Alysa Liu is one step closer to securing the U.S. a third women's spot for the coming Olympic Games Beijing 2022.
The 16-year-old, already a two-time national champion but in her first senior season on the international circuit, looked in fierce form on Thursday (23 Sept.) at Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, the final Olympic qualifier for figure skating.
Liu scored a 70.86 for her "Gypsy Dance" short program, five points clear of second-place finisher Alexia Paganini of Switzerland (65.65).
The ISU Challenger event is being used as the final Olympic qualifier for figure skating, with quota spots - positions qualified for each country, not individual skaters - up for grabs across all four disciplines. Six said spots are available for women's singles.
The U.S. already has two spots from worlds earlier this year.
"I'm hard on myself... but based on how I felt, (that was) a six or seven out of ten," Liu said with a smile about her performance, which was clearly the best of the day.
Liu continued: "I'm really honoured to be picked (by the federation) to secure the third spot. ... This is a big responsibility (for me)."
Following Liu and Paganini, Viktoriia Safonova (Belarus), Kailani Craine (Australia), Anastasia Shabotova (Ukraine) and Ekaterina Kurakova (Poland) round out the top six. The next closest skater with Olympic qualification implications is seven points back from Kurakova.
Earlier in the day, Liu's American teammate Vincent Zhou also skated into the lead in the men's event.
U.S. chasing third spot as others seek first
Earlier this year at the world championships it was Karen Chen and Bradie Tennell, both 2018 Olympians, who secured two spots for Team USA - and gave the country the chance to pick up a third if Liu could finish in the top six at Nebelhorn.
The 2019 and 2020 U.S. champion, Liu went through a noticeable growth spurt last season and finished fourth at U.S. Championships. But her skating has a more mature quality to it this year, coached by Olympians Jeremy Abbott and Massimo Scali, she bursted with energy at the right moments on Thursday, and hit a double Axel, triple flip and triple Lutz-triple toe combination to round out her short.
"I'm doing a double for the short and triple for the long," Liu said of her triple Axel, which she had been practising this week. "That was what we planned."
"I don't know about pressure... in the back of my mind (maybe) this is to secure the third spot," she added. "I felt the ice better (today). I'll feel the ice more (in the free)."
The 19-year-old Paganini, who grew up in the U.S., skated at PyeongChang 2018 and is looking to make her second Olympics.
"I think as I perform, I only think about what I have to do (on the ice), but it's extremely challenging to prepare for an event knowing that it's your last chance to get that Olympic quota," she said. "Going into this event it was challenging to keep a cool and calm mind."
Paganini was smooth through her Gershwin "Summertime" short, including a triple Lutz-triple toe combo to open, triple loop and double Axel.
While Liu and the U.S. are after a third spot for Beijing, each of Switzerland, Belarus, Australia, Ukraine and Poland are seeking their first.
Craine: 'It didn't come without its challenges'
Australia's Craine, like Paganini trying to make her second Games, qualified for 2018 via Nebelhorn - by winning the event. The nerves around it are familiar to her.
"My short program didn't come without its challenges, for sure," she said. "Ever since I woke up this morning I've been very nervous... it's just the Nebelhorn vibe; it's a feeling you can only get (here in) the Olympic season."
"It was still a fight (on the ice), but I still accomplished my goals," she added. "There is nothing like this competition... it's very emotional. It means a lot to all of us."
Craine hit a triple Lutz, then held on in a triple loop-triple loop combination before securing her double Axel.
The women's free skate starts Saturday morning local time. See the full schedule and results here.