For reigning U.S. figure skating champion Alysa Liu, growing pains shrink expectations
It’s easy to understand why Alysa Liu has altered her perspective for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships next week in Las Vegas.
“I don’t necessarily care about my placement anymore,” Liu said via telephone Wednesday.
The two-time defending champion realizes she will be hard-pressed to make it three straight. Getting onto the awards podium might even be out of reach, given what the 15-year-old Liu has been dealing with this season:
*There is a growing body, three inches taller than a year ago, which has changed her center of gravity, making it challenging to do the jumps she had easily tossed off the previous two seasons. And a hip injury that kept her from practicing triple jumps for nearly a month after she struggled through a free skate at an Oct. 27 team event in Las Vegas.
*There is bouncing from rink to rink because of pandemic restrictions in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives and trains. And trying to adapt to a new coaching team headed by Italian Olympic ice dancer Massimo Scali – and including Toronto-based Lori Nichol and Lee Barkell - after Liu split in early spring with Laura Lipetsky, who had coached her since age 5.
*There is being able to work with Barkell and Nichol only via video because of travel restrictions. And then changing the arrangement by eliminating the remote coaching and adding another coach, four-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott, to work with her in person.
So it’s no wonder Liu has different expectations than a year ago, when she was strongly favored to win her second straight title.
“Obviously, you want to win, but the most important thing will be to skate my best,” Liu said. “You can win and skate bad, and you don’t feel so good about yourself. I would rather skate very well and not focus on placement.”
Skating very well would presumably be enough for Liu to challenge for the title again. That presumption has to be somewhat discounted because she will not be doing either a triple axel or a quadruple jump, and her triple-triple jump combinations may not be the sure thing they have been.
The triple axels and the combinations accounted for most of the huge numerical advantage Liu had in free skate technical scores, her winning margin at the last two U.S. Championships. She said she has not practiced any quads for weeks and began reworking the triple axel only last week.
“She is already the champion of this season to me because of the way didn’t give up during one of the toughest times in her life and career,” Scali said in a text message. “At nationals, we are going to fight and to show that Alysa Liu is so much more than just her big jumps.
“This is a stage, not the final destination, and I will be proud of her no matter what (her finish is).”
Liu, 13 when she became the youngest senior champion in history in 2019, still was not age eligible for senior international competition this season. With the cancellation of both the Junior Grand Prix circuit and the World Junior Championships due to COVID-19, nationals is likely her last competition of this season.
“This season doesn’t feel like a season,” she said. “I’m a little sad we can’t compete, but I understand why. I would rather everyone be safe.”
Liu was just beginning to adjust to her physical changes when she hurt her right hip on a wonky triple axel landing during practice at the free skate-only team event. She wisely watered down the program there, popping the solo triple axel and doing far more double jumps (seven) than triples (two).
“It has been pretty difficult (to jump with a different body),” she said. “It was extra difficult because I grew and also had an injury.”
Her score in the team event, 110.80, was substantially below her lowest in the free skate as either a senior or junior in international competition or national championships the past three seasons.
“I just wanted to compete. I didn’t care how bad I did,” she said, with a laugh.
A few weeks earlier, she had finished fourth in U.S. Figure Skating’s ISP Points Challenge, a virtual event for which skaters submitted video of a short program and a free skate. Her overall score would be closer to sixth place than to third.
And if she also is out of the medals at nationals?
“I don’t think I will be too disappointed,” she said. “I’m mostly planning for after nationals when I get to train my quad jumps again. I’m excited for that.”
Liu said she knew intellectually that adapting to physical changes could be a struggle. When it happened over the last several months, she was forced to face its reality. The good thing is it happened before the 2022 Olympic season, when she will be a senior internationally.
“I was not prepared for it at all,” she said. “I knew I eventually was going to grow, but I just didn’t want to believe it. Then I became more used to it and got hurt.”
Liu hopes that the extra work she had done on skating skills will show – especially because it was nearly all she could work on during the month when her jumping was limited by the injury.
“Hopefully, it all looks better than the last competition,” she said.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Olympic Winter Games, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.