Mariah Bell captures U.S. title on ninth try, set to lead American women's trio

The 25-year-old will be joined by silver medallist Karen Chen and teenager Alysa Liu at the coming Winter Games. In ice dance, Chock/ Bates set an American record to lead after the rhythm dance.

By Nick McCarvel
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

Four years after she couldn't find her best in the Olympic season at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Mariah Bell delivered right when she needed to.

The 25-year-old, in her ninth appearance at the national championships, skated two crowd-pleasing programs in the event to seal her first gold on Friday (7 January) in Nashville, scoring a 216.25 overall. It's her fourth career medal at nationals.

2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen, an Olympian in 2018, was second with a 213.85.

Bell and Chen were named to the U.S. Olympic team on Saturday (8 January) for next month's Olympic Games Beijing 2022, set to be joined by two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu. The 16-year-old withdrew from the event after placing third in the short program, having tested positive for Covid-19.

"I'm very excited to finally be national champion. It wasn't a perfect skate; I was fighting through a lot of it," Bell told reporters. "I'm also just super happy with the fight that I put out there for this long program, it definitely was not easy."

Bell is the oldest U.S. woman to win a national title in nearly 100 years, and will make her Olympic debut among a field of women that is dominated by teenagers. She said Saturday: "Age is nothing - it's literally just a number. If you have a dream, you can achieve it."

On Friday evening, 14-year-old Isabeau Levito, who is not age eligible for the Olympics, finished with the bronze medal (210.75) after two impressive skates in her senior nationals debut.

The ice dance also kicked off on Friday with the rhythm dance.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates recorded the highest-ever rhythm dance score at a U.S. Championships with a 91.94. The two-time American champions are over 2.5 points clear of training mates Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, the reigning champs, who are in second with a 89.39.

(L-R) Chen, Bell, Levito and Izzo
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

Bell, Chen show experience counts

While Liu was out with Covid, two-time U.S. champion Bradie Tennell had also withdrawn from the event last week due to a lingering foot injury, opening up the event for opportunity for others.

Bell, who had peaked previously with a silver medal in 2020, led from start to finish having taken the short program by a single point. She had switched earlier in the season to that 2020 free skate "Hallelujah," and she captured the Nashville crowd's attention from the start, opening with a triple flip-double toe-loop combination.

The program wasn't without its bobbles, as Bell squeaked out a triple loop, triple Salchow and double Axel before doing two more combination jumping passes, the second a triple Lutz-double Axel that she improvised - a combo she said she had not done the combination in years.

The new American champion, the oldest woman to win a national title since 26-year-old Beatrix Loughran won her third in 1927, said her victory comes a year after searing disappointment having been fifth.

"Last year I was pretty sad leaving Las Vegas," she told reporters. "I had a great season leading up and just didn't deliver at nationals. I took some time off and really decided that I was just going to not hold back this year. And there are a lot of things that happened this year for me, and I'm really proud of just how I've been able to just keep fighting for this ultimate goal that now I've reached."

Another big change in the last year: Getting a puppy, who she named Nana-Bee.

It was a momentous evening for Chen, too, who skated after Bell to finish the competition and - though she had her fits and starts too - did what was needed to land on her fifth U.S. podium.

"I'm super happy with the fight that I put out there for this long program, it definitely was not easy," Chen said. "My thoughts started racing and I had to just constantly bring myself back into the moment and go back and forth - just like fighting myself. I'm really happy with how I managed to fight and enjoy the process.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

Ice dance: Chock/ Bates ahead of training mates Hubbell/ Donohue

Could we see another changing of the guard atop U.S. ice dance? Reigning American champions Hubbell and Donohue have over 2.5 points to make up after the rhythm dance, in which Madison said she felt "disappointed" after, pointing out mistakes that she had made.

"Zach and I are a little bit disappointed today," Hubbell told reporters. "We've been practicing really well. ... [Our coach said], 'Sometimes, when you're so ready, you have too much time to think or there's a fluke.' We're a little bit confused. A lot of mistakes that don't usually happen."

Hubbell was given a Level 3 (out of 4) on both the step sequence and the duo's twizzles, and the three-time U.S. champion had several bobbles throughout.

"I think I'm very grateful that at the end of the performance, I have a partner who doesn't get upset or feel disappointed in me," a reflective Hubbell added.

The day belonged to Chock/Bates, however, as the 2015 and 2020 American champs turned in their strongest performance of the season of their Billie Eilish-themed rhythm dance, skating with a sort of confidence that translated into Level 4s across their scoresheet.

Said Chock: "Well, I think it's just a true testament to our training since the Grand Prix Final was cancelled, we certainly had a bit of extra time to prepare than we normally would, and we took full advantage of that, just polishing and smoothing out all the details that we wanted to."

Placement at U.S. nationals could set the scene for which team is favoured for a medal at the Games next month, where Team USA will have one of the strongest dance contingents in the discipline.

The third and final American dance spot appears up for grabs here, as well, as Caroline Green and Michael Parsons edged out Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker by just over a point, 80.85 to 79.39.

"I think we we've gotten really good at focusing on what we can control, our performance on the ice is something that we're in charge of," Parsons said. "There's a lot on the line, for sure. But when we're in our program, I think it doesn't really help to think about it."

Levito earns debut bronze; Gold inspires

The future of U.S. figure skating in the next Olympic quad could lie with Levito, who former world champion Kimmie Meissner of the U.S. said reminded her of the Olympic silver medallist Sasha Cohen, another American.

The 14-year-old's lithe lines and attention to detail helped put her on the podium in her season nationals, as Gabriella Izzo placed fourth (188.11) and and Lindsay Thorngren fifth (186.38).

Two-time U.S. champion Gracie Gold, who had been sixth after the short program and skated in the final group, started with a shaky triple Lutz and never fully recovered, managing just one jumping combination. She finished 10th overall (171.92).

Her return to the spotlight - and qualifying for the last group - is a testament to her fighting spirit having left the sport in 2017 due to anxiety, depression and an eating disorder. She received a standing ovation on Thursday for her short program performance.

Gold's former competitor and Sochi 2014 Olympic teammate, Ashley Wagner, watched on from the crowd, having spoken to the audience before the women's free skate - putting into perspective what fans (including her) were witnessing: "I get to sit back and relax and watch these athletes who have worked so hard do what they do best. I cannot wait to watch these ladies."

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