Exclusive! Mariah Bell looks ahead: 'I want to push my boundaries'

As women’s figure skating is dominated by teenagers, 24-year-old American Mariah Bell is coming off what she calls her best season ever. And she talks about learning from Nathan Chen and Adam Rippon.

By Nick McCarvel

Mariah Bell couldn’t hear her music over the loudspeaker inside the arena. And that was for good reason.

As the American figure skater performed the closing seconds of her “Hallelujah” free skate at the 2020 US Figure Skating Championships, the crowd inside the Greensboro Coliseum rose to its feet, roaring in approval of what many consider to be one of the standout performances of the truncated 2019-20 figure skating season.

“It was so incredible… I feel like it's a moment that I had envisioned so many times,” Bell tells Olympic Channel in an exclusive chat. “I believe in manifesting events, (but) you obviously can't manifest something if you don't put in the work.”

Work is something the Southern California-based Bell hasn’t shied away from, finishing on the American podium in three of the last four seasons – her silver in January her best-ever result – and securing herself a spot in the top 10 in the world, following a season in which she won two Grand Prix bronze medals, her first ISU Challenger gold (at Nebelhorn) and skated that chill-inducing free skate performance in January.

“It's by far the best season of my career,” says Bell. “I've been able to look back and I'm so proud of everything that I've done. I had a lot of huge moments and, overall, (my) consistency was much better than I have had in any other season.”

While Bell trains alongside two-time world champion and compatriot Nathan Chen with coach Rafael Arutunian, some of that credit is owed, she says, to Olympic team bronze medallist Adam Rippon, her friend and former training mate, whom she added to her coaching staff at the outset of the 2019-20 season.

“Bringing in Adam was, I think, a huge part of my success last year,” says Bell, who previously had Rippon on as a choreographer.

“He just gave me so many ideas and it was a completely fresh perspective... (he) freshened things up in terms of training. He brought a lot out of me.” --Mariah Bell on coach Adam Rippon

Part of what Rippon has helped Bell channel is an edgier on-ice persona, which Adam became known for at the close of his career. Her short program last year was to Britney Spears, and this season Rippon has choreographed her short to “Glitter in the Air” by pop artist Pink.

And for the free skate? Bell’s other choreographer, Shae-Lynn Bourne, has laid out a fan favourite for her: ABBA.

“I've done some slower (programs) the last few seasons, and it was kind of like… as much as I would love to do something like that again, I need to push myself out of my boundaries a little bit,” she explains. “I'm super excited about it. I've got ‘Dancing Queen’ in there, and then I also have a slower part with ‘The Winner Takes it All.’”

“It's just something different. … I feel like these two programs have the potential, again, to be so special for me.”

With last season’s world championships in Montreal cancelled due to COVID-19, the Grand Prix Series this coming fall, the ISU said earlier this month, would be limited: Skaters would be sent to one assignment vs. their normal two, and most would go to regional events, meaning Bell would likely compete at Skate America in late October.

But after spending several weeks with her parents and sister, Morgan (who performs as Anna for Disney on Ice), in a camper in the Palm Springs area in April and May, Bell returned home to the greater Los Angeles area and Great Park Ice, where she has been training – with social distance measures in place – with Chen and Arutunian, though without her boyfriend, the French skater Romain Ponsart, who remains in France.

She says the elongated training time has allowed her to work on aspects of her skating that usually get swept aside due to competition preparations, including the sought-after triple Axel.

In a wide-ranging video call with Olympic Channel, Bell – with her bunnies Gizmo and Turbo hopping around nearby – discussed the challenges that the pandemic has put on her training, what she’s still aiming to accomplish in the sport, her relationship with Arutunian and Rippon and much, much more.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

A season to remember

Olympic Channel (OC): Mariah, let’s first look back at last season. How do you reflect on it? You said it was your best ever?
Mariah Bell:
Yeah, I think so. It's funny because while it was happening, it was just really awesome, but I was always focused to the next thing. It was: ‘OK, got that accomplished, now let’s move on to the next thing.; It's fun to look back now and think through it and see all the things that I really did and like you say, I think it's. I think it’s the combination of the two years with Rafael, the extra experience, adding in Adam to help me train… you know, I'm really, really proud of everything that happened last season.

