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Mariah Bell, with a near-perfect free skate, wins gold at U.S. championships

Mariah Bell was nearly flawless in the women's free skate program during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Friday in Nashville. (Mark Zaleski/AP)
6 min

NASHVILLE — For years, Mariah Bell has lingered just off the fringe of being one of America’s top female figure skaters, close enough to flash potential, but inconsistency kept her from being the best. At 25, she has never been an Olympian.

But then came Friday night and a near-perfect free skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, nailing the landing on a triple Lutz, her hardest jump, to win the national championship. And when the women’s team for the Beijing Olympics is announced Saturday afternoon, she will probably be on it, most likely with Karen Chen, whose 213.85 was just short of Bell’s 216.25.

A bigger question will be if they will be joined by the United States’ top female skater, Alysa Liu, who missed the free skate after testing positive for the coronavirus earlier in the day. Liu’s body of work the past two years might earn her a spot, but her absence in Bridgestone Arena meant her place on the team was not a certainty. Bronze medal winner Isabeau Levito, who seemed the most popular skater inside Bridgestone Arena, is too young at 14 to compete in the Olympics.

Highlights from the women’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships

But the politics of the team selection seemed secondary in the minutes after Bell’s victory as her eyes watered and she savored a victory that would have seemed unlikely a year ago when she finished fifth at nationals and it appeared that her career might be over. Instead, she becomes the oldest U.S. female champion since 1927.

“In the last nine years ... ” Bell started to say in the news conference after her victory, before pausing.

“Have I been a senior (skater) for nine years?” She asked, her voice filled with a tinge of disbelief.

Yes, she was told, this is her ninth year as a senior at nationals.

She laughed.

“Last year was tough but I never really thought about quitting,” she said.

Later she added “It’s really exciting to be a little bit older, I guess and showing that you can do it at a young age and an older age. I’m 25 so I’m not ancient. But in skating it is.”

She laughed again.

Her performances on Thursday and Friday, in which she won both the short program and the free skate, showed her evolution at an age when many other skaters are considering retirement. Last summer, feeling her routines were complicated, she tore everything down to the basics and slowly built back up. She also added former Olympic skater Adam Rippon as a coach, which has challenged her to be a stronger skater and to also enjoy skating.

This week, that joy appeared to show in her skating.

“I think there’s a lot to say about experience and you can tap into that and really use that to your advantage in a lot of competitions and I definitely have that," Bell said. "I don’t think it’s gotten any easier or harder I just understand my body better.”

Still, it was the skaters who weren’t inside the arena who were the bigger story on Friday. Six hours before the free skate, U.S. Figure Skating announced that Liu was out of the nationals. Later that day, another top skater, Amber Glenn, withdrew following a positive test of her own.

Coming two days after the almost-certain-to-be-Beijing-bound pairs team of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier had to pull out when Frazier tested positive, Liu and Glenn’s departures seemed to rattle many of the remaining skaters and their coaches. Several scrambled to move up their flights from Nashville, determined to leave as soon as possible following their final performances. The scramble to be on the Olympic team that will be announced this weekend was suddenly mixed with the uncertainty of who would be the next to test positive.

Gracie Gold delivers one final, unexpected moment of glory at U.S. championships

All competitors at the championships had to show a negative coronavirus test upon arrival at the event this week to participate, but U.S. Figure Skating officials have required a second rapid test during the week. Liu’s positive result came on a test taken Friday.

“I’m fully vaccinated, have been wearing a N95 mask and got 2 negative test results before leaving to Nashville,” she wrote in a post on her Instagram account Friday afternoon. “Things happen unfortunately but it is what it is. I’m thankful to us figure skating for taking the extra precautions and having the necessary testing facilities to help keep everyone here as safe as possible. I’m feeling good physically and mentally and I’m wishing all the girls good luck for tonight! Thank you for the support.”

Despite her positive test, Liu still has an excellent chance to make the Olympic team; the three women who will get the chance to compete in Beijing will be announced Saturday afternoon. U.S. Figure Skating rules allow athletes who do not perform well in the nationals to submit a written petition to U.S. Figure Skating’s International Committee highlighting their body of work. Knierim and Frazier also can petition and probably will be selected for Beijing as well.

The committee was due to meet late Friday night after the free skate to pick the three women for the Olympic team. It would be hard for the committee to leave Bell off the team and nearly impossible to ignore Chen. The final spot will probably be Liu.

It’s the reverse of how many expected the nationals would go for the women. Before Friday, Liu appeared the one certainty with Chen a likely choice and the third spot uncertain. Instead, the winner was a woman nine years older than Liu, a skater many never imagined would come closer than her second place finish in 2020 of winning the U.S. Championships.

“I want it to be a known fact that skating doesn’t end at a certain age,” Bell said.

Note: The dance team of Madison Chock and Evan Bates took Friday afternoon’s rhythm dance competition with a score of 91.94, barely beating out the team of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue (89.39), leaving the two only separated by less than two points going into Saturday’s free dance final.

What to know about the Beijing Olympics

The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics have come to a close.

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Watch Washington Post reporters recall notable moments from the 2022 Winter Games and what it was like to cover the Olympics from a pandemic bubble in Beijing.

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“Olympic governance is not apolitical. It is recklessly illogical. It is not protecting athletes and competitive integrity in adherence to the convoluted standards of the World Anti-Doping Agency.” Read Jerry Brewer.

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