Mariah Bell proud she never gave up on her Olympic dream
Each time Mariah Bell lived in one place long enough to make new friends and explore her neighborhood, her father’s job in the oil and gas industry would send the family packing.
She was born in Tulsa, Okla., but as a child she also lived in the Houston area and in several places in Colorado and had more addresses than she probably can remember. “We were moving about every three or four years,” said Bell, whose parents split their time between Dallas and Switzerland. “I went to, like, four different elementary schools because we were moving around.”
Figure skating was a comforting constant in her life. The jumps and spins and spirals were the same everywhere she went, and she would immerse herself in performing them with her exquisite musicality and ethereal lightness. Skating became a common language no matter the local accent.
“Wherever we lived, I could always skate. That was a big part also of why I have such a love for skating — because it’s always felt like my home,” she said.
Her passion for a sport whose scoring system rewards jumping prodigies more than mature artists like her has helped Bell, 25, remain competitive and compelling at an age when many singles skaters are deep into retirement.
Bell won her first U.S. women’s championship in January in her ninth try at the senior level, becoming the oldest woman to win the national title since 26-year-old Beatrix Loughran triumphed in 1927. Bell was nominated for a Beijing Olympic berth with 22-year-old Karen Chen, who placed 11th at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, and 16-year-old Alysa Liu, who will be the youngest member of the 223-person U.S. Winter Olympic team.
Unlike Bell, Liu enjoyed quick and early success, using her exceptional jumping ability to win two U.S. titles before she was slowed by injuries and puberty. Liu was third after the short program at this year’s U.S. championships but withdrew after testing positive for COVID-19. There was no debate when the selection committee, hoping Liu will recover her high-scoring jumps — and maybe gain experience for the 2026 Games — nominated her to the Beijing team.
“She won her first senior nationals at 13, I won my first senior nationals at 25. It’s just how her life went and my life went,” Bell said. “Everybody’s journeys are different. I have a lot of respect for her. She has really handled these last few years well. It’s tough to grow, to get taller, all those things, and she’s managed it so well. I’m honored to be on the Olympic team with her.”
While some of Bell’s contemporaries have advanced degrees or corporate titles or have made fortunes on startups by 25, she doesn’t feel she has missed out on anything because she followed her heart.
“Sure, there are people who have jobs and are junior vice presidents or whatever, but I get to be an Olympian. So few people can say that,” she said.
“I’ve never really spoken much about my age myself because it really has no effect on me personally, but it’s something that a lot of people have spoken about. I think it’s just because in the culture of skating and a lot of things it seems like when you’re younger, it’s better. And maybe that’s the case, but also it’s definitely not the case.”
Many elite skaters are homeschooled or take online classes to accommodate their schedules but Bell attended public high school in Arvada, Colo., and didn’t focus on skating until after she graduated. She didn’t win a national title as a teenager, but she had a life outside the rink, which surely helped her avoid burnout.
Bell was fine with that tradeoff. She credited her parents, Kendra and Andrew, with creating a positive atmosphere for her and her sister Morgan, who skated in Disney ice shows and has become a coach. “They sacrificed a lot for us to be in the best position to chase our dreams, but it was never contingent upon us winning. We never had to win, we never had to be ultra-successful. They just wanted us to work hard and enjoy what we were doing, be dedicated to it, and these results have just followed from that,” said Bell, who moved to Southern California in 2016 and practiced in Lakewood before she followed coach Rafael Arutyunyan to Great Park Ice in Irvine in 2019.
“I think that’s also another reason why I have been able to do it for so long and why I have been able to completely enjoy it. My parents have been such a huge part of it for the whole ride, and my older sister as well.”
No female American skater has won a singles medal in the last three Olympics, a drought that’s likely to continue because Bell, Chen and Liu can’t match the Russians’ plentiful quadruple jumps. Fifteen-year-old Kamila Valieva, who landed two quads in her free skate while winning the European championship, is the Olympic favorite but 17-year-olds Anna Shcherbakova (the 2021 world champion) and Alexandra Trusova also have quads in their repertoire and can challenge her.
Bell has practiced a 3½-rotation triple axel but hasn’t tried quads. She knows she will be at a significant disadvantage against the Russians but can’t add a quad at this time. “They downright, flat-out are going in with more technical content than any of the U.S. ladies or any other ladies in the world are going in with,” Bell said. “But ice is slippery. They aren’t flawless. They’re incredible athletes but they make mistakes as well. And so the best thing that anyone — them, me or any other skater can do — is to pull on your own strengths.”
After she won her U.S. title Bell called her vast experience her superpower. She’s hoping to tap into that and produce a performance for the ages, one that will make her age irrelevant. “I’m really honored to this to sort of be my story,” she said, “but what I’d like people to know is if you’re dedicated and motivated to do something you should continue to chase your dreams.”