Mariah Bell relishes ‘old’ title ahead of Olympic figure skating debut

Mariah Bell skates during a practice session at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.
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UPDATE: Reigning world champion Anna Shcherbakova won the women’s figure skating Olympic title while Kamila Valiyeva placed fourth. Shcherbakova was joined on the podium by silver medalist and compatriot Aleksandra Trusova and Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto, who won bronze. Mariah Bell finished 10th.


Originally published: February 3, 2022

If age is just a number, then why spend so much time talking about it? That’s what Team USA’s Mariah Bell wants to know ahead of her Winter Olympics debut in Beijing.

At 25, she is considered “old” in her sport, especially among her fellow women competitors in Beijing where she’ll be the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles competitor since 1928. But just like every other challenge in her life, Bell looks at it as an opportunity to deliver a message.

“I don’t talk about my age, but people love to talk about it,” Bell recently told On Her Turf. Of the three American women competing in Beijing Games, she and 22-year-old teammate Karen Chen are older than every gold medalist since 1936 save one: Japan’s Shizuka Arakawa, who had turned 24 just prior to the 2006 Torino Winter Games.

“I’m really excited to have this title of being ‘old,’ I guess, because I don’t feel old at all. I want to keep going for several more years, and I especially want other young girls in skating to know it doesn’t have to end at a certain time.”

MORE OLYMPIC FIGURE SKATING: Anna Shcherbakova wins figure skating gold as scrutiny crushes Kamila Valiyeva

Lucky for skating fans, Team USA, and particularly herself, that Bell felt that way, otherwise she may never have realized a life-long dream that didn’t really galvanize until she was 21.

In 2018, Bell had a shot at making the U.S. Olympic team but was ultimately the second alternate. Watching the Games from her home in Irvine, Calif., she knew she’d be in a different position come 2022.

“I was like, ‘I’m so motivated,'” said Bell, who was born in Tulsa, Okla., and began skating at age 4. “I just know I’m not going to be an alternate next time. Like, that’s my only goal. And I remember watching the Games from home and just being like, ‘I want to be there so bad.'”

Just like real life, though, it’s been a series of highs and lows over the past four years. Bell found herself at one of those low points while training in California for the 2019-20 season. She tells a funny story about a rather distraught trip to Dunkin’ Donuts one Friday morning, where she sat in her car with two strawberry-frosted donuts and made one pivotal decision: She called friend and 2018 Olympic bronze medalist Adam Rippon and asked for help.

He was at the rink on Monday.

“Adam kind of brings the fun,” Bell told People in January.

Along with knowing herself well enough to ask for help, Bell believes her honest, “open book” policy about her feelings is one of her best practices when it comes to nurturing her own mental health.

“Everybody struggles with mental health to some degree – it’s such a normal thing,” explains Bell, who considers Rippon her “secondary coach,” with Rafael Arutunian as her primary coach and former Canadian ice dancing world champion Shae-Lynn Bourne as her choreographer.

“But for athletes, it seems like it’s such an abnormal thing when people talk about it, but it’s not, you know? It’s so normal. I was asked (before): How do you cope with the stresses of competition or whatever? And, honestly, the best way to cope, I think, is to talk about it, to share and to know that you’re not dealing with the stress or anxiety alone.”

Rippon’s arrival at the rink translated quickly to improved performance on the ice, where she finished second at the 2020 U.S. nationals to a standing ovation following her free skate. Off the ice, Bell had found love with French figure skater Romain Ponsart and the two had gotten engaged just prior to nationals.

“I felt like, ‘Wow, I’m just on top of the world,'” she said. “Skating is going amazing. I’m engaged; this is so exciting. And you know, life throws you curveballs.”

Indeed. Following what she calls a “rough nationals” where she finished fifth in 2021, Bell was passed over for the U.S. world championships team that spring. Then last summer, she was blindsided when Ponsart ended their engagement.

“That was shocking and heartbreaking,” she admits. “And you feel like you’re like mourning something because I was so in love with him.”

But that low point passed, too, perhaps not replaced but definitely usurped last month by the high of finally winning her first U.S. nationals in her ninth appearance and making her first Olympic team.

“I hope that people know, even if things are tough, or you kind of have to work through some stuff – and on top of that, being old – it literally it doesn’t matter,” said Bell. “If you have a dream, and you want to work for something, and you’re motivated to do it, nothing should stop you – no circumstances or age or whatever.”

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto captures Olympic bronze with empowering free skate

2022 Winter Olympics: Women’s Figure Skating Schedule

Event  Date/Time (U.S. Eastern Time) Date/Time (Beijing, China)
Women’s Short Program 2/15/22 5:00 AM 2/15/22 6:00 PM
Women’s Free Skate 2/17/22 5:00 AM 2/17/22 6:00 PM

On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi contributed to this report.

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”