Opinion: Two-time champion Alysa Liu not discouraged by fourth-place finish at U.S. figure skating championships

For the first time in three years, 2018 Olympic team bronze medalist Bradie Tennell did not have to help the diminutive Alysa Liu to the top of the medal podium at the U.S. figure skating championships. That’s because this year, Liu didn’t win. No, it was the steady Tennell, 22, who regained her footing and found herself back on top of American women’s skating with the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games just 13 months away.

Liu, now 15 and struggling to manage a growth spurt amid the stops and starts of this pandemic season, finished fourth Friday night at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, not only behind Tennell, but also Amber Glenn and Karen Chen, although the difference between second and fourth was less than two points.

Normally, a drop from consecutive first-place finishes to fourth would be labeled a failure. Not this time. This was a most intriguing fourth-place finish because of what it signaled, because of the possibilities and promise for this talented teenager in the upcoming Olympic year.

Alysa Liu should be the United States women's best hope for a medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics. (Photo: Orlando Ramirez, USA TODAY Sports)

The history of women’s figure skating is dotted with the stories of young skaters like Liu, little jumping beans who arrive as if they were shot out of a cannon, only to fall by the wayside, if not disappear entirely, when puberty hits and the triple jumps go.

Two years ago, when she became the youngest U.S. women’s champion in history at 13, Liu was 4-7. Last year, she was 4-10. This year, she said she is 5-1.

Her triple axel and quadruple lutz, so easy last season, became such nightmares this season that she didn’t try them in Friday night’s long program. Those are the jumps she will need to take on the seemingly endless stream of talented Russians next year at the Olympics to have a chance to win a medal.

While Tennell is a seasoned international competitor, Liu remains the one to watch. If she is able to ride out the changes to her body and regain those jumps, she will be the only American with the arsenal of jumps necessary to compete with the Russians at their own game.

"This year has been difficult for me because there hasn’t been as much time to train," Liu said. "I just had a really hard time. This is so ironic: what a perfect time to grow when there’s barely any skating you can do.

"That’s sarcasm by the way," she said with a smile. "It was a little tough with the quarantine going on and growing, but I’m starting to manage it better now."

It showed in the Vegas skating bubble Friday night. As some of her jumps have left her, a sense of maturity and grace has replaced them. Her artistry, such a vital piece of the skating puzzle, has greatly improved. If she gets comfortable with her changing body and can land the hard jumps again, that developing sense of style will hold her in good stead with the judges next year.

The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented international drought in women’s skating, a discipline it once dominated. Only one U.S. woman has won an Olympic or world medal since 2006 (Ashley Wagner’s silver medal at the 2016 world championships). The three American women who competed at the 2018 Olympics in South Korea finished a dismal ninth, 10th and 11th, the worst U.S. performance ever.

U.S. women’s skating needs some luck. Wishing and hoping on the progress of a 15-year-old might seem like too much to ask, unless Friday’s competition ends up as a stepping stone to greatness, a prelude to something much bigger.

Follow columnist Christine Brennan on @cbrennansports.

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