WOMEN'S FREE DANCE
For a few tense moments that felt like an eternity, it was down to Mariah Bell, Karen Chen, and some serious math calculations. Did Chen, who skated last, earn the necessary 141.75 points to top the national podium?
The results were in: Her impressive but imperfect free skate added up to only 139.30 points. And so short program winner Bell emerged golden with a 140.70-point free skate and 216.25-point combined total.
Chen placed second with 213.85 total points, and 14-year-old Isabeau Levito finished third with 210.75.
SEE MORE: U.S. Championships: Karen Chen earns silver in free tossup
"I'm gonna cry," Bell said through tears when asked what the win -- and the prospect of making her Olympic debut at age 25 -- meant to her. "It means a lot, because it's something that I've been working for for a really long time ... It's just really amazing, and I'm really grateful." Bell is the oldest national champion in 95 years, but she attributes her success and tenacity to familial support: "I just absolutely love skating."
Bell produced a solid if somewhat rocky free skate set to a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," ending with a stunning triple Axel. An attempted triple-triple at the top of the program was stiff, leading to a point deduction. "She's a crowd favorite ... she brings so much warmth and emotion," commentator Johnny Weir said as Bell left the ice to wild cheers and applause. "That was not the most technically difficult or perfect performance, but in my opinion, it surely gets her on the Olympic team." She finished with a 140.70 free skate 216.25 for fist place.
Following gold medal favorite Alysa Liu’s unexpected withdrawal Friday due to a positive COVID test – and a last-minute pullout from Amber Glenn for the same reason – the shrinking women’s singles field in U.S. Figure Skating went all-out in the free skate.
The last hour of competition especially turned up the heat. Teenager Isabeau Levito continued to prove she had senior-level skills with a beautiful triple loop in the first half, and an explosive second half full of refined elements.
When she realized she would make the podium following Lindsay Thorngren's performance, the teenager burst into tears. Regardless of whether it punches her ticket to the 2022 Winter Olympics, Levito's 210.75 combined total demonstrates she is a force to be reckoned with in the future.
SEE MORE: U.S. Championships: 14-year-old Isabeau Levito earns bronze
When it comes to ice dance at the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating, there are really two competitions going on: the battle between Madison Chock/Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue, and the battle for bronze.
Neither Chock/Bates nor Hubbell/Donohue disappointed -- though the former swirled into a national record with a 91.94-point rhythm dance, set to Billie Eilish.
Chock/Bates incorporated perfectly timed, smooth lifts. Around halfway into the routine, the beat picked up, and the duo performed tight twirl elements in unison. Their numbers consistently approached the maximum possible as the dancers tore through the ice with near-perfect twizzles and steps. "Oh boy, they came to win," said commentator Tanith White as soon as the skate ended. "Madison's eyes cast a spell on everyone in this arena."
Speaking with NBC after winning the dance, Chock said: "It is certainly not our first rodeo, but it's our favorite rodeo." The duo previously won nationals in 2015 and 2020. "Our routine is locked and loaded."
"Frankly, we've had a good six weeks to train for this event," Bates added. "We kind of used it as a blessing in disguise, and we really have been working hard at home."
SEE MORE: Meet the Athletes: Madison Chock and Evan Bates
Hubbell/Donohue danced before their rivals with a passionate skate set to a medley of Janet Jackson songs. Though the team performed many brilliant elements, Hubbell's nerves were on display -- she required a few balance checks when her knee went too high, and she only completed three of four rotations on her second twizzle. Still, Hubbell/Donohue earned 89.39 points -- initially setting the bar, and ultimately allowing for a second place finish.
"They are without a doubt world class," White said after their rhythm dance. "Having said that, they weren't perfect today. There were small mistakes."
The two point deficit might cost them this year's national title.
"The skating part, not my best," Hubbell said in an interview afterward. "I'm a little bit confused, really. We've been training so consistently, feeling strong and prepared. Today, every element kind of took me by surprise and there were a lot of mistakes. But overall, our goal was to enjoy this nationals. And finishing the program, and turning around and seeing everybody's standing and cheering us on despite the mistakes -- it was kind of meaningful."
SEE MORE: Meet the Athletes: Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue
One of the younger teams favorited at this event, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker were also among the first to perform – but their routine was hampered early on when Hawayek struggled with a stepout during the twizzle sequence. “This team is usually so, so confident,” commentator Johnny Weir said. “You want those soft, buttery knees throughout this dance, and they just felt stiff.” Hawayek/Baker received a 79.39.
Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, fourth at the 2021 U.S. Championships, were also anticipated as potential medal favorites in Nashville. Performing to a medley by Janet Jackson and En Vogue, they jumped to second place with an 80.85 -- and ultimately finished third.
Just a point difference between third and fourth -- and, potentially, a spot at the Olympics? "It's gonna come down to the free dance," White said.
The free dance takes place Saturday from 7 to 10pm on USA Network, NBCOlympics.com and Peacock.