Mariah Bell: Staying In The Moment

By Hiro Yoshida

With her first victory on the international circuit and a duo of Grand Prix medals, 2019-
2020 has arguably been Mariah Bell’s most successful season so far in her career. As the
United States Championships get under way this week, she is not resting on her laurels
and is aiming to build on those achievements.

Bell’s season began in spectacular fashion when she won the Nebelhorn Trophy title in
Oberstdorf, Germany last September. It was her first gold medal internationally as a
singles skater (she had been part of the winning American team at the 2019 World Team
Trophy in Japan).

Just over a month later, she scored personal bests in the free skating (142.64) and
overall (212.89) at the Internationaux de France in Grenoble on her way to a bronze
medal at the Grand Prix event. It was her first Grand Prix medal since she picked up
silver at Skate America in 2016. Two weeks after finishing third in Grenoble, she
repeated at Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, Russia with another bronze. Her results left her
as second substitute for the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy.

Bell is positive about her results this season, especially her personal bests in Grenoble,
which she believes have taken her into new territory in terms of potential scores.

“When you go to an international, they are not going to inflate your scores”, she said.
“It makes me excited because there were a few things where I was a little forward or a
little bit shaky on. There’s obviously more points out there to get and I can always add
in a double Axel-triple toe versus the three jump (combination). I have done all this
math and there are ways in which I can get more points doing certain elements in a
different spot. There’s lots of room for me to grow still.”

Bell credits her consistency this season in large part to her coach Rafael Arutunian who
has overseen the restructuring of her technique. When she began working with him in
2016, Bell was warned that it would take some time.

“He told me when I moved, ‘You have to give me two years. I need two years to really
re-work everything’, Bell said. “He was right. It took two years and I had a lot of
success last year, but now you add a year to that with the experience I have and it’s even
better. It does take time with his technique. It’s very different, but once you get it and
you really train it, it’s very reliable.”

Although it has been coming for some time, this season has seen a revolution in the
technical side of ladies skating with skaters attempting and landing quadruple jumps
and triple Axels with increasing frequency. Bell does not have comparable jump content
in her programmes and is choosing to focus for the moment on her own skating rather
than trying to play catch-up with others.

“You can truly only control what you are doing,” she said. “What I really want to do,
and it sounds very clichéd, is become the best skater I can be.

“It’s so exciting to compete against the best in the world when they are doing really well
because you want to do well and see where you stack up.

“Even the fact that we have girls doing quads and triple Axels, it’s really cool. It’s truly
inspiring, but it doesn’t change what I am going to do.”

While upgrading is not on the cards in the immediate future, Bell has talked with
Arutunian about training to incorporate more difficult jumps in the future.

“We talk about doing quads and triple Axels and I don’t think that’s out of my realm of
possibility at all, especially with him,” Bell said. “I really want to push myself that way.
I’ve improved a lot. I see this as my base. I feel like I’ve got my base really solid now,
but I want to add a lot to it. The improvement that I have made has been huge.

“I think if this was my cap, I think he would be happy, but we both know there’s a lot
more for me to do and I plan on doing a lot more so I’m excited to try it.”

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First of all, Bell has the U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina this week
where she will be facing off against defending champion Alysa Liu, a skater who has
landed both triple Axels and quads in competition.

“Alysa is super young and doing these really hard things,” Bell said. “I think it’s
awesome and I have a ton of respect for what she is doing. She is really helping push
forward U.S. figure skating too. She’s making us work and that’s what we need to do.”
Given her good form this season, Bell is being talked about as one of the favourites to
do well in Greensboro. She is taking things in her stride and viewing the situation as a
privilege.

“The thing that I’ve found with pressure and expectation is that maybe it’s
uncomfortable, but it’s what I want,” Bell said. I don’t want to be in a position where
people aren’t expecting anything from me because then I’m not at a high level. I’m
trying to get comfortable with being a little uncomfortable.

“We have some really strong U.S. ladies. Bradie (Tennell) and Alysa, us being the top
three last year, we’re all really solid. It’s just whoever skates better that day. I definitely
think that I am capable of winning for sure, but it’s just a matter of staying in the
moment, skating the best that I can and after that whatever happens happens.”

