Skating prodigy Alysa Liu, a senior national competitor at 13, is using the present to avoid future shock
The idea was to show Alysa Liu what her future might look like and for her to get comfortable seeing herself in that picture.
So Samuel Auxier, U.S. Figure Skating’s international committee chair, arranged for Liu and her coach, Laura Lipetsky, to attend the junior and senior Grand Prix Final competitions earlier this month in Vancouver.
“Having judged and watched the Junior Grand Prixes, it was clear our skaters competing their first time in them were often very intimidated by the Russian and Japanese ladies,” Auxier said.
He soon realized that Liu isn’t intimidated by much.
“At first, she was amazed by the Russian ladies, but then (she) wanted to get out there and show them her triple Axels,” Auxier said.
That’s right, triple Axels.
The triple Axels Liu, 13, plans to show in the senior competition at next month’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit.
The jumps that make 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski think Liu is good enough to take the senior national title three seasons before she will be age eligible for senior international events.
Lipinski, who will be commentating at nationals for NBC, knows whereof she speaks on the subject of precocious success. She is the youngest Olympic champion in history (age 15) and the youngest world champion in history (14), and she finished 15th in the senior world championships at 13 (age eligibility rules then were different.)
“If Alysa does all her elements, she has a very real chance to win the event,” Lipinski said. “I think we will definitely see her on the podium unless something goes terribly wrong.”
The idea of standing not just on the senior national podium but on the top step is among the goals that motivate Liu as she trains at the Oakland, Calif. Ice Center. That objective is born not out of excessive self-confidence but out of relentless competitiveness and desire to excel in this effusive, engaging young lady from Richmond, Calif.
“I hope to win, obviously,” Liu said. “I’d never go into a competition hoping I medal. I always strive for first, even if it’s not possible.”
Liu already has defied probability at a speed that makes anything seem possible right now.
In 2016, at age 10, she became the youngest intermediate U.S. champion in history. Last year, at 12, a six-clean-triple-jump free skate (with two triple-triple combinations) made her junior national champion in a 12-skater field where she was the youngest by nearly 15 months.
This year, Liu will be the only one of 22 senior women’s entrants at nationals under 15 years old. Defending champion Bradie Tennell turns 21 a week after nationals, and the leading title contender, Mariah Bell, is 22.
Even Liu is a bit surprised by how fast this has happened.
“Sometimes I’m overwhelmed,” Liu said. “I’m like, ‘Omigod, I have a triple Axel, and not a lot of people in the world have it.’ Then I tell myself, ‘Don’t think you’re the best in the world. You’re not the best yet.’”
Comparing scores – especially comparing international and national scores, since the latter usually are more generous – can be a fool’s errand. But the total, short program and free skate numbers Liu racked up while qualifying for nationals by winning November’s Pacific Coast Sectional event are higher than the best scores of any U.S. woman this season at any event above club level.
The numbers themselves mean less than how she got them. Her short program at sectionals included a clean triple Axel and a clean triple Lutz-triple toe combination. Her free skate there had a clean triple Axel-double toe combination and two clean triple-triple combinations.
And, just for the fun of it in practice last April, she tossed off a triple Axel-triple toe-triple toe-double toe combination.
It is such advanced technical ability that explains the decision to have Liu move up to the senior level nationally this season, even given her being too young for even junior competition internationally until next season. (Her 13th birthday was Aug. 8, five weeks past the July 1 cutoff.)
“After I won (the junior national title), I didn’t want to stay in juniors two years,” Liu said. “I want to get the experience of competing against the best seniors.”
That logic also helps explain why four of the five Russians who qualified for this season’s Junior Grand Prix Final are scheduled to compete in seniors at the Russian Championships this week. The Russians began letting juniors compete with the seniors as part of what became a stunningly successful rebuild of their women’s skating program leading to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
For example: Elizaveta Tuktamysheva was barely 12 when she finished eighth as a senior at Russian nationals in 2010. Tuktamysheva, 22, has gone on to win the 2015 World title and the bronze medal in the senior Grand Prix Final last month. And Yevgenia Medvedeva, eventually a two-time world champion and 2018 Olympic silver medalist, was 12 when she finished eighth in her first senior nationals.