OC: We talked a little bit about this earlier, but that moment at nationals… your free skate, the standing ovation. What are your memories of that?
As you start to put in the work, you can see these things happening. You're like, ‘Oh, this could really happen… I could really have an awesome nationals.’ And that's what I wanted to do with “Hallelujah,” because it was a program that is so special to me and I loved training it. I did so many run-throughs of it again and again and again and over and over. And I loved it every single time.

At [U.S. Championships] I remember thinking, ‘This is unreal.’ I felt like I had to, like, gasp for air at the end because I just couldn't believe that it happened. I remember seeing my parents jumping up and down. And I think that’s what made me emotional, because through everything, different coaches, living in different places, my parents have always, always supported me and been the constant through it all. To be able to share that with them as well meant a lot to me.

Adding in Adam Rippon

OC: You have this huge crescendo, but then decide not to go to Four Continents in South Korea. But then worlds are cancelled. How do you reflect on that?
This thing [COVID-19] has spread, you know, starting in one place to the entire world. It shows how truly connected we are. And beyond that, how insignificant figure skating is. And, you know, sometimes I think especially if skaters we need that [reminder] because skating is our whole world. I think it was a good moment to kind of put everything in perspective and understand how lucky I am to do what I do. And to have the help to be able to do what I do. And, you know, so I understood [words being cancelled]. I understood. But there was this part of me, this selfish athlete, that was like, ‘You know, I do I do feel like there is an opportunity missed. But, you know, it happened.

OC: You have known Adam Rippon for a long time, having been his training partner, then bringing him on as a choreographer and now coach. How did that all happen?
I remember when he was training (with us) he was just this leader. If there was a question or a problem, (then) it was Adam who had the answer; he was always so helpful. Last year at Champs Camp (the U.S. training camp each season prior to the Grand Prix), I was kind of struggling and I went to Rafael and said as much. And he's like, ‘I've explained to you what to do, but you haven't done it.’

(Laughing) I was like, ‘Yikes.’

It was this slap of reality. He was joking, I think… while still being honest and not sugarcoating things. He said, ‘If you need somebody to hold your hand, I'm not going to do it.’ It made sense… I shouldn't have been leaning on him for the same problem over and over. I needed to move forward. And that's exactly what he's trying to get across to me. I was like, ‘Oh, he's so mean.’ (Laughing.) Rafael says, ‘Call Adam.’ I got off the ice and thought, ‘I will call Adam.’ And I did. And, you know, it was everything that Rafael told me… I respect so much because he treats me like an adult and really forces me to take ownership of my training and my skating.

I call Adam and tell him that I felt stuck. And Adam's like, ‘I've been there. I've been there with Rafael. I know exactly what we need to do.’ And the best part about it is that Adam and Rafael are so close; they have so much respect for each other. It was so easy to bring Adam in and just kind of have him start with me. He wanted to even train himself some more because he missed the idea and challenge of training.

We do our first week and Adam is like, ‘I'm coming every day. We’re (going to) do crazy stuff. And it was really hard. And I remember thinking, ‘This is what I need. And I said, ‘Adam, you're my coach now. You're going to be a coach.’ And he was like, ‘OK, I can do that.’

Adam has a crazy busy schedule (but) he was always was able to make time and is always able to make time (still). And I'm so fortunate for that. Adding him was great because he just freshened up everything that I needed to be.

Raf, ABBA and a return to training

OC: As exemplified by that story, Raf is famously gruff. And you’re… not. How do the two of you find middle ground?
I've gotten to know him and I respect him so much. You know, he demands a lot from his skaters. It's really challenging what he asks of us. And I think he understands that. But he also has a lot of respect for his skaters and he acts like this big, scary guy. And sometimes he is. But if I went to him with a with a problem… any problem, he would do anything he needed or could to help. He always wants to help.

I think he's really a big teddy bear inside. And sometimes I have to remember that when he's yelling, I'm like, ‘Yeah, I know who you really are.’ He is so passionate, he wants truly the best for his skaters. And I think he sees a lot in them. I'm really fortunate to work with him.

