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Richmond’s Alysa Liu finally found a challenge too steep on Friday night in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Las Vegas.

Liu, 15, finished outside of the top three for the first time since winning the 2018 Junior title in San Jose.

With 2018 Olympian Bradie Tennell soaring, Liu fell to fourth place in her only competition of a difficult season. Liu, who suffered a hip injury in late October, did not attempt her powerful triple axels instead relying on a much-improved skating performance.

It would have been enough to win the silver medal but Liu successfully completed only three of her seven triple jumps.

Liu’s struggles helped Karen Chen of Fremont to return to the podium after recent issues of her own. Chen was third 1.5 points better than Liu. Amber Glenn had what she described as her best free skate in history to edge Chen for the silver medal.

None of them were close to Tennell who scored 232.61 points for a whopping 17.28-point victory.

Tennell, the 2018 champion who lost to Liu the past two years, said regaining the title motivated her.

“Winning my title back means everything to do,” she said. “It was the driving force to have me move to Colorado Springs. It was the driving force behind me to go to the training every day. They say it is about the journey and not the destination but the destination felt pretty good too.”

Liu’s coaches said before the competition they did not expect the teen to easily win her third consecutive title. She experienced too many changes in the past year: Liu grew at least three inches; she could not train regularly because of COVID-19 closures of Bay Area ice rinks, and she changed coaches in June after working with Laura Lipetesky of Alameda for the past decade.

“I didn’t expect much,” Liu said. “I expected the bare minimum.”

But she and her new coach Massimo Scali said afterward they were happy with the outcome.

“It is a gigantic step forward,”  Scali said.  “I have no words. I’m just really so proud.”

Chen, the 2017 champion, won her third bronze medal at a national championship. She is taking a gap year from Cornell University to focus on becoming a consistent skater to match her beautiful lines.

Chen, 21, said the performance has given her a confidence boost for next season during the Olympic year.

Although she skated beautifully Friday, Chen said she was disappointed with a couple of mistakes.

“They were silly mistakes to leave a lot of points,” she said.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates topped the U.S. Figure Skating Championships rhythm dance in their first competition in 11 months, and the first since Chock was off the ice for a month last summer due to a concussion.

The defending champions, Chock and Bates became the first couple to break 90 points in a nationals rhythm dance, tallying 90.10 to edge training partners and two-time U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue by .44 of a point.