Athletes whom the legendary Dick Button famously called “baby ballerinas” competed as seniors in the U.S. Championships in the 1990s. They included Lipinski, 2002 Olympic champion Sarah Hughes and Michelle Kwan, all 13 or younger in their senior debuts.
Kwan was 12 when she finished sixth at her first senior nationals in 1993. At the time, Kwan said, innocently, of competitors Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, “It’s kind of fun skating with the older people. They’ve been around for a couple hundred years. I’m just starting to rise.” Kerrigan then was 23, Harding 22.
Kwan, whom Liu cites along with 2010 Olympic champion Yuna Kim of South Korea as her favorite skaters, rose to the sport’s stratosphere. She became a two-time Olympic medalist, five-time world champion and nine-time national champion.
Yet the step up to seniors is a challenge, no matter how gifted the young athlete.
“It’s always a little intimidating turning senior and skating senior nationals for the first time,” Lipinski said. “There isn’t pressure at the junior level. You competed all the time there, and nerves didn’t get to you, so you became almost oblivious to pressure.
“I do remember feeling so nervous and jittery at my first seniors [she was bronze medalist at age 13]. I definitely needed that year, needed to go to worlds and mess up [23rd after the short program; only 24 made the free skate] to learn about dealing with the nerves from competing on the top international level. Skating is about talent, but it’s also about timing. That was on my side.”
Liu’s timing is more complicated because of rules changes about minimum international competition ages that became effective over the last 15 years.
The 2022 Olympic season would be Liu’s first as a senior internationally (the senior age minimum is 15 by July 1 preceding the season). In her lone international competition this season, the Asian Open last August in Bangkok, Liu had to compete in the advanced novice division, which she won – but in which the program length and number of elements performed are fewer than in seniors.
“It is a little frustrating to wait,” Liu said. “But then again, I need more practice before I can be against the best.”
Russia’s Alina Zagitova was able to go from world junior champion to 2018 Olympic champion in just one year.
“But that’s really rare,” Lipinski said. It had, indeed, never happened before.
“I try to look at the international situation as a positive,” Lipetsky said. “Alysa has time to get stronger and stronger and stronger and have the tools so we can compete for first place.”
Such discussions about the Olympics are, of course, a bit premature in Liu’s case. But they are behind why Lipetsky wanted her to gain senior experience as soon as possible. It is also why she has begun working on quadruple jumps, as several of the Russian juniors are doing.
The timetable and the plan changed when Liu won last season’s U.S. junior title a year after finishing just fourth in novice.
“Winning juniors showed her it’s possible to be the best,” Lipetsky said. “It was a step towards the ultimate goal of trying to be national champion and world champion and win the Olympics. It’s a step-by-step process.”
The first step came when her father, Arthur, brought 5-year-old Alysa one weekend to the Oakland Ice Center, where Lipetsky teaches.
A journey of one thousand miles had begun.
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Arthur Liu’s narration of how they got to that point describes a journey that was much longer and more unusual.
He was born 54 years ago in Mingxing, a mountain village of 200 inhabitants in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province, as one of six siblings of a father who had a government job and a mother who farmed. He said the village did not have electricity during his childhood there.
He had the good fortune to reach high school age just after the end of the brutalizing Cultural Revolution, in which intellectual development was not only scorned but often punished. From test results, Arthur Liu would win a place in a boarding school in Chongqing, now a city of eight million.
He got bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Chinese universities and left China at age 25 for California, where he went on to an MBA at Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), a law degree at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and a career as a legal general practitioner. He also is a single father of five children ranging in age from Alysa to 9-year-old triplets. They were born to two surrogate mothers through anonymous egg donors.
Liu told Alysa about the circumstances of her birth about five years ago, when she asked, “Why do I look different? Why don’t I look Chinese?” She had met the woman who bore her before knowing of the link between them. They have visited each other since.