OC: Let’s talk ABBA. How did that come about?
Bell: Shae-Lynn brought me the idea. I was like, what about something like The Beatles? And she's like, ‘You know what? What about ABBA?’ I was unsure. But then I went and I played the music on the ice and felt like I really loved it, it felt really cool.

OC: COVID has obviously been so challenging, but you are back to training. Talk a little bit about that and your setup.
What’s really nice is that even before (COVID), our elite sessions, there were no more than four or five people on the ice. So right now, obviously, they're trying to keep numbers down in terms of how many people they're allowing on the ice, so it doesn't feel too different just because we've always only had a smaller number of people on the ice at one time.

The really weird thing was taking time off and then coming back. I'd never taken quite that much time off before. So, it was like the first day (back) and I was doing simple stuff, crossovers. I was so sore from crossovers, which I can't remember a time in my life where I've been sore from crossovers. But everybody's in the same boat right now: You have to take your time and take things kind of slowly. And I definitely did. But right now, we're back into more kind of normal training, I would say.

Training with Nathan Chen

OC: You share a coach and ice time training with Chen, who had been away at Yale the last couple years but is back more full-time now because of the COVID situation. What’s it like to be on the ice with him?
I'm very fortunate to train with him. I hadn't skated with him in a while because he was at school, but you can always learn from Nathan. It’s very motivating (for me), an inspiration.

He’s also a really good kid and a good friend of mine and a really good friend of (Bell’s boyfriend) Romain’s, and so we've become really close over the years. He’s also always extended help on the ice.

He's always giving me tips and pointers. And that creates a really great atmosphere that we have. And so I'm really fortunate that way. --Mariah Bell on training with Nathan Chen

He's just such a humble kid and extremely hardworking. And I think, you know. It's just crazy to me that we spend so much time with them and I forget that he's a two-time world champion. He's just super down to earth. Very, very nice and very funny.

OC: This is a strange time right now. What are you trying to focus on in your skating? Maintaining certain things… adding other things?
There's this awesome opportunity right now (with few) competitions on the horizon, so it's the perfect time to work on new elements. I am working on some new elements and working on new combos, including different spins and trying to use the time well. And obviously triple Axel, which has always been something that I believe that I can do. We spent a little bit of time on that last season, but it was kind of hard because of all the competitions.

I am trying different things; I think the sky is the limit. I believe that I can do so much more. And I think I'm just getting started. You know? I am often asked about my age. Twenty-four? That used to be ancient in skating. (But) I feel so young because I feel like I have so much to learn still. I think that keeps my spirit young… that’s what Rafael tells me. We have so much more that we can do. We’ll see. I'll see what happens.

I think it's actually a really special opportunity for skaters to have this time to work on these other things and maybe when conditions come back (it will be) even more interesting. Maybe everybody will be completely different. It kind of makes it more interesting.

Motivated by Alysa Liu, Bradie Tennell

OC: You have always been known as such an artist on the ice. Why is that important to continue to maintain and grow in, even as you try and strengthen the technical side of your skating?
Wanting to push the envelope in terms of artistry is so important because it's figure skating, it's not just figure jumping. And there's this whole other side of our sport that we're so fortunate to have because not all sports have this opportunity to be so creative and artistic and tell a story (with) passionate movements.

Talking about pushing the boundaries, when Adam brought to me the idea of Britney (Spears program) last year, I remember thinking it wasn't a great idea. I was like, ‘That’s not really me.’ I was nervous about it. (But) I truly trust him and what he sees for me. It was pretty bad at first… it felt like I was moving through, sand or peanut butter and I couldn't get my timing and couldn't do head rolls or use my hips.

And then it was like, Wait, this is a great idea because this is so different. And it will push me out of my comfort zone.’ I think Britney ended up being one of my most favourite programs to train as well and to compete.

There's so much that can be said about kind of pushing the boundaries; I think it's so important. And also, just in terms of challenging yourself individually, that’s really important too.

