DETROIT — A 4-7 breath of fresh air blew into the U.S. figure skating championships Thursday evening, barely visible above the boards on ice level.
But then she started jumping, and the future of American women’s skating became crystal clear.
Alysa Liu, at 13 too young to compete at the next three world championships, isn’t too young to make you wonder if she isn’t setting herself up, with a little luck and a lot of patience, to be a force at the next Winter Olympic Games in 2022 in Beijing.
Liu, the youngest female skater in history to land the triple axel, the toughest triple jump there is, performed nearly flawlessly in the women’s short program, finishing behind only defending national champion Bradie Tennell, 76.60 points to 73.89.
If she skates with the same unbridled joy in Friday’s long program, and lands the two triple axels she has planned, Liu will make the podium in her senior (Olympic level) national debut, one year after winning the junior national title.
“The future looks great tonight,” two-time U.S. Olympic coach Audrey Weisiger texted after the competition.
Those are words that haven’t been said about American women’s skating in quite some time. Only one U.S. woman has won an Olympic or world medal since 2006 (Ashley Wagner’s silver medal at the 2016 world championships), and the three American women competing in last year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea finished a dismal ninth, 10th and 11th, the worst U.S. performance ever.
Ascribing to the theory that there’s nowhere to go but up, U.S. figure skating begins the first year of a new four-year Olympic cycle with the hope that Liu, who trains in Oakland, Calif., is coming along at exactly the right time.
She was asked if she thinks she is the future of U.S. women’s skating. She answered exactly as you’d think a 13-year-old would.
“Actually I’ve only heard like a few people say that,” she said, “but I don’t think too much about it.”
Tasked with the duty of making sure Liu continues to not think too much about it is her coach, Laura Lipetsky, herself a former national competitor who has coached Liu for as long as the kid has been skating.
“I’ve worked with her since she was 5½ and racing around on public sessions,” Lipetsky said. “Then she was in my ‘tot’ class. I really liked her personality, the way she just loved to skate.”
It’s the very rare skater who is coached by the same person throughout his or her career, from their earliest steps on the ice to the pinnacle of the sport. Brian Boitano did it with coach Linda Leaver, and an Olympic gold medal was the result. Weisiger coached three-time national champion Michael Weiss through the majority of his stellar career. Can Liu and Lipetsky pull it off? Time will tell.
Patience isn’t a word usually associated with young female figure skaters, but it will be the watchword of Liu’s fledgling career under Lipetsky’s tutelage the next couple of years. Liu’s birthday of Aug. 8, 2005 makes her five weeks too young for the July 1 cutoff for this year’s junior world championships, and it will force her to miss the 2019, 2020 and 2021 world championships.
Think of it: She would compete in the 2022 Olympics — if she indeed makes it there — before she’s allowed to compete in her first worlds. So Liu could come to dominate U.S. women’s skating and then have to sit home during the biggest event of the year.
This is not all bad. “There are definitely positives,” Lipetsky said. “We look at the positive of trying to grow as a skater: Trying to improve her speed, her skating skills, her maturity on the ice, and also including the quads as well, to be able to be competitive with the Russians. That’s what we’re aiming for, before we even compete with the Russians, trying to have the material, the goods, to compete against them.”
It sounds like the perfect plan. In three years, we’ll know if it worked.
Follow columnist Christine Brennan on Twitter @cbrennansports.