- U.S. ladies’ figure skating has fallen flat, but 13-year-old national champ Alysa Liu and her lofty jumps are ready to come to the rescue.
This story appears in the May 20, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine — and get up to 94 percent off the cover price. Click here for more.
The most promising American ladies’ figure skater to come along in the last 15 years, the reigning (and youngest-ever) national champion and the U.S.’s best bet for its first Olympic medal since the Bush administration is dying to know what she should call her slime. Alysa Liu made it at home by mixing Elmer’s glue with water and Borax, and now it’s on display, here on a steel picnic table near the entrance of the Oakland Ice Arena, this turquoise lump pocked with multicolored foam beads and air bubbles. “Alien Crisp?” she asks. “Or Alien Popcorn?”
The 13-year-old Liu doesn’t linger on this question for long. Have you seen her favorite funny cat video on Instagram? You know the one—the cat gets brain freeze after eating ice cream? And you’ve got to meet her best friend. She has a lot of best friends at the rink but only one Best! Friend!, Juliana Newton, with whom she’s skated for seven years. They just bought matching yellow mini-backpacks at Ross Dress for Less; you must see them, too.
Liu has been the country’s top ladies figure skater, officially, for about a month as of this visit. She says she still feels like the same old Alysa, even though she has guested on Today and Jimmy Fallon, and her Instagram following has quadrupled. Every time she skates on home ice, she’s reminded of her triumph—a poster on the rink’s bulletin board trumpets her national title. Soon a banner with her picture on it will hang from the rafters alongside banners commemorating her U.S. junior ladies’ and intermediate championships.
It’s a Saturday morning, a few minutes shy of 7:30, and Liu is due to start practice. A toothy grin gives away Alysa’s youth; her canines are still growing in, fighting for space. Her dark-chocolate hair is gathered in a donut bun nearly half as large as her head. She is wearing her standard training outfit: skating tights underneath black leggings and a black long-sleeve T-shirt. Even in her white Edea Piano boots, she stands short of 5 feet. (When she won the U.S. championship in Detroit in January, silver medalist Bradie Tennell, 21, and bronze medalist Mariah Bell, 23, had to grab her by the arms and hoist her to the top spot on the podium.) Every weekday she’s at the rink for two intensive one-on-one lessons with coach Laura Lipetsky—to free up her schedule, Liu has been homeschooled for the past three years—but Saturdays and Sundays demand practice too. There’s no time to waste when you’re chasing the quad.
Under modern international judging standards, there is no more potent weapon than a quadruple jump. Quad Lutz, quad Salchow, quad Axel, quad anything: The quad is fast becoming ladies’ skating’s triple-digit fastball or step-back three-pointer—a once-anomalous physical triumph that promises to reorder the sport as it becomes more common. (It has been a fixture in men’s competition since the late 1980s, but only recently began figuring into ladies’ routines.)
Liu wants a quad in her arsenal in time for her August international-junior debut. After nationals, she set a goal of landing quads consistently by mid-April so that she could work them into her choreography for the 2019-20 season. (Everything is going according to plan—she nailed five quad Lutzes in one recent workout.) She had first worked on a quad Lutz last summer while training for a regional qualifier, figuring she would make it to sectionals even if she missed the jump. Indeed, she locked up on her first attempt, improvised a second one and fell—and still advanced.
A word to the uninitiated: Skaters use harnesses to learn their jumps. A rope attached to the harness runs along a pulley on the ceiling and is controlled by the coach, who tugs it so the skater can learn how the rotations feel without gravity’s pull. Lipetsky clips Liu’s harness to the rope and they begin working on quad jumps. Liu skates backward into the approach, plants the toe pick on her right foot and lifts into four rotations. She lands softly (thanks to the harness) and glides backward. When Alysa skates, she cuts crisp edges across the ice so quickly that your eyes have trouble keeping up. One second she’s gliding backward, the next she’s prancing on her toe picks. And because she’s so small, when she jumps, she can go higher and spin faster. But something is wrong. Liu stops and skates over to the boards. She needs to hear Ariana Grande right now. She plugs in her phone and cues up several of Grande’s latest songs. Then, back in the harness.
What’s riding on her mastering the quad? Nothing—just the hopes of a once-proud federation, the dreams of a high-spirited teenager, and the prospect of her father’s triumphant return to a nation he fled 30 years ago.
“Quad Lutz isn’t that hard,” she says later. “It felt like a triple to me. But quad Sal [Salchow], I cannot do quad Sal. It is so hard, ohmygod.”
