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After the Figure Skating Championships, the U.S. Olympic team is named

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The thrill of the ice, the dazzle of sequins and the challenge of COVID all were on display this weekend at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Top skaters were named to the Olympic team to compete next month in China. NPR's Tom Goldman was in Nashville to watch the event and talk with the athletes.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: These national championships had fans scrambling for the skating history books.

(CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: By the time Nathan Chen finished his Elton John-themed free skate yesterday, the three-time world champion was a U.S. champ for the sixth year in a row. No one's had a winning streak like that since legendary Dick Button won seven straight in the 1940s and '50s. Typically lowkey, Chen deflected credit for his achievement, singling out his longtime coach, Rafael Arutyunyan.

NATHAN CHEN: He's been pushing me every single day since I moved to him when I was around 13, you know? So that's kind of it. I can't do this all by myself.

GOLDMAN: Next month in Beijing, Chen will try to improve on his fifth-place finish at the 2018 Olympics. He'll be joined on the Olympic team by Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown, who finished third and fourth in Nashville. The second-place finisher, 17-year-old rising star Ilia Malinin, was named first alternate. And judging by the way things went in Nashville, Malinin should stay ready.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2022 TOYOTA U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Mariah Bell.

(CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: The announcement of the women's U.S. Olympic skaters was quite the show. All that was missing was one of the athletes.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2022 TOYOTA U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Alysa Liu.

(CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: At that moment, 16-year-old Alysa Liu was in a Nashville hotel, isolating after testing positive for the coronavirus. She was one of seven skaters who withdrew due to COVID. Because Olympic selections were based on body of work and not just the U.S. championships, she was still able to get on the team. For those new Olympians who dodged the COVID bullet, they realized the next few weeks before China will entail more dodging. Mariah Bell - at 25, the oldest U.S. women's champion since 1927 - described the precautions she'll be taking.

MARIAH BELL: And then my mom's going to come fly out and be with me all the way through when I leave. She'll probably be the one going to stores. She's also triple-vaxxed. But I'll do the most that I can to literally not be anywhere other than my apartment or the rink.

GOLDMAN: COVID will not be the only issue potentially muddling Olympic dreams. With the U.S. and other national governments planning diplomatic boycotts, athletes are keenly aware of the human rights abuse allegations against the Chinese government.

TIMOTHY LEDUC: We absolutely acknowledge, like, the horrifying things that we've seen happening to the Uyghurs.

GOLDMAN: Timothy LeDuc was named to the Olympic team in pairs figure skating with partner Ashley Cain-Gribble.

LEDUC: I read somewhere the other day that it was the largest number of people held in internment and labor camps since World War II.

GOLDMAN: In China, LeDuc will be the first openly nonbinary Winter Olympic athlete, an athlete for whom human rights issues are personal. But LeDuc wonders what Olympians can achieve in their short window in the spotlight.

LEDUC: I feel powerless sometimes seeing the situation in China.

GOLDMAN: LeDuc is outspoken about issues in the U.S. The debate over whether athletes should speak out about China will grow louder over the next several weeks. For now, many echo what one skater at the championships said. We're going to go on the biggest stage, exude positivity and hopefully inspire a pandemic-weary world that needs inspiration right now.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.