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Jumps help Alysa Liu successfully defend U.S. women's skating title

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- 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 Bell off for 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."