For a long time, no U.S. Winter Olympians possessed the cultural cachet the women’s skaters did. After winning the gold medal in 1968 at Grenoble, Peggy Fleming taped five TV specials for NBC; Michelle Kwan, who earned a silver and a bronze in two Games (alongside five world championship golds), captured not one but two Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards. Marrying glamour with precision and grace with dominance, America’s skaters captured the nation’s hearts, every four years, for half a century. But Alysa Liu cannot recall that time: No U.S. woman has won an individual Olympic medal since Sasha Cohen took silver in 2006, when Liu was an infant. American women have medaled only once in the last 13 world championships, and at the PyeongChang Games in 2018, they finished ninth, 10th and 11th, one of the team’s worst-ever showings.
U.S. Figure Skating can trace its struggles to the International Skating Union’s implementation of new judging standards in 2004. After a scandal in pairs judging at Salt Lake City, the ISU wanted to make scoring more transparent. Instead of one overall mark for technical merit, skaters were now rewarded for each difficult element in their programs. What this meant was that any skater who could consistently nail difficult elements would triumph; less was left to chance. But U.S. Figure Skating did not implement bonuses for difficult jumps at the juvenile through novice levels until 2015—by which point it was too late. American women watched the quad revolution from afar. Says Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic gold medalist and, until Liu, the youngest American national champ, “In Russia there are teenagers doing multiple quads. There was a stagnant period, where you did a triple-triple [combination], and that’s all you needed. Now the roof has blown off.”
In Detroit, Liu landed three clean triple Axels, the triple jump with the highest degree of difficulty because the forward takeoff and backward landing make it 3½ rotations. She had landed her first at the Asian Open as a 12-year-old, making her the youngest ever to do it; none of her competitors in Detroit attempted even one. Says Bell, the bronze medalist, “When you’re 13, it is so exciting to go out there and show everything you’ve got. As you get older, you’re have a different mind-set, like, O.K., I have this and this to lose. She just goes out there to take it all.”
Bell worked on a triple Axel briefly last summer; now, because of Liu, she’s even more motivated to add that jump. “Younger girls [thought] we shouldn’t go for [triple Axels], let’s just stick to what these [older] girls are doing,” Bell says. “Alysa went above and beyond that, and it opens a new door and helps the U.S. in comparison to other countries where there are girls doing quads at a very young age.”
While ISU rules bar skaters under 15 from senior-level international competition, Liu is still watching the world’s best. “Did you know [14-year-old Russian skater] Alexandra Trusova’s eyes are blue?” Liu says. “I always thought they were brown.” She is paying particular attention to the Russian skaters coached by Eteri Tutberidze (who previously trained the gold and silver medalists at PyeongChang), including Trusova, who is the first female to land a quad Lutz in international competition, and Anna Shcherbakova, 15, the first to land two quad Lutzes in a single program.
Trusova and Shcherbakova will compete on the senior level this season and, barring growth spurts or injuries, should bring their quads with them. Liu is on another schedule, though she hopes to do the same in the 2021-22 season, which will culminate in the Beijing Olympics. Until then, undoubtedly, the U.S. and Russia will continue the warm and friendly relationship they’ve enjoyed for many years.
When Junguo (Arthur) Liu was Alysa’s age, he was getting ready to leave his mountain village in China’s Sichuan province for the first time. He had tested well enough to earn admission to an elite high school in Zhongxian. From there he studied English literature at Southwest Teacher’s University in Guangzhou, today a port city of 13 million across Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong. That education radicalized him, and as a graduate student in the late 1980s, Liu led pro-democracy demonstrations in Guangzhou. “We just wanted the rights that the Chinese constitution guaranteed us,” he says. “I really just felt it was my responsibility to stand up and say something because I was educated [about] Western society and political systems and I just felt like China wasn’t what it was claimed to be.”
In May 1989, 3,000 Beijing University students staged a hunger strike and sit-in at Tiananmen Square, the symbolic center of China, demanding freedom for dissidents and an end to corruption. Arthur organized parallel demonstrations in Guangzhou, with plans spreading by word of mouth across several campuses. Around midnight on June 3 he tuned his radio to a Hong Kong station, the only one he could trust for uncensored news. What he heard that night alarmed him. The government had instituted martial law and the military had attacked the protesters. When the bloodbath was over, witnesses reported more than 700 dead.
Arthur was incensed. “How could you open fire at your own students?” Many of his classmates felt just as strongly, and they mobilized in protest to barricade all five of Guangzhou’s crucial bridges. Arthur and at least a thousand other students blocked traffic at the Haizhu Bridge for two days.
Shortly thereafter, he learned from the news that he was one of the government’s most-wanted students. Friends helped smuggle him by boat to Hong Kong, where he stayed for about five months awaiting a relocation assignment from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Originally he was destined for France. Then the U.S. opened its doors to student refugees from China.
He arrived in Oakland at age 25 and found work as a busboy at King Tsin restaurant in Berkeley, saving up money to continue his education. Because of his background in political activism, a friend recommended he attend law school. Arthur took his advice; he still wanted to return to China to spread democracy. In 1998 he earned a law degree from Hastings College of Law, at the University of California, and he has operated a general practice in Oakland ever since.