“Alysa and a friend had almost figured it out on their own,” Arthur Liu said. “So she wasn’t surprised when I told her.”
His mother, Shu, spent some eight years in California helping him raise the five young children, returning to China two years ago. Since then, a friend has taken over some of those parenting duties, which became a logistical high-wire act as Alysa began to spend more and more time at the rink.
The first skating trip had led immediately to group lessons with Lipetsky that ended with a skills test. The coach told Arthur Liu his daughter had done well and asked if they wanted to try private lessons.
“You could see how eager she was to learn and the love she had for skating,” Lipetsky said. “Over time, I saw she could be good. She wanted to learn, and I wanted to guide.”
For the first few years, that meant getting up at 4:30 a.m. at their home in suburban Oakland so she could do skating lessons and regular school. By the time she was 10, that arrangement became untenable because of missing so much school time while traveling to competitions, so Arthur Liu decided to have Alysa home schooled via Connections Academy courses.
Now she wakes at 6:45. Before he goes to work, her father takes the four younger children to school, then drops Alysa at the rink for the first of what can be three training sessions spaced over eight hours during the week. She does homework between sessions, usually eats dinner in the car on her way home with her dad and is asleep by 8:30. (A friend picks up the other children at school, feeds them and gets them ready for bed.) She skates for an hour on Saturday and Sunday.
Lipetsky, a married mother of two, has been coaching some 20 years. At 15, the coach finished ninth in the 1995 U.S. Championships. Injuries derailed her competitive career, and she went on to get a degree from the University of California.
Liu is Lipetsky’s first student to qualify for nationals. It is not surprising that some in the skating community have questioned the idea of Liu staying with such a little-known coach. Lipetsky has heard the questions but is not concerned.
“Alysa is a very smart girl, and she knows what works for her,” Lipetsky said. “She understands me very well, and she and her dad have trust in me. I know when to give her easy days and when to push her. It has been proven in the results.”
The eligibility peculiarities created by Alysa’s August birthday have given the coach more time to have her try more difficult elements. With no major competition open to her after last year’s nationals, they began perfecting the three-and-a-half-revolution triple Axel, which no other top U.S. skater is likely to do at nationals.
Only three U.S. women – Harding, Kimmie Meissner and Mirai Nagasu – had been credited with landing one in competition before Liu hit the jump in the Asian Open, making her the youngest in the world ever to land it in an international event. She now is doing one in the short program and two in the free skate, with a success rate of about 50 percent clean in her competitions this season.
“I had a ‘wow’ feeling for a little while after she began landing them consistently in practice,” Lipetsky said. “Then I felt it was just part of getting all the tools to put into the bag. It was just another tool for us to have.”
The same is true of quadruple jumps. Liu tried two quad Lutzes in the free skate at this season’s regionals, singling the first and falling after under-rotating the second. The quads then were set aside until after nationals, when, once again, she will have time to practice them.
“They wanted to experiment at regionals,” Arthur Liu said. “Sectionals, we wanted clean programs going to nationals. So no quads.”
That Alena Kostornaia of Russia just won the Junior Grand Prix Final without a quad, while two of her countrywomen badly botched attempts at them, does not dissuade either Lipetsky or Liu from wanting to master them.
“You can’t get stuck in a mindset of, ‘We won’t need quads,’” Lipetsky said. “You always want to push the envelope and challenge yourself. If you stand still, someone else will come out there and do more than you.”
Liu’s immaturity as a performer notwithstanding, the triple Axels – and her triple-triple combinations – already can give her a substantial advantage at the U.S. Championships.
“But you don’t know how someone will react to the pressure of being on the senior level and knowing her technical score is what is going to give her that gold,” Lipinski said. “She has to hit those jumps.”
No matter what happens, when someone asks Liu what comes next, she will be able to say, “I’m going to Disneyland.”
That has become a post-nationals ritual for the Liu and Lipetsky families the last few years.
“It’s sooooo much fun,” Liu said, the emphasis in her voice making her sounding every bit the kid she still is.
There’s no need to rush to the future.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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