – and becoming a major factor internationally – Arthur Liu estimates he will spend between $150,000 and $200,000 this season. That includes coaching fees, choreographer fees, costumes, weekly visits to a physical therapist and travel. He accompanies her at competitions, and they spent a month in Toronto last spring so she could work with Nichol and Kostner.
U.S. Figure Skating gives Liu an unspecified amount of direct support funding (it was $40,000 annually for a reigning national champion at times during the previous decade). USFS pays for the skater’s flight and her coach’s flight and hotel at international events. (The International Skating Union covers the skater’s hotel.)
The supportive Oakland Ice Center management has waived her ice time fees for group sessions and given her an hour of ice all to herself twice weekly if no one has bought the time. Jackson Ultima provides her blades and Edea her boots in sponsorship deals.
Liu earned $11,500 in International Skating Union prize money and bonuses for her Junior Grand Prix medals. And Arthur Liu, who is unmarried, is fortunate to have a partner who can care for the four other children, including 10-year-old triplets, while he is traveling with Alysa.
Even after all that, there remain substantial annual skating expenses.
“It’s a very expensive sport,” he said, in a resigned, matter-of-fact tone.
Arthur Liu said his rewards for that investment come from things other than her medals.
“It makes me happy that she has a smile on her face every day,” he said. “It makes me happy when she says, ‘Daddy, I did a clean long program today.’ It makes me happy when at the end of the day she will say, ‘I love you, Daddy, I love you very much.’’’ His response is to echo her affection.
Familial love is a big piece of his story and a reason why he has created a large family. His five children were born to two surrogate mothers via egg donors.
Arthur Liu, 54, who earned an MBA from Cal State Hayward and a law degree from the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, grew up in a tiny mountain village in southwestern China as one of six children. His mother, Shu, farmed, and his father, Cai Fu, managed a government agricultural coop.
He was a first-year graduate student in British and American literature at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou when Chinese students began pro-democracy protests in the spring of 1989. Fearing reprisals because he had taken an active part in Guangzhou demonstrations before and after the government’s June, 4 1989 massacre of student protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Liu soon fled China for the United States, which granted him refugee status.
He had no family in his new country. He would not see his father for a dozen years, returning to China briefly just before his death in 2001. Memories of the separation remain so painful Arthur Liu cried when talking about them last fall.
“(Traditional) Chinese parents never say they love you to their children,’” Liu said. “So when I heard my father sound really sick and really emotional on the phone, I knew I had to go back, even if I was a little worried.”
Arthur Liu says he has no fears about returning to China with Alysa should she make the U.S. team for the Beijing Olympics. Truth be told, such a trip still seems a little surreal to him.
“I didn’t expect this when I first took her to an ice rink at age five,” he said. “She continues to amaze me.”
Over the last year, Alysa Liu has amazed everyone in the sport. But she is too busy to think of what she has already done. She has to finish the biology homework started over lunch at a sushi restaurant. Then have another practice. And some off-ice training, such as it is – crunches, push-ups, floor jumps.
She munches an apple while checking her phone at the lobby table. A poster with her picture hangs on a bulletin board a few feet to her right. She sees it all the time but never notices it anymore. Her focus is elsewhere. On the laptop. On the ice. This is a new day.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.
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