(Reuters) – American figure skating champion Mariah Bell is proof that a little bit of madness and “shameless belief” can go a long way in helping a late bloomer stay competitive in an event dominated by teenagers, according to proud coach Adam Rippon.
The 25-year-old Bell will be her country’s oldest figure skater in 94 years to compete in an Olympic women’s singles when she takes to the ice in Beijing.
Under the guidance of Olympic medallist Rippon and senior U.S. coach Rafael Arutyunyan, Bell claimed her first national title on her ninth attempt at Nashville last month, inspiring older figure skaters everywhere.
Rippon, who made his Olympic debut at 28 four years ago at Pyeongchang and won a team bronze, said he saw the same fire in Oklahoma native Bell that consumed him during his late-career flourish.
“You need to be a little bit crazy and a little bit delusional to think that you can still compete when everyone is like 15-years-old and you’re 25 and can rent a car legally,” Rippon told Reuters in an interview.
“There needs to be a little bit of shameless belief in yourself — which Mariah has.
“Obviously I am delusional, so of course I felt the same way.”
Women’s figure skating has become the playground of teenagers in recent years.
Alina Zagitova won the women’s singles gold at Pyeongchang at the age of 15, ahead of silver medallist and fellow Russian Evgenia Medvedeva, who was 18.
Quad-jumping Russian teens, led by 15-year-old favourite Kamila Valieva, could easily sweep all three podium places in the Beijing singles.
Outlier Bell became the oldest U.S. women’s singles champion in 95 years in Nashville. She was surprised by the fuss over it.
“All of a sudden at the nationals there were these facts being thrown around about my being the oldest in — I don’t know how long — and I was like, ‘that’s great’!” she told reporters in Beijing.
“I don’t feel much different at all than when I did when I was like 17 or 18. Only I do have more experience.”
Bell invited Rippon to help work on her choreography after he retired from competition in 2018.
A season later, she asked him to become a more regular coach, joining Arutyunyan, who guided Rippon in his career.
The set-up has been a roaring success.
Rippon describes Bell as a phenomenally hard worker, Arutyunyan like a father figure, and himself a “translator” between the two.
“It’s definitely not like ‘good cop, bad cop’, because I am really intense when we’re practising,” he said of coaching Bell with Arutyunyan.
“But I can also keep it light-hearted and real … I can be more of a fairy godmother than a taskmaster. Pop in, pop out. Of course, it feels surreal to be coaching the ladies’ national champion at an Olympics.”
Rippon does not sugar coat it when asked of Bell’s hopes in the singles, joking that the only way she could get a medal would be to “steal” one.
But he says success is all relative, Bell’s mere presence in Beijing will inspire other older athletes to persevere, and not give in to thoughts that their time has passed.
“When we see sports that are dominated by teenagers, not all of us are on the same route of success,” he said.
“Mariah represents the athletes who have missed out on opportunities, who have fallen when they needed to be perfect.
“She also represents those people who have come back from that, who have taken those disappointments and wear them proudly.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Additional reporting by Chang-Ran Kim in Beijing; Editing by Peter Rutherford)