At the very least Bell will be hoping to claim one of the two spots available on the
American team for the World Championships this March. If she makes it to Montreal,
Canada, she is hoping for a more uneventful time than last year in Saitama, Japan where
she became embroiled in controversy and the focus of worldwide media attention. The
American was accused of deliberately cutting Eun-soo Lim’s calf when the blade of her free leg clipped the South Korean skater during a practice session. The International
Skating Union investigation of the incident completely exonerated Bell.

“It was a very long week and those few days felt very long,” Bell recalled. “The whole
experience was really bizarre and it just felt like I was drowning in this nightmare of
completely false information that was put out there that I couldn’t do anything about.”

Bell was targeted through her social media accounts, but was shielded from the worst of
the comments by U.S. Figure Skating, her coaching team, family and friends. Although
she struggled to stay in a competitive frame of mind, she scored a career-best total at the
time of 208.07 points to come in ninth overall.

“My phone was taken away from me and it was worked on. I didn’t see much of
anything after the initial of what I saw. After that it was really tough because there is
this frustrating thing that’s happening and it’s Worlds. You want to do the best that you
can and it felt much more difficult when there’s something else that’s really weighing on
your mind.

“It really went down to the support that I had there and just going out and trusting
myself. I remember it was the programme where I was most unsure and most sure of
myself at the same time. I was unsure because I didn’t know how the whole thing was
going to go, but I was sure in the moment. It was just really staying in the moment for
each element.”

Having survived what happened in Japan, Bell now believes that she can cope with
whatever is thrown at her in any given situation.

“I don’t expect a competition to ever be easy, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel the way I
felt there. I have that experience and I know that I could still get it done under these
really hard circumstances. It was definitely a confidence booster for me.

“I can look back on it and I’m really proud of how I grew. If that had happened a few
seasons before, I don’t know if I would have been so mentally strong. I’m just really
proud of the fact that I got it done. I felt I won over myself and that was the most
important thing.”

The ultimate goal for Bell is to be selected to the U.S. team for the 2022 Olympics in
two years’ time. She knows she is in a better position to make that happen than she was
in the run-up to the 2018 Olympics.

“I went to nationals not expecting to be on the (2018) Olympic team if we’re being
really honest,” she admitted. “I try and be really realistic with myself, but also set high
goals. Anything can happen and I always keep that mentality, but it wasn’t like I left
nationals being ‘Oh, I should have been on the Olympic team.’ I didn’t think that. I
thought it made sense and I was ready to just really get back to work and excited
because I learned so much that season.”

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Bell has added former training partner and choreographer Adam Rippon to her coaching
team for this season. Rippon also choreographed Bell’s new short programme to
“Radar” and “Work Bitch” by Britney Spears. The choice is a reflection of their search
to find an appropriate style to showcase her when the Beijing Olympics come around.
“We’re trying all these different short programmes,” Bell said. “Each season something
very different so when the Olympic season comes I can look back and pick which one I
liked the best, which one felt most comfortable because they are all so different. I’m just
trying to experiment now and do things now that set me up well for that Olympic
season.”

For her free programme, Bell is skating to “Hallelujah” performed by k.d. lang which
was suggested to her by choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne.

“I was on my way to South Carolina where Shae-Lynn works,” Bell said. “I was at the
airport and she sent me a playlist of options. I loved everything on there, but when I saw
‘Hallelujah’ I was so excited because I loved this song for a really long time. I didn’t
have to listen to anything else. I knew that was the one.”

At the age of 23, Bell is somewhat of a veteran compared to the teenagers she finds
herself competing against both domestically and internationally. However, she does not
view it as a hindrance to her ambitions in the sport.

“Yes, we have these really young girls that are doing it, but that does not mean you can’t
do it when you are older too,” Bell said. “I hope to be inspiring for an older generation.
The other way I think of it is truly I don’t even feel like I am in my prime. I’m still
learning about myself and I think your prime is 25, 26, or 27. In most other sports that’s
how it is. As long as you can take care of yourself, I don’t see why skating would be
any different.

“I really think age is just a number and if you want to have excuses maybe it can be
something to talk about. Other than that, I think it’s just a number.

“Success isn’t limited to an age or even a season or competition. There’s such an
abundance of it and I feel that when you have that mentality you see it so much more.”

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