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Detroit — Alysa Liu smiled, but it seemed guarded.

She stood at center ice at Little Caesars Arena, hands extended over her head, up on the tips of her skates.

The music began. She eased into an oblong skating pattern near the perimeters of the rink, gaining speed. Then, with momentum built, she elevated for her challenging first jump.

The triple axel is so difficult that Liu,13, is just the fourth United States woman in history, and the youngest by several years, to cleanly perform one. On Friday, she became the first to complete one in the short program at a U.S. Figure Skating Championship.

Too young to skate in the World Championship and some senior competitions, Liu rapidly spun the 3 1/2 revolutions with the force necessary to complete it, at considerable height.

Then, easing her momentum, she landed softly, like a cotton ball dropped to the floor.

It stole the breath from many watching.

Liu could feel it.

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Her smile became unbound.

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The United States might have its long-sought “next” ladies figure skating luminary.

As she continued to skate, the big smile never left her. Liu (pronounced “Lou”) ripped through the program with startling ease, feather lightness and bullet quickness.

Her electrifying performance left her in tears of joy, with much of the audience on its feet.

Other skaters began with triple toe loops and triple lutzs, and other jumps with fewer degrees of difficulty than the axel — named for the Norwegian skater Axel Paulsen, who first performed it in 1882 — with its forward take-off, requiring an extra half revolution to complete.

Afterwards, in the mixed zone, where the 4-foot-7 figure skater from California walked by a gauntlet of media, a question was posed: “Did you think you’d hit the jump?”

“Yeah!” Liu said, sounding like anyone’s teenage daughter.

But, moments later, she told them, “I don’t skate to lose,” sounding like a gunslinger with dozens of notches in her belt.

Bradie Tennell, the defending champion, had a lot to say about things, though.

The favorite, entering the nationals in a women’s field depleted by retirements, apparent retirements, injury and health concerns, Tennell, 20, looked consummately at ease from the start.

Her blistering pace, exacting elements and jumps injected with dramatic height, won the day.

Tennell’s 76.60 score outpaced Liu’s 73.89.

“I practiced really hard for this, and I know I’ve trained,” said Tennell, who had struggled through some of her short programs this season.

“I love these program that I have. So, I’m excited to perform them this year.

“I went out there and I just did what I do every day, and I just enjoyed my performance. There really wasn’t much thinking involved," she said.

“I just kind of go out on autopilot and get in the zone.”

Mariah Bell’s 70.30 would likely have been several points higher, if she had not struggled a bit to complete her triple lutz, triple toe-loop combination.

“I had a little mistake, obviously, which I’m really bummed about,” said Bell, 22. “But, it’s an easy fix for the future.”

It all sets up a fine night of skating Friday at the glimmering, new arena and on NBC.

Amber Glenn, Hanna Harrell and Emily Ma are also within striking distance.

At the post-skate press conference, with Liu, Tennell and Bell arrayed from left to right on the dais, a reporter sought to get a sense of how Liu ticks, especially at her age.

“Alysa, what are you thinking, right now? Are you thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh! I can’t believe I’m up here having a press conference.’ Or, are you thinking, ‘I totally belong here.’?”

In a quiet voice betraying bashfulness, Liu answered slowly, drawing considerable laughter.

“I’m thinking about the press conference.”

But, the warrior in the young person flashed as she answered the next question.

Asked about her thoughts on international competition, even though it will be a couple of years before she can participate, Liu responded like a pro, flattering then strategizing.

"I still watch international skaters,” she said. “I actually really like them. A lot of them are inspiration to me.

“I think I need a quad to keep up with them, maybe, because a few of them have quads.”

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/greggkrupa

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