NASHVILLE — On Wednesday night, Alysa Liu walked into this arena for the first time. She faced the rink and looked all around. Her coach Drew Meekins pointed to the giant TV camera stationed in front of them at the corner of the rink, complete with a swiveling seat for its operator.
“All right, so here’s where you are going to be doing all your work,” he said. “Right here, working the camera.” Then he pretended to talk to the cameraperson. “There’s this skater, have you heard of her? Alysa Liu, she’s in the 6:25 p.m. practice. You’re going to want to capture her.”
“Oh yeah, she’s just so fast,” Liu’s eyes crinkled, the only way to tell she was smiling under her mask.
“Can you imagine yourself filling this arena?” Meekins said.
The last time I saw Alysa Liu she was 13 years old and 4-foot-9, playing with homemade slime at her home rink in Oakland, surrounded by a gaggle of skating friends. She was giggly and goofy and relaxed. On that weekend three years ago, she was just a few weeks removed from becoming the youngest skater ever to win the U.S. Nationals. She threw down three triple axels, one in her short program, and two in her free skate, and shocked the crowd, becoming the Next Big Thing in American figure skating virtually overnight. The only problem was, the next Olympics were three years away, which might as well be a decade for an athlete in a jumping-based sport made easier for smaller, lighter bodies.
“Oh my god, a lot has changed [since then],” Liu said, a bit overwhelmed by the question. “I probably can’t even explain it all, but I am just like, matured a little bit more.”
Liu said this on Wednesday night, two days before withdrawing from the free skate and missing a shot at her third national title because she tested positive for COVID-19, but being named to the Olympic team anyway. So I’ll try to explain it for her, the changes she lived in the three years between her first national title and her upcoming trip to Beijing..
After she first won nationals in 2019, Liu kept training her quad jumps, the hardest jumps in skating, an effort to match her Russian counterparts who had made a splash that previous season landing quads on the junior grand prix circuit. At the start of the following season, in August, Liu landed her first quad lutz (and received a positive grade of execution for it) in her junior grand prix debut, becoming the first American to ever land a quad in competition. She qualified for the junior grand prix final, held in December 2019, and finished second, three points behind Russian star Kamila Valieva, who is now as sure of a lock for the Olympic gold medal as anyone can be in COVID times.
At the time, Liu was the only American skater who could really compete with the Russian juniors who were coming up through the ranks and the only hope to match the Russian seniors who were continuing to add more quad jumps to their programs. They had quads; she had quads. She landed two quad lutzes with a positive GOE that season, and tried four more. She won the 2020 U.S. Nationals again, this time by 10 points, and then finished third at the junior world championships in Estonia, behind Valieva and Daria Usacheva, another talented Russian skater.
But Liu started growing. She’s now 5-foot-2. Alysa’s dad Arthur told me he had Alysa and her four younger siblings with two different egg donors and two different surrogates, and since Alysa’s egg donor was 5-foot-7, a growth spurt was always looming for her.
When Liu won her first national title, she beat then-22-year-old Mariah Bell, who joins Liu on the 2022 Olympic team and was the winner of this year’s Nationals. I spoke to Bell three years ago about what it feels like to go through a growth spurt as an elite skater. “Before you go through puberty or you grow, [your jumps] come really easy and you learn them fast because you’re tiny and you can fall really hard and it doesn’t affect you,” she said. “Then when I grew, my legs got longer and everything changed. You almost have to relearn a lot of what you have because you are working with a completely different car. It’s like you take one car and you can do everything with it, and all of a sudden you have this new car and you have to learn how to work with it.”
Back in 2019, Alysa told me, “Quad lutz isn’t that hard. It felt like a triple to me.” But with a taller body and longer limbs and a new center of gravity, the triple axels and quad lutzes didn’t come so naturally anymore. Her jumping technique had cracks in it that her growth spurt further exposed.
A few days after returning from those junior worlds in Estonia, COVID-19 hit, shutting down her hometown rink, the Oakland Ice Center.
Arthur took Alysa to Delaware to train for a couple months, mostly skating alone. It was an isolating experience for Alysa, a social butterfly who thrived in Oakland as the energetic leader of a big crew of skating friends.
“The pandemic, with limited ice time, training facilities, it is the worst combination for a figure skater,” Arthur Liu said in October. “Your body is growing so fast and then you need the training to keep up with the growth of your body, that will throw off your jumps. … Because of the limited resources with training and rink closures, access to ice, you’re there by yourself, without the benefit of skating with your friends and other skaters, it really throws you off. The Russian skaters kept skating and competing, we have a totally different system. It has been tough.”
If that wasn’t enough, with the pandemic and puberty raging, Alysa switched coaches for the first time, just as she left for Delaware. She’d been with one coach, Laura Lipetsky, since she was five years old. Now, she’d work with a team of coaches: Lee Barkell, Lori Nichol, and Massimo Scali. But travel restrictions prevented her from training in person with Barkell and Nichol, who are based in Canada, so the team eventually became Scali, a former Olympic ice dancer, and Jeremy Abbott, a former Olympic singles skater.
Arthur spearheaded the search for new coaches, and said he did his best to convince Alysa that it was time to change up her training. She’d made her name as a talented jumper, on the technical score, but she lacked in the other half—the component score, which grades artistry, musical expression, and skating skills, like speed and edge quality.
“Alysa was very attached to her [Lipetsky] was very much against changing coaches, it was tough,” Arthur said. “It was a process. In the end, when I was pretty adamant about the change and it wasn’t working out with Laura. No. 1, I felt things were getting stale and there were a lot of things that I had been wanting done for many years that were not done. We needed a coach who focused on skating skills and presentation.”
