Olympic skater Alysa Liu says quitting competition is ‘the best decision I’ve ever made’


You would have thought you would have many years to see Alysa Liu skate.

Instead, her appearance with the Stars on Ice tour in San Jose next weekend is one of the diminishing chances of seeing the East Bay native perform.

Liu, just 16 and with just one Olympics under her belt, announced on Instagram in March that she was retiring from figure skating.

“I made the decision for myself some time ago, long before the Olympics,” Liu said in a recent phone interview. “My only goal was to go to the Olympics.

“I’m only 16. I want to do something else.”

It was a surprising move for a young skater who was often called the “future” of American skating. She was the youngest American champion in history, winning the title at 13 and again at 14. She was the youngest woman to land a triple axel internationally and the first American woman to land a quadruple jump in competition.

But “the future” wasn’t what she wanted his future.

Liu’s is the kind of personal choice we’re not used to seeing.

The typical story is that the ingenue becomes internationally competitive, makes the Olympics (or a Grand Slam or whatever the biggest competition is), competes, stays, grows old, maybe doesn’t know when to leave. The forces invested in the athlete – parents, coaches, sponsors, federations, peers – make an individual decision to give up the expensive and all-consuming sport seem almost impossible.

But young athletes are taking more control over their lives. Australian tennis player Ash Barty retired at 25 shortly after winning her third Grand Slam.

And now Liu, at 16.

She has been skating since the age of 5 and wants her own life. She wants to spend time with her four younger siblings, live in her own home in Richmond, apply to college, hang out with friends, get her driver’s license, play the piano, cuddle her cat Xiao Bao.

All the things she couldn’t do while pursuing an Olympic-level skating career.

“I have no regrets,” she said. “I’m sure it would be the opposite if I stayed in skating. I would have regrets.

Like so many Olympians, Liu had a particularly difficult time ahead of the Beijing Olympics. She trained in Oakland but had very limited ice time during the height of the pandemic, having to walk in and out of the building with her skates already on, skate alone and do warm-ups and other workouts in a public park.

During the pandemic, she quit her longtime coach, then made another coaching change a few months before Beijing. She was dealing with a changing and maturing body. She lived in Europe and then in Colorado Springs and was isolated from her father and siblings. She ended up testing positive for COVID at the Olympic trials in Nashville and was unable to compete, but applied and was selected for the Olympic team. Before leaving for Beijing, she described the process as “overwhelming”.

But, she says, none of these factors caused her abrupt retirement.

“No, it would have been the same,” she said. “If I hadn’t made the Olympic team, I might have done another four years. It’s the only thing that could have changed my decision. There are so many other things I want to do.

Liu’s Olympics alone were strange. She was in Beijing tightly restricted. Her competition was overshadowed by Russian skater Kamila Valieva’s positive doping test. She was unable to explore her father’s homeland, visit relatives, or fully experience China beyond looking out the bus window to and from her meeting place.

After the Olympics, it emerged that Alysa and her father, Arthur Liu, had been targeted in a spy campaign. The US Department of Justice has announced charges against a group of men accused of acting on behalf of the Chinese government, stalking and harassing Chinese dissidents.

Arthur Liu later told The Associated Press he was one of those targeted, but said he didn’t share this information with his daughter until after the Olympics. Arthur Liu had protested the Chinese government after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, then emigrated from China and is now an Oakland-based immigration attorney.

Alysa Liu declined to comment on the situation. On her Instagram, she posted “hi everyone!! the case regarding the Chinese government spying on my family is beyond sports. If you don’t know China’s politics and history, please refrain from commenting on this. I am proud of what my father did for his people in 1989.”

After the Olympics, Liu competed at the world championships in France, where she won a bronze medal. This competition, too, was strange; Russian favorites were banned following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Despite all the oddities and tensions, Liu fondly remembers her only Olympic Games. After all, she has no other experience to compare her to.

“My experience has been pretty good,” she said. “The other things didn’t interfere with my goals. I went there to do what I wanted to do. It was fun to be with friends. It was really cool to be in the Olympic Village and watch the Closing Ceremonies.

And when it was over, she knew it was really over.

“I didn’t really ask (my father) for advice when I decided to retire,” she said. “After all, it’s my life. But he supports my decision.

“It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. It’s purely for me. I guess that’s selfish.

In recent years, mental health has become a huge concern for athletes in general, including Olympic athletes, who plunge from relative anonymity into the high-pressure global spotlight. Liu spoke to a therapist regularly and learned to appreciate skating for itself, not for the results.

In the process, she learned that it was important to put yourself forward.

“I was stressed and nervous and scared,” she said in February. “My goal now is to make a good program for myself.”

And now his goal is to make a good life for himself.

She has already graduated from high school and will be applying to college for the 2023-2024 school year. Her top picks are Stanford, Cal and Barnard but she knows she can change her mind. She thinks she will study law and business, but she also knows that this idea can also change.

Liu knows she doesn’t have to decide everything now, three months before she turns 17. She is well aware that she is young and will have many journeys and roles in her life.

“Olympic skater” was just one of her roles. One she’s ready to throw away.

Ann Killion is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @annkillion


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