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.