Detroit — Alysa Liu, 13, looked a bit more intimidated Friday.
With good reason.
Before her free skate, the defending national champion in ladies figure skating, Bradie Tennell fell, failing to land a triple lutz.
Just before that, contender Emily Ma fell while trying to complete a triple salchow.
And, just before that, another contender, Amber Glenn, fell while trying to land a triple lutz.
Regardless of Liu’s tender age, it was scary out there on the ice in Little Caesars Arena.
But, it was not long into her crisp, dynamic, lighter-than-air skate that the smile returned to Liu’s face.
The new national women’s champion in U.S. figure skating is 13 years old, and three years too young to compete internationally in senior competitions.
Because of her age, she cannot compete in the World Championships until 2022. In fact, she cannot compete in the Junior World Championships this year.
But, the competitors in both already know that she is coming. Liu announced that to the world this week in Detroit.
And, she will get there with an overwhelming adorability that masks a conqueror’s intent.
Liu landed her triples. They came in historic fashion.
Only two women in history had landed a triple axel in the free skate of a national championship.
Liu became the first to do it in the short program on Thursday.
She began her finale Friday with two of them.
The first led a triple axel, triple toe loop combination, and she hit both elements cleanly. When she comes back down to earth, Liu is a vision of delicate grace.
Then, as if to accentuate her power over her competitors, she immediately nailed another triple axel.
Presently, her smile came back.
The rest of her skate seemed nearly flawless, and the judges scored it mostly so, ruling that she had completed all her jumps.
Liu finished with one skater left. Mariah Bell fell, too.
At 4-foot-7, Liu had to be lifted by both arms to the top step of the podium by an obliging Tennell on one side and Bell on the other.
Over and done with the competition and facing the media, Liu was asked what she likes to do with her spare time.
The youngest women’s champion in the history of U.S. figure skating said, “I like to ride my bike, a lot. … I go to a park and ride my bike with my friends and play tag.”
She had told her coach, Laura Lipetsky, who began working with her at 5 1/2 years old, that she intended to emerge from Detroit as the national champion.
Her singular focus on improving her own performance and discarding other concerns helped drive the victory and underlined the immense maturity of a girl not at far into adolescence.
“When my score came out, I still thought that it isn’t over because there is still one more skater,” she said. “But I was really happy with my score.
“I was just happy to beat my personal record and that I did a clean long program.”
Asked if she is concerned about her ineligibility for international competitions and how it might affect her development, Liu became dismissive.
“I’m not too worried about that part because I get more time to work on my jumps and spins, and just train more and more before I compete against them, because they are very good,” she said, of international competitors, especially a strong Russian contingent in women’s figure skating.
Tennell and Bell were dissatisfied. But they skated well in the nationals, apart from the falls, and both are almost certain to skate in the World Championships in Japan in March.
“I’m disappointed,” Tennell said. “But, there’s always something to learn from skates like this.
“So, I’m just going to get back home and work harder than ever to fix what I made the mistake from.
“Things didn’t go as planned,” she said. “But, that’s life, and you take from it what you can learn. And, onwards and upwards, I guess.”
Bell admitted her performance was not her best.
“I actually had one large mistake there,” she said, before glancing at Liu and Tennell to her right on the dais.
“But looking at, you know, this is sort of our future. I think that we’ve show we're a big mixture of ladies, both experienced and up-and-coming.
“So, the U.S. is set really well, I think.”
Liu was asked, as a last question, what was going through her head, in that moment.
As she sat on a dais in front of the national media in glaring lights after becoming national champion, Liu said, “Um, nothing.”
Amid laughter, she added, “I’m just kind of staring blankly. I’m kind of out of it.”