U.S. figure skating star Alysa Liu tests positive for COVID-19, throwing Olympic plans into doubt

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Alysa Liu performs during the women's short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Alysa Liu performs during the women's short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Alysa Liu, the United States' top female figure skater, tested positive for COVID-19 and withdrew from the U.S. national championships on Friday, injecting doubt into plans for next month's Olympics.

Liu, 16 years old and already a two-time national champion, could still be selected for the Olympic team. But even if she is, strict rules governing entry into China for the Games will require her to test negative at least twice before the team departs in a few weeks.

In an Instagram post confirming the news, Liu said she was "fully vaccinated," had been wearing an N95 mask, and twice tested negative for COVID before traveling to Nashville for the national championships. She then tested positive Friday morning. She said she was "feeling good physically and mentally."

U.S. Figure Skating announced Liu's withdrawal just hours before Friday night’s free skate at nationals. Liu was third in the short program on Thursday night and, based on her performances over the past year, was a sure bet to make the Olympic team.

Now, she will petition a selection committee for inclusion. The committee will name the team on Saturday after nationals — which are not Olympic trials — have concluded.

Alysa Liu's suddenly cloudy route to the Olympics

The committee considers cumulative results and medal potential. Liu, a precocious talent, perhaps offers more individual medal potential than any other U.S. skater. Three years ago, at age 13, she became the youngest senior U.S. champion ever. She repeated a year later, and although she has struggled for consistency since, she was the top U.S. woman in the Grand Prix Series this fall. She entered this week's nationals as an Olympic lock.

Now, though, she'll have to isolate after testing positive. Eventually, she'll also have to clear pre-departure testing requirements that could become her biggest Olympic obstacle.

Beijing Olympic rules require two negative PCR tests in the 96 hours before departure. Liu might also have to submit an additional round of negative PCR tests even sooner. A Beijing organizing committee spokesperson confirmed to Yahoo Sports last month that an athlete who recovers from COVID within 30 days of the Games must, “at least eight working days before planned departure,” submit two negative PCR test results, among other documents. Those tests are “in addition to the tests required within 96 hours of departure to China,” the Beijing Olympic rules state.

Most U.S.-based athletes are scheduled to travel to Beijing on a charter flight the last week of January. Other flight options have been extremely limited, due to Chinese restrictions.

Given the timeline, Liu would likely need to twice test negative less than 14 days after Friday's initial positive — unless a later flight can be arranged, or unless Olympic organizers amend their COVID-19 testing rules.

An International Olympic Committee spokesperson told Yahoo Sports last month that exceptions to the rules could be considered for athletes who have recently recovered from infections. "If there are persistent positive PCR tests, then cases could be assessed and considered by the Medical Expert Panel (MEP)," the spokesperson said, referring to a group comprising members of China’s CDC, members of Beijing’s CDC, and five international experts representing the IOC and international sports federations. "If the MEP makes a recommendation that the person is fully recovered and no longer infectious, this would be forwarded to the Chinese authorities for consideration as an exception."

The IOC did not respond to follow-up questions about how Chinese authorities would consider those cases, or what protocols would guide decision-making. The negative PCR tests, the spokesperson said, “is the basic requirement of the Chinese authorities for entry into the country.”

Liu the first of many?

With the Omicron variant sweeping the U.S., Liu is one of many American athletes whose Olympic participation could be impacted by the negative test requirement. U.S. Olympic officials are bracing for positive tests throughout the month, and for teams of U.S. athletes to potentially be ravaged.

Reigning U.S. pairs figure skating champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier are in a similar position. They withdrew from nationals after Frazier tested positive for COVID earlier this week.

Mariah Bell and Karen Chen, the two women ahead of Liu after the short program at nationals, shared a post-competition interview dais with Liu Thursday night, and might have had other close contact — though they were masked during interviews, and are all vaccinated, according to the Associated Press.

U.S. Figure Skating officials are now conducting contact tracing as they prepare for the final night of the women's competition.

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