Figure skating prodigy Alysa Liu all in ahead of first senior international year in Olympic season

The youngest figure skater to win the U.S. national championships, the now-16-year-old is ready for the step up to the senior ranks ahead of Beijing 2022. Early results indicate that this could be a big year for the teenager

By ZK Goh
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Nearly three years after Alysa Liu re-wrote the record books to become the youngest U.S. national figure skating champion, the 16-year-old is finally ready for the big time.

This 2021–22 season marks the first time the Californian will skate at senior level internationally, after two years of hype followed by a difficult pandemic-affected season.

Before Liu makes her Grand Prix debut at Skate Canada at the end of October, she will compete in a few Challenger Series events, and also attempt to win the U.S. team a third Olympic spot in ladies' singles for Beijing 2022.

But who exactly is Alysa Liu, and why is there so much hype surrounding her? We take a look below.

2021-22 season: Alysa Liu's senior debut

In one of the most eagerly-anticipated non-Russian senior debuts for a while, Liu will finally compete at a senior Grand Prix in Vancouver from 29-31 October.

She also has a second Grand Prix assignment at the NHK Trophy, set for Tokyo, Japan, from 12–14 November.

Liu began her international senior career at the Cranberry Cup International, a minor non-ISU competition featuring top U.S. skaters as well as South Korea's You Young, and won it.

That gained her selection for the first two Challenger Series events of the season, the Lombardia Trophy and the Nebelhorn Trophy.

The latter will act as an Olympic qualifier, with Liu needing to place in the top six qualifiers to book a third spot for the U.S. women in Beijing.

It might seem like a lot of pressure to put on Liu, and could be an early barometer this year of how she copes with the step up to skating against the world's best.

The potential reward is a long-awaited appearance at the Olympic Games.

Alysa Liu in action during the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, Michigan. 
Picture by 2019 Getty Images

Alysa Liu's early career

Liu was born in 2005 in California to a Chinese-born father, Arthur Liu, and an anonymous egg donor and surrogate mother.

She has four younger siblings, and all five children are raised by their single father. The five children were born to two different surrogate mothers through anonymous donor eggs.

It was her father who got her started in figure skating aged five, with Michelle Kwan serving as the inspiration.

Liu's first coach was Laura Lipetsky, who ended up with her through her developmental years up through the juniors, during which the precocious talent achieved a whole range of firsts.

After much success at the novice level, Liu first announced her arrival as a 12-year-old at the 2018 U.S. nationals, where she won the junior division despite being the youngest skater.

She would follow that up a year later by winning the senior crown, becoming the youngest U.S. champion in history – all while still more than two years from becoming eligible to skate in international senior competitions.

At that competition, Liu also became the first American woman to land three triple Axels in a single competition.

To put her triple Axels into context, only three other American women had landed the jump when she did so: Tonya Harding and Kimmie Meissner first did it at the 1991 and 2005 U.S. Nationals respectively, and Mirai Nagasu at PyeongChang 2018.

Liu as a junior skater

It wouldn't be until the 2019-20 season that Liu could make her international junior debut, doing so in a non-ISU sanctioned event, the Aurora Cup.

There, she jumped a quad Lutz, a feat she would go on to repeat in official competition at the Lake Placid Junior Grand Prix in August 2019 on her competitive debut at an ISU event.

Landing the jump cleanly made her the first U.S. woman to complete a quad in international competition, and she went on to win the event, becoming the first U.S. winner of a Junior Grand Prix competition in six years.

That was the first of two wins on the junior international circuit that year, as she added a second at the JGP Poland in Gdansk – again landing a quad Lutz – to qualify for the Final.

She finished second at the JGP Final behind Kamila Valieva – who could well be one of her rivals at Beijing 2022, should they both be selected – but fell on two quad Lutz attempts there.

Speaking to Sports Illustrated earlier in the summer of 2019, she said: "(The) quad Lutz isn't hard, but quad (Salchow), I cannot do quad Sal, it is so hard, oh my God."

That winter, she also successfully defended her national title, making her the youngest two-time U.S. champion. However, she was still more than a year away from being eligible senior competition, and was not able to be sent to the (eventually cancelled) World Championships.

Instead, she ended her season by placing third at the 2020 edition of junior worlds.

Alysa Liu's height and growth spurt

The 2020-21 season should have been Liu's big farewell to the junior ranks ahead of switching up to the seniors, but – coronavirus pandemic aside – it did not go the way she planned.

Aside from the Junior Grand Prix season being cancelled, Liu went through a growth spurt.

"I just went from really short to very short," she described at the time to NBC.

She went from 139cm (4'7") to 152cm (5'0"), which threw her jumps off due to the change in her physiology.

Before her increase in height, then-coach Lipetsky had intended for Liu to add more points away from the jumps – faster spins and cleaner skating skills. That meant beginning to work with famed choreographer Lori Nichol in Toronto.

"Hopefully this year I will grow and I will all of a sudden be able to present my choreography better," Liu told SI.

Changing coaches and recovering from setbacks

However, COVID-19 travel restrictions meant Liu was subsequently unable to train in Canada with Nichol in spring 2020, after she had decided to leave Lipetsky who had coached her for a decade.

Instead, she ended up working in San Francisco and Oakland with new coaches Jeremy Abbott, a four-time U.S. national champion, and Italian Olympian Massimo Scali, with Calgary 1988 champion Brian Boitano also offering advice whenever they saw each other at the rink.

Liu also suffered a hip injury after falling in practice during the domestic 2020–21 season, which forced her to stop jumping triples until she was fully recovered.

Without her triple Axel or quad Lutz, she eventually placed fourth at the U.S. nationals.

She has since resumed practising both the triple Axel and quads, in preparation for the step up to seniors.

With so much already achieved in such a short time, it's easy to see why there is so much attention on Liu, and the reason for high expectations on her shoulders.

At a young age, she has already performed to a high level and recovered from setbacks.

Now the biggest test of her young career so far awaits her, one she has prepared three years for – Olympic qualification, and potentially the Winter Games themselves.