It was three years ago that figure skater Alysa Liu needed a helping lift from her competitors to reach the top step of the podium at the 2019 U.S. Championships, when she became the youngest ever U.S. women’s champion ever at age 13.
Liu followed up by becoming the first U.S. woman to land three triple axels in a single competition, the first U.S. woman to land a quadruple jump (specifically, a quadruple lutz) in a competition, and the first woman in the world to land a quad and triple axel in the same program at a competition.
Just three years later, 16-year-old Liu is the youngest member of Team USA across any sport at the 2022 Winter Olympics and they lead three Americans into the free skate portion of the competition.
The Richmond, California, native earned a 69.50 in Tuesday’s short program in Beijing, putting Liu in eighth place overall and into the top 15 along with teammates Mariah Bell (11th at 65.38) and two-time Olympian Karen Chen (13th at 64.11).
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Fifteen-year-old Kamila Valiyeva, the Russian Olympic Committee athlete who was cleared to skate even though she failed a drug test taken Dec. 25, leads with an 82.16 despite stumbling on her triple axel.
While an Olympic medal is obviously on Liu’s wish list, just being at the Games and skating their best is the satisfaction they are looking for after a whirlwind 36 months that included a second U.S. title, a three-inch growth spurt, nagging injury, two coaching changes – including one just two months prior to Beijing – and a crushing withdrawal from U.S. Championships in January after testing positive for COVID-19.
“I’m just really glad that all my training paid off because I’m here competing,” Liu said after Tuesday’s short program. “And the goal of my whole life and my skating career was to compete at the Olympics. So now I can officially say I’m an Olympian.”
Liu on Tuesday did not attempt the notoriously difficult triple axel, the three-and-a half revolution jump she used to win her two U.S. titles. Six skaters did, however, but only Japan’s Wakaba Higuchi (fifth at 73.51) landed it cleanly.
Liu has yet to land a triple axel without deductions this season, but was seen performing it during an Olympic training session earlier this month.
“Hopefully, I will do it in the free skate, I’ve been practicing it in the free program,” they said. “It feels pretty good, I’d say. Obviously, it isn’t perfect, but nothing is ever perfect, so I’ll just go with it.”
Triple axels and quadruple jumps are the hallmark of the ROC skaters, including Valiyeva, 17-year-old reigning world champion Anna Shcherbakova (second at 80.20) and 17-year-old Alexandra Trusova (fourth at 74.60), who is known as the “Quad Queen.” In September, Trusova landed five clean quads at a Russian national event.
But Liu has generally abandoned the quad jumps and confirmed she doesn’t plan to attempt the four-revolution jump in Beijing.
“It was a lot easier when I was smaller, and a lot shorter,” said Liu, who stands approximately 5 feet, 2 inches. “It’s just been harder. Especially when COVID hit, I couldn’t train it as much. I stopped training it for a period. So, there was a lot of other factors, but definitely puberty (was one factor).”
Bell explained the challenges of maturity in more detail, telling Defector: “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. 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.”
When Liu grew three inches in a year, she told NBC News her reaction was, “What is this?” But under the guidance of her father, Junguo (Arthur) Liu, she moved through two coaching changes. She first parted ways with Laura Lipetsky, with whom she was with since she was five years old, just prior to 2020, and trained through the pandemic with former U.S. skater Jeremy Abbott before teaming with coach Drew Meekins in November.
“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,” said Arthur, who raised Alysa and her four siblings as a single father. Born in China, Arthur fled in 1989 after organizing pro-democracy demonstrations. He eventually resettled in Oakland, California, after the U.S. opened its doors to student refugees.
“My skating now, I feel like I have more purpose to it,” Liu told Defector last month in Nashville. “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 Alysa’s dream. That I kind of didn’t think about before, and also, so I can get into good universities and colleges,” the 16-year-old said.