Opinion: Mariah Bell gets breakthrough title, but COVID-19 truly dominates day at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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  • Mariah Bell
    American figure skater
  • Alysa Liu
    Alysa Liu
    American figure skater

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The two future Olympians stood at the top of the podium, wearing their medals and waving their flowers, just as generations of victorious figure skaters have done before them.

The third future Olympian sat in quarantine in her hotel room, watching the competition go on without her after testing positive for COVID-19, something that literally no figure skater has ever had to go through before her.

Welcome to the 2022 U.S. figure skating nationals, where uncertainty and anxiety are constant companions and COVID tests are more important than triple-triple combinations.

Mariah Bell, 25, won her first U.S. title in her ninth try at an age when most women have hung up the skates or gone on to perform in shows. She almost certainly qualified for the 2022 Beijing Olympics. (The official word comes Saturday afternoon.)

Karen Chen, 22, finished second by 2.4 points to almost certainly make her second Olympic team.

And poor Alysa Liu, 16, almost certainly made her first Olympic team in spite of her absence Friday night in the women’s long program.

“I realized after practice that she wasn’t on it,” Bell said. “Obviously that’s unfortunate but this variant is really serious and people are catching it left and right so it’s obviously unfortunate that she couldn’t do the long program but she has a great season to back her up so I don’t think she’ll have any problem (making the Olympic team).”

Mariah Bell celebrates her first place finish at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Mariah Bell celebrates her first place finish at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Liu, a two-time national champion who was in third place after the short program, is going to petition to be put on the Olympic team, her agent said. A skater’s body of work is strongly considered by U.S. Figure Skating when it selects its Olympians, and she should have no problem being named to the team, pending her health and her ability to test negative before next month’s Beijing Games.

The disconcerting news about Liu and Amber Glenn, who also tested positive and had to withdraw from the long program, hung like a cloud over the event.

“Definitely the news was very, very shocking and super unfortunate to hear,” Chen said. “I gave myself 10 minutes to just like full-on freak out about it. That’s my thing now, I tend to over-think and over-analyze so I told myself, OK, you can think about this for 10 minutes. And after that, you’ve got to focus on your skating.”

Brennan: Olympic hopefuls must bail on figure skating nationals amid COVID spread

The show must go on, and while neither Bell nor Chen was flawless, they both said they fought for every jump and felt satisfied that they were good enough when it mattered most in this tense Olympic season.

Finishing third was 14-year-old Isabeau Levito, who performs with balletic flourishes and jumps like a dream. See you in 2026, kid. Actually, more like next year, but you get the idea. She definitely has the talent to be America's next skating star.

At the other end of the spectrum was 26-year-old Gracie Gold, who couldn’t sustain her short-program brilliance in the much more demanding long program, doubling three planned triple jumps and dropping to 10th overall.

One other skater was missing Friday night. Defending national champion and 2018 Olympic team bronze medalist Bradie Tennell, 23, who hasn’t been able to compete all season due to a foot injury, will not petition to make the Olympic team, her coach Tom Zakrajsek said in a text message. But she said she’s not done yet and will be back for another skating season next year.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mariah Bell wins championship at US figure skating nationals