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Mariah Bell skates into the lead at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

The 25-year-old is seeking her Olympic debut at the coming Beijing Games. In pairs, 2019 U.S. champions Cain-Gribble/LeDuc set a new event record to lead after the short program.

7 min By Nick McCarvel & Scott Bregman
mariah-bell-GettyImages-1363197133
(Picture by 2022 Getty Images)

It was an evening for the twenty-somethings on Thursday (6 January) at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Nashville.

Mariah Bell, 25, soared into the lead behind an inspired skate to the "River Flows in You," scoring a 75.55 and putting herself in prime position to make her first Olympic team for the coming Winter Games Beijing 2022.

Bell is just one point ahead of Karen Chen, 22, the 2018 Olympian who registered a 74.55.

It was a redemptive evening for another twenty-something, as 26-year-old Gracie Gold, a two-time U.S. champion and Sochi 2014 team event bronze medallist, received a standing ovation for her short program and sits in sixth place (67.61) - set to skate in the final group of skaters in Friday's (7 January) free skate.

Two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu (71.42) sits in third after a fall on her attempted triple Axel, while reigning junior champion, 14-year-old Isabeau Levito (71.00) is fourth and Lindsay Thorngren (70.22) is fifth.

Liu withdrew from competition Friday (7 January) afternoon, after testing positive for COVID-19 according to a U.S. Figure Skating press release. Liu plans to petition for an Olympic team berth.

While the U.S. Championships is the final stop for American skaters before next month's Olympic Games, the event is not an Olympic trials, as skaters' "body of work" - including recent international events - will be taken into consideration by a selection committee.

Three women will make the Olympic team and two pairs teams are set to qualify.

Earlier, in the pairs short program, a new event record was set by 2019 U.S. champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc as the duo skated to a 79.39 behind a solid performance. Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson sit closely in second with a 77.48.

Prior to the event, reigning national champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier withdrew after Frazier had tested positive for Covid-19.

MORE: What to watch for in Nashville

Bell, Chen, Liu edge closer to Games

With reigning and two-time U.S. champion Bradie Tennell out with a foot injury, the top three look primed to secure their respective spots on the American Olympic team for Beijing.

While Chen made the Games in 2018, Bell was a disappointing fifth that year. The following season, former training mate Adam Rippon wandered into their rink and offered Bell a listening ear. Rippon is now one of her coaches, and celebrated rinkside as Bell completed her short.

"The goal is just to keep attacking. And if I do that, I'll be very happy," Bell told reporters. "And that's really what Adam has given me. ... He obviously went to the Olympics and he's like, 'No, it's incredible. But at the end of the day, it's another competition.' And you know, that's really all it is. We're so lucky to be in a place where we get to do [this]."

Known for her artistry and always a crowd favourite, Bell was on her technical game on Thursday night, as well, opening with a triple flip-triple toe-loop combination, which was quickly followed by a double Axel.

Each of her spins earned Level 4s from the judges, and she attacked her final jump - a triple Lutz - with force. She scored two points better than Chen on the technical marks, whereas Chen was a point better in the program components.

"I was really happy with how I skated today," added Chen, who was fourth at worlds in 2021. "And I'm also just really proud of how I delivered this program. It was definitely a risk to change my short program [mid-season] coming here. But I also knew that it'd be risky if I kept something that I just wasn't enjoying. So I'm really happy with how I just delivered and attacked this program."

While Liu fell on her opening triple Axel (she was the only skater of the night to attempt the jump), she was otherwise strong in her "Gypsy Dance" short program. The youngest U.S. champion at age 13 in 2019, she's taking a relaxed approach into a pressure-packed weekend.

"People will try to put a ton of pressure on you and they'll try to make the sport harder," Liu shared. "But in reality, I chose the sport, it's my hobby and I should enjoy it how it is - as just skating for fun - and not anything else."

Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc
Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc (2022 Getty Images)

Pairs: Cain-Gribble/ LeDuc soar into lead

In the pairs event, it's a battle of two teams heading into the free skate after thrilling performances from both Cain-Gribble/LeDuc and Calalang/Johnson.

Who ends up national champion could likely secure their spot on the Olympic team for Beijing. While Knierim/Frazier are absent due to his positive test, the duo is the strongest American team on the international stage and will petition for a spot on the team.

After struggling with his triple Salchow in the warm-up, Johnson hit the jump to open their "Come Together" short program, then received a level four for their triple twist and Calalang fought to land a throw triple Lutz.

Calalang, who earlier this year was cleared of a doping violation that was attributed to a make-up she uses, was emotional in discussing "a really hard time" in her life.

"I really had no option other than to be strong and to make it through," the 26-year-old said. "We're a partnership and it's us together. For something like that to happen, that's solely on me... I'm just very thankful that Brian is the person that he is, [coming] to the rink every day into the rink, positive attitude. That made us so strong as partners and just as people."

Cain-Gribble/LeDuc skated after Calalang/Johnson and delivered a stirring short to The White Crow, particularly with their side-by-side triple loops and throw triple flip, both of which received positive GOEs.

The team, U.S. champions three years ago in 2019, said they arrived late to practice on Thursday as a snow storm created traffic problems around Nashville. It's the kind of scenario they said they'd prepped for: Anything.

"We have prepared in every way possible to be ready for anything that happens at this championships, we've set ourselves up every single day in practice to not be surprised by anything," said Cain-Gribble, who is also 26.

Added LeDuc: "I think we've also learned one of the greatest things that helps us achieve success in competition is adaptability. Today was a perfect example. ... But nothing really shakes us because we plan for anything so that nothing really surprises us."

Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov sit in third place, scoring a 68.11.

Gracie Gold, 2022 U.S. Championships [Getty]
Gracie Gold, 2022 U.S. Championships [Getty] (2022 Getty Images)

Graceful return: Redemption for Gold

The next generation of U.S. skating could feature Levito, who - at 14 - is age ineligible for the coming Games. But she showed a sort of gravitas in her skating - which included the hardest combination of the night with the triple Lutz-triple loop (which was also performed by Liu).

But the moment of the night arguably belong to the aforementioned Gold, who - after her Olympic appearance in 2014 - was public about her battle with anxiety and depression and stepped away from the sport to receive treatment. While she's been back competing for the last three seasons, Thursday night was far and away her redemptive moment on the biggest stage in American skating.

After holding on to a triple Lutz-triple toe to open, Gold hit a double Axel and triple loop in her "East of Eden" short program and flashed a smile reminiscent of the skater who was fourth at the Olympics in 2014. Her energy on the ice was just as electric, and she finished to a standing ovation, putting her head into her hands.

"It was just this huge emotional moment on so many different levels," Gold, now 26 said.

"I was overwhelmed that I really did everything that you could want, which is like, you train hard, you show up, you go to your practice, your warm up and then you skate a clean short," she explained. "[It's] especially significant to me because I haven't always finished that last step when I got to nationals. ... But I've loved this program since day one, and I love to train it and I love to perform. And to hit that triple loop - I could kind of feel the audience energy in my last spin."

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