Enter Scali, the ice dancer who introduced Alysa to yoga and pilates and worked with her to improve her body awareness so she could apply it to bigger movements in her skating choreography.
“For three months, she didn’t really have direction or a real coach or a training situation,” Scali said. “A lot of time was lost in the training and in the preparation of the season, and then on top of that, when she came back, we had a million restrictions with very, very limited ice, so we moved a lot of the preparation off ice.”
Scali said he and Abbott used the ice time to work on jumps, and he put together Alysa’s programs last season in public parks in Oakland, bringing a speaker with him to play her music and fine-tuning her choreography as people walked by. “They thought that we were a little crazy,” he said.
The 2020–21 season became something of a lost year for Liu. Arthur said Alysa thrives off competition, using each score to evaluate her progress. “The pandemic really affected her tremendously,” he said. All the junior grand prix competitions were canceled because of the pandemic, so she only competed once in person, at the 2021 U.S. Nationals, where she finished in fourth place and didn’t attempt a triple axel or quad.
But her skating skills were noticeably better. She was faster and more powerful on the ice. She still doesn’t create the standing-ovation moment that her older Olympic teammates Mariah Bell and Karen Chen regularly can, but since teaming up with Scali, her component scores have increased. This season, her free skate program component scores trail only Bell and Chen among U.S. women, and by less than a point.
In an October interview, Arthur said that he was very happy with the improvements that Alysa has made in her artistry, and getting most of her jumps back to full strength. He even claimed he was becoming more hands-off as a skating dad, letting Alysa travel to Italy with Scali and Abbott to train with a group of elite skaters there. “I rely on the coaches and herself, whatever I say may not matter anymore,” he said. “I am learning how to let her go.”
Scali said that when he first started working with Alysa, Arthur was always at the rink and always trying to control things.
“I had a picture of Arthur that was very involved in her career, but in my opinion, in a way that maybe sometimes was a little too much,” Scali said in October. “But I understood soon after that, in my opinion, that the reason why he was so present, coming to every practice almost and trying to figure out the plan, that was a situation created by the fact that there was not much of a plan, or vision behind it. Never a real consideration of, ‘what are the steps, what do we have to do to bring her to where we want to bring her two years from now?’”
But in November, after a fifth-place and a fourth-place finish at her two grand prix events, and going 0-for-6 on her triple axel, Arthur fired Scali and Abbott, and switched Alysa to a whole new coaching team based in Colorado Springs. Abrupt coaching changes are fairly common in figure skating, but in an Olympic year, with just two months to go before Nationals, this was a shocking move. Scali did not answer a call or voicemail from Defector about the coaching change.
Drew Meekins, one of Alysa’s new coaches, said he had to be realistic about what they could achieve in two months’ time. He said the biggest change they’ve made was giving her a more structured training regimen that included more time on the ice.
In December, Alysa went on Instagram Live with a couple friends and they started talking about what their lives during quarantine were like. “I was enjoying not doing this,” Alysa said. “I feel like I’ve been kidnapped and I am in Antarctica. That’s what this is, that’s what this whole thing is.”
Meekins said he hadn’t seen the Instagram Live but had heard about it. I asked if he thinks Alysa still loves skating. “I do, I really do,” he said. “I think the way that she focuses and understands the amount of detail that goes into doing these elements, to me really shows a deep love. Beyond that, I think her grit and determination to train at this level, to do these hard things, it is really clear to me that she loves this and this is her passion and I feel really good about that.”
On Wednesday, Meekins said Scali sent him a text to say, “I’m wishing you all luck and sending you guys so much love and I’ll be watching.”
“In some way, we are all, all of us doing this together for her,” Meekins said. “We all are doing this because we love her and she is a really special person and skater and I think in that sense, we all can add something right?”
I asked Alysa after her 6:25 p.m practice about her motivation to skate now.
“My skating now, I feel like I have more purpose to it,” she said. “So it’s more meaningful to me than when I was 13. When I was 13, I was like, oh yeah, jump, jump! Woo! But like now there is an actual meaning to skating and now I have a reason to do it. A lot of it is honoring little, little Alysa’s dream. That I kind of didn’t think about before, and also, so I can get into good universities and colleges.”
She said Little Alysa’s dream was to go to the Olympics, ever since she first learned about the possibility when she was 8 years old. Is Little Alysa’s dream still 2022 Alysa’s dream?
“Oh, I think it is still my dream,” she said.
When the women’s Olympic team was announced Saturday afternoon here in Nashville, during a break during the men’s short program, Chen and Bell walked out to the kiss-and-cry stage when their names were announced. Liu appeared on the Jumbotron screen, waving and throwing up a peace sign from her hotel room, where she’s quarantining.
Later, she joined the press conference on Zoom, and gushed to reporters, “I’ve been training forever for this moment.”
On that same Instagram Live in December, Liu had said she liked quarantine because “everyone forgot about me.”
“When I was younger I had a really hard time handling all of [the attention and pressure],” she said Saturday after being named to the Olympic team. “Because it was like, a lot. And I wasn’t used to it, but now I know how to handle it.”
Liu fell on her triple axel in her short program on Thursday night, and finished in third place, just four points behind Bell. But she’s the only American skater headed to the Olympics with a triple axel in her programs. She has the top event score for an American woman this season, good for 16th internationally. After three years that felt like “forever,” and innumerable changes to her body and life, Liu is back to where she started: She’s the best chance the U.S. women have at these Olympic Games.