OC: The U.S. podium this last year – yourself, two-time champ Alysa Liu and Bradie Tennell – you’re all quite different, and in different places in your careers. How do you keep tabs on them? Do you push one another?
I have so much respect for Bradie and for Alysa. We're all working so hard. When it comes to competition and when it comes to nationals, it's, you know, who does the best on that day. I feel like we have really great relationships. You know, Bradie is obviously closer to my age, so she has become a good friend. We really understand each other.

Alyssa is such a great kid. Exactly how you see her is how she is: So super humble. I have so much respect for her.

I think hopefully we've all pushed each other to continue to grow. The the U.S. ladies as a whole, on the international circuit, (we have) gotten stronger over the last couple seasons. And I think that is because we have a great camaraderie and we respect each other, and we push each other. At the end of the day, you want yourself to do well, but you also want Team USA to do well.

Competing with the teenagers

OC: We mentioned it briefly, but can we discuss your age? The Russian women – they’re teenagers. Alysa, too. How do you feel like you’re not only able to keep up but compete, too?
I see myself kind of wherever they are, I might be older, but I'm in the same situation. I'm learning. I'm competing. I'm trying new things… just like them. I think, you know, when I moved to Rafael (in August of 2016) it was a complete redo of my skating; we completely reworked my technique… my choreography, everything.

I feel like I got this, like, second start and I'm just kind of getting into that second start. I have so much respect for those girls who are young and doing all these crazy things. And it makes me want to try all these crazy things, too, because first of all, we're all strong individuals and we can handle it. But also, you know, I see myself kind of like that, like we're all trying our best to just learn about ourselves and challenge ourselves at the end of the day, you know. Yes, we're competing against other girls, but we have no control over what anybody else does, only what individually we do. And we're all just trying to found ourselves to be better. You know?

OC: You’ve been with your boyfriend Romain for a few years now. He trains with Rafael too. How do you balance the on- and off-ice relationship? How do you make sure you don’t get into a pattern of just skating, skating, skating?
Bell: We're just very honest. He'll give me a lot of advice and I can give him some advice, as well. I'm so lucky to have my partner be somebody that understands me so well and I understand him so well. But at the same time, realize we're not talking about skating all the time. That's it. We're like, ‘You aren't talking about skating.’

I need somebody that understands me as well as Romain. So, I'm very, very fortunate to have that relationship.

OC: If you skated together… pairs or ice dance?
This is funny, I've gotten this question before… I mean, I fell a bracket. [At US Championships , Bell fell on a footwork turn called ‘the bracket’ mid-program.] So we'll just we'll just leave that there. Because of that I think maybe pairs? I don't know.

OC: Another special relationship for you is your older sister Morgan, who is a top-level skater in her own right as Anna in the tour of Disney on Ice. How do you support one another?
Morgan and I have always been able to support each other, even as we have these different avenues that we've taken and we've still found ways to be in one another’s lives.

She's a great, great, great performer. She's a great big sister. (Watching her perform), she was so in her element and looked so happy… she's so good at it. I know she loves performing.

She came to my first world championships in Helsinki (in 2017). And I remember being so excited that she was there because she didn't get to come to competitions very much because of her schedule with Disney. And they let her out that week. It was kind of almost a fun distraction because I hadn't seen her in so long. She hadn't been to any of my competitions. She did my makeup for both programs… it was fun to have her there.

We both are able to support each other in those moments. And those are just examples of, you know, obviously we don't always get to go to each other's shows or competitions (but) we're always chatting; she’s always supporting me. Usually when I'm on TV for nationals, the whole Frozen cast will be watching it backstage. Somebody in her cast will video her and she's like jumping up and down. It's so cool, though. She's found exactly what she's supposed to be doing.

OC: Lastly, your bunnies. We must ask about the bunnies.
(Laughing.) They're great. I was worried about my bigger bunny, Gizmo, maybe not getting along so well when I got Turbo (a few months ago). But they are truly like best friends. So I feel better because I felt kind of bad, I used to leave my Gizmo by himself all day. Now he has a buddy to hang out with. But they're so great. And, yeah, they keep me on my toes.

OC: Thank you, Mariah. Thank you Gizmo, thank you Turbo!