Alysa Liu watched Mariah Bell put out the performance of her life. Then the 14-year-old defending champion did Bell one better.
Liu needed all of her technical brilliance in her impressive jumping arsenal to hold off Bell at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships title Friday night.
"I was very happy for her," Liu said. "I said, ‘OK, she did well and I also have to do well.'"
No American woman comes close to the repertoire of jumps the 14-year-old Liu possesses. She hit two triple axels among eight triples overall and attempted the only quad of the event, a lutz she under-rotated. Her 160.12 points by far exceeded the rest of the field and lifted her to 235.52 and up from second place after the short program.
Skating last, Liu had little margin after Bell's superb skate.
Bell knew after her final triple lutz, her seventh triple jump of the program, that she'd outdone herself. A huge smile spread across her face for the final half-minute as she flew across the ice with spirals and then her last spins.
"I saw how into it the crowd was and I love to share what I do with the audience like that," she said. "I feel very awesome to have that experience."
Bell's program was choreographed by 2018 U.S. Olympian Adam Rippon, who got the first hug from her as she left the ice to a standing ovation.
“Adam has been such a major part of my success this year," Bell explained. "To have that moment here was so special. He deserves to have that moment and to be able to share it."
But she simply didn't have the technical numbers to win her first national crown.
Short program winner Bradie Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champ, has vastly improved her presentation, and she's usually the most precise of American female jumpers. Her fall on a triple loop not only was surprising, it dropped her to third place.
Tennell landed six triples, all of them efficiently, and her program flowed nicely, with good pace and dynamic spins. It wasn't particularly exciting, but it was among her most interesting routines. And she did it after an infection to her elbow caused “a really crazy week.”
Because Liu is too young to go to senior worlds, Bell and Tennell are likely to get the trip to Montreal in March. Meanwhile, Liu will keep an eye on all competitors.
"I do pay attention to other skaters around the world," she said. "I'm aware a lot of them are getting these difficult jumps and just trying to keep up with the jumps and keep up with the skating skills for others around the world."
Two-time U.S. winner and 2014 Olympic team bronze medalist Gracie Gold wound up 12th in her comeback from battling mental illness. Gold completed a good program down on one knee and teary-eyed as the crowd rose to salute what some called a courageous performance.
"It's very flattering that could be compared to something that typically the word courage can be used for," she said, noting soldiers sent to Afghanistan or people who protect others during a mass shooting. "I was excited, relieved, so overwhelmed almost, so existing in the moment."
Earlier Friday, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who won their only national championship at the Greensboro Coliseum in 2015, used a lively performance to win the rhythm dance.
"We are different people than we were five years ago," Chock said. "We're very proud of today's skate. It was free and spontaneous; that was the goal of ours."
The couple missed the 2018-19 Grand Prix season when Chock underwent ankle surgery. But they returned to finish second at nationals to Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue.
Now, they are on a roll that includes a second-place showing at the Grand Prix Final, where their long-time competitors, Hubbell and Donohue, placed third.
Yes, U.S. ice dance is in good shape with these two veteran teams.
Chock and Bates, a couple off the ice, have been to the last two Olympics, finishing eighth in Sochi and ninth in Pyeongchang. They've hung around, hardly unusual in ice dance, and are on the verge of making this season their best. They haven't been worse than second in 2019-20.
"For a whole year we have been low and high, and now we are on a high," Chock added. "We are hoping to continue on that trajectory."
Hubbell, portraying Marilyn Monroe in a fiery red dress, and Donohue, as Joe DiMaggio in a baseball uniform — not a Yankees outfit for fear of copyright infringement — gave a fast-paced and highly energetic performance to ``My Heart Belongs to Daddy.'' They didn't quite capture the hearts of all the judges, and their 86.31 points were 1.32 behind Chock and Bates.
"We had three trips in the program," she said with a chuckle. "You are hoping to get the kinks out here so we can perform better internationally.'"
Two-time defending champs and bronze medalists in the 2018 Olympics team event, where they wound up fourth in ice dance, Hubbell and Donohue also own a silver and bronze at worlds and won the 2018 Grand Prix Final.
Third on the scorecards but probably first with the majority of the crowd that caught "Saturday Night Fever" from their routine to the Bee Gees were Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. They managed to cram many of the songs from the John Travolta classic into their program, and even stayed in character as they took their bows.