DETROIT (AP) — The present and future of American figure skating were on display at last week's national championships.
Nathan Chen and Alysa Liu were captivating, but it remains to be seen how much they can help the U.S. rebound on the international stage.
Chen, the reigning world champion, is rolling right along after winning a third straight title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. His performance was expected, but the biggest new star to emerge at this competition was the 13-year-old Liu, who became the youngest person to win an individual championship in the event's history.
"She's the hope," said Tara Lipinski, who won the national title at age 14 in 1997 and was supplanted by Liu as the youngest women's champion. "Obviously, it's been many years since there's been a U.S. lady on an Olympic podium."
The last time an American won an Olympic medal in women's figure skating was in 2006, when Sasha Cohen took silver. The U.S. won bronze in the team competition at each of the past two Olympics, but the Americans came up empty in the men's and women's individual events in both Pyeongchang and Sochi.
In Chen, the Americans already have a high-flying star. He won the Olympic free skate last year with an unprecedented six quad jumps, and while a poor short program cost him a medal, he has three straight national titles and last year's world title to his credit at age 19.
"He's pushing the sport in ways that, growing up in the sport, I could have only dreamed," said Jason Brown, who finished third over the weekend. "It's really impressive, and he definitely pushes me to push every other boundary that I can."
Chen defeated Vincent Zhou by over 58 points Sunday, and right now, the main question seems to be how well Chen can balance his skating with his studies at Yale. So far, so good, it seems.
"I really don't mind the training atmosphere that I'm in. I'm really lucky and really honored to have the opportunity to be able to skate at Yale," he said. "Some competitions have been really good, some competitions have not necessarily been so good under these circumstances, but ultimately, I feel like I'm improving competition to competition."
Chen is skipping the Four Continents Championships in California next month but can try to defend his world title in Japan in March.
Liu, meanwhile, faces a more uncertain international future. After Lipinski won at nationals in '97, she took gold at the Nagano Olympics the following year. Liu's national title came three years before the next Olympics, and under the current age restriction, she's not eligible to compete at worlds until 2022.
That may be frustrating for those who want to see her compete on the biggest stage, but it could also stave off the pressure for a little while.
"There are some obvious places where I can be better and (I will keep) working on those," she said. "Focusing on myself is what works for me. Just focusing on being the best version and best skater that I can be."
Liu landed a rare triple axel in her short program and two more in the free skate, so it's only natural to view her as someone who can help the American women start closing the gap.
"There's other countries that are producing talent that are 12- and 13-year-olds, doing quads and multiple quad jumps, and it's impossible for the U.S. ladies to technically compete with that. They're lagging so far behind," said Lipinski, now a commentator with NBC. "Now she's changing this, and I think she is setting the tone and is going to push the next generation of U.S. skaters."
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