Tatiana Volosozhar, Maxim Trankov

Top Russian pairs skaters not fazed by impending Olympic pressure

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DETROIT — Russian figure skating isn’t what it once was: a nation responsible for 14 medals over three Olympics in the 1990s — and 12 straight pairs golds from 1964 and 2006 — may win one skating medal at the Sochi Olympics.

The best hope is the pairs team of Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, the reigning World Champions who reset their short program and free skate world records at Skate America in Detroit last weekend.

The Moscow-based skaters are motivated and not deterred by the immense pressure.

“We only have pressure for each other — we push each other every day,” Trankov said. “I think it’s most important to keep working. You never know, especially with the Olympics, what will happen. You cannot plan these competitions. You just work and hope that everything will be OK.”

It wasn’t OK for the Russians at the 2010 Games, when — for the first time since 1960 — no Russian (or Soviet) pair landed on the podium. Trankov was eighth with a different partner and Volosozhar, then competing for Ukraine, was ninth. China’s Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo won gold.

“There is an old tradition for pairs skating in our country,” Trankov said. “The last Olympics were won by the Chinese, but they skated like Soviet pairs skaters; they were good and were champions. The way they skated was kind of Russian. We just want to win back a medal for our country in pairs.”

Volosozhar and Trankov can win a second medal with the debut of the Olympic figure skating team event. Trankov thinks he and Volosozhar will do the short program and give another Russian pair the opportunity to sub in for the free skate.

Volosozhar explained further, noting the turnaround from the team event free skate (Feb. 8) to the start of the pairs competition (Feb. 11).

“We want to skate,” she said. “We just don’t understand why it is before the main competition. Because for pairs, we start way earlier. There are only two days between the team competition and the main one.”

Volosozhar and Trankov are confident that the Russian team can win a medal — if not gold — particularly if they have three-time Olympic medalist and 2006 