Has he gone back to China? Arthur won’t answer for the record. After almost 30 years he’s still concerned about retribution. He says there have been subtle signs over the years that the Chinese government still tracks his movements, though he won’t describe them for the record, either. And he’s especially worried now, considering the next Winter Olympics will be held in Beijing, where, as a matter of government policy, the events described above never happened.
Alysa gave her gold medal from nationals to Arthur, who, she says, “deserved it more than me.” He had closely followed the Chinese-American Kwan’s skating career and enrolled Alysa in lessons with Lipetsky when she was five. In her big jacket and bright-pink skates, she became the darling of the rink, and Arthur developed into a full-fledged skating dad, creating a checklist to keep Alysa on track when she practiced alone. “I have the Coach Arthur rule: Everything five times,” he says. “Like, double Axel, five good double Axels. If you fall, that doesn’t count.”
Another part of what makes their relationship so close is that Arthur is the only biological parent Alysa knows. He had her and her four younger siblings—Selina, 11, and nine-year-old triplets Joshua, Justin and Julia—by in vitro fertilization with two different egg donors and two different surrogates.
When the children were born, Arthur was still married to Yan Qingxin (who goes by Mary). The couple is now divorced, but Mary is also the kids’ legal guardian, and they call her Mom. They typically spend a couple nights a week at her house in Antioch.
Alysa was born in Clovis nearly two years after Arthur started his search for an egg donor. He didn’t stop when Selina was born because he wanted a big family, like the one he had left behind in China. But egg donation and IVF are expensive processes, and in order to afford it all, Arthur says he and the five kids lived in a one-bedroom apartment for two or three years. “I put probably every penny I made into this,” Arthur says. They now live in a three-bedroom house in Richmond, a suburb of Oakland.
Alysa is the only one of her siblings who is a serious skater, so she spends a lot of time apart from the rest of the family. She also has a different egg donor from her siblings. “I’m the loner,” she jokes.
Both egg donors for Arthur’s children are white women, because he felt his children would benefit from a diverse gene pool. He sees his life as a fusion of cultures, Chinese and American, and he wanted his kids to reflect that. When Alysa was around eight she began to notice that she looked different from her dad. Mary is also Chinese, so that was another clue. “That’s how I figured out she wasn’t my real mom,” Alysa says, “because she was Asian and I did not look Asian.”
Arthur does not know the identity of either egg donor, and there are no records to unseal. Somewhere out there in the world is a woman with no idea her DNA helped create a precocious girl who is redefining skating.
At the world championships in March—the ones in which Liu couldn’t participate because she was too young—a female skater landed a quad in senior-level competition for the first time. It was 19-year-old Elizabet Tursynbayeva, of Kazakhstan, in her long program. (“I think it is so amazing,” Alysa says. “Like, wow, that is amazing.”) She, too, trains under Tutberidze. Tursynbayeva finished with the silver behind 16-year-old Alina Zagitova, another Tutberidze pupil and the reigning Olympic champion. And while Americans Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou took gold and bronze in men’s singles, Tennell and Bell finished seventh and ninth, respectively.
Does Alysa wish she had been there? “I’m fine with waiting because I get more practice time,” she says. “Sometimes it is a little annoying because I’m like, Dang, the U.S. didn’t do the best, maybe I should be out there. But I really don’t care.”
Besides her quad, Liu has plenty to keep her occupied while she waits. She skated her short program last season to “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from Funny Girl. While the song may have matched her bubbly cheer, senior-level champions are generally expected to display a wider range of emotions.
Lipetsky wants to raise the points value of Liu’s next programs by adding faster spins, improving her skating skills and boosting her artistic score, which reflects her interpretation of the music. Lipetsky and Liu are currently in Toronto, putting together new programs with choreographer Lori Nichol, who is best known for transforming Kwan from a small jumping machine into a poised and artistic skater.
Because Liu is so young and small, she says, it’s difficult for her to perform to dramatic music with the intensity and showmanship of older and more experienced skaters. “Hopefully this year I will grow and I will all of a sudden be able to present my choreography better,” Liu says. “I am not very big and I can’t really show it that well.”
After all, she’s still a 13-year-old girl. Back in February, when they were still in Oakland, fresh off the championship, Alysa and Juliana were busy jumping and crunching and lifting and running at an off-ice conditioning class. While most Saturdays end in a sleepover at Juliana’s house, Arthur thought that Alysa needed to come home and rest. But Alysa called her dad to beg him to change his mind. Please, please? I promise we’ll go to bed early. And we can sleep in!
Arthur relented. The girls giggled with glee and jumped into the backseat of Juliana’s mom’s car. Alysa Liu’s quest for a quad, for one day, anyway, could wait.