Ice Network

Precocious Liu storms her way to junior crown

Arkansas native Kalyan takes silver; Cui vaults in standings to earn bronze
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Alysa Liu followed up her first-place finish in the short program with a gold medal-clinching performance at SAP Center. The 2016 U.S. intermediate champion earned a segment-best score of 120.33 for her 'Les Misérables' free skate -- in which she landed all seven of her triple jumps in the second half of the program -- and with a total mark of 184.16, she bested the field by almost 18 points. -Jay Adeff

On Tuesday night, before a sparse SAP Center crowd in San Jose, Alysa Liu delivered the kind of magic in her junior ladies free skate that some senior-level skaters may find difficult to replicate.

Skating to Les Miserables, the 12-year-old from nearby Oakland stormed the barricades with all the gusto and bravado of the musical's revolutionary schoolboys -- and a lot more finesse. Standing at 4 feet 7 inches but commanding the ice, Liu leapt and spun to perfection, reeling off seven triple jumps -- all in the second half of her program -- including triple lutz-triple toe and triple flip-loop-triple salchow combinations. The diminutive whirlwind notched 120.33 points, and ended with 184.16 overall to eclipse the field by nearly 18 points.

"If you just stay focused and think about your technique and what you've been working on, then you can do it," Liu told a cluster of reporters after the event.

Not even the start of a bad cold on Monday night could deter her from completing the mission.

"One quote my coach always says is 'fake it to make it,'" Liu said. "But I'm actually sick. I had a fever and my throat is hurting right now."

Advil, tea with lemon and Chinese cough drops got her through the day, along with a home remedy fixed by her father, Arthur.

"I drank wheatgrass juice, my dad makes it," Liu said. "It's supposed to help your immune system. It's gross."

The pre-teen's confident attitude and back-loaded program reminds one of two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva, who not surprisingly, is Liu's idol.

"I just find (Russian skaters) really motivating, because they are so young and have such good jumps, and I aspire to be like them," Liu said. "Evgenia Medvedeva is amazing. I really look up to her. Her jumps are really amazing and her skating skills are perfect. I want to be just like her when I'm older, or I can just try to be like her now."

Laura Lipetsky, who has coached Liu at Oakland Ice Center since she first stepped on the ice at five-and-a-half years of age, looks to Japan for inspiration.

"Looking at the Japanese girl, Rika Kihira, who has triple axel-triple toe, we definitely strive for that," Lipetsky said.

Regardless of skill, though, Liu's turn on the international junior stage will have to wait: she will not be eligible for the World Junior Figure Skating Championships or the Junior Grand Prix circuit until the 2019-2020 season.

"I hope they change it so that no matter what age you are, you can go," she said. "But they probably won't and that's okay. It gives me more practice to get ready."

Liu's fireworks should not overshadow the balletic yet powerful free skate of silver medalist Pooja Kalyan, a 14-year-old improbably hailing from Springdale, Arkansas, who landed six effortless triples -- including a triple toe-triple toe combination -- in a superb free skate choreographed by Scott Brown to Satie's "Gymnopedie No. 1." Kalyan was third in the free and finished with 166.53 points.

"The first thing I wanted to do was land my jumps and skate a clean program, but I also wanted to perform to the audience and make sure I use up the space as much as I can, because it's such a big arena," Kalyan said. "I wanted to smile and skate with as much joy as possible, and bring that joy to the crowd."

There are only two ice rinks in Arkansas, where Kalyan is coached by Jennifer Kelly and Robin Aprea. Her primary coach is Alex Ouriashev in Chicago.

"It's pretty amazing how much my parents and coaches have supported me through this journey," she said. "A lot of the skaters in Arkansas have already texted me to say congratulations. Whenever I do my programs, they try their best to move out of the way, which is really nice."

After a disappointing short program left her mired in 11th place, Ting Cui threw caution to the wind in her Chopin free skate, landing seven triples, including double axel-triple toe loop and triple lutz-loop-triple salchow combinations. Her 119.96 points put her second in the free, and she won bronze with 165.51 points.

"I had nothing to lose and I let go and skated just like I do in practice," Cui said.

The 15-year-old made a coaching change to Vincent Restencourt after last season, and now works with the former French competitor in Aston, Pennsylvania. Natalya Linichuk and Uschi Keszler, who have both trained multiple world and Olympic medalists, are also on her coaching team.

"I added a lot of arm variation to my jumps, and my consistency with triple flip and triple loop has gone up," she said.

Texas skater Hanna Harrell, fifth after the short, landed a triple flip-triple toe combination in her free to climb to fourth place with 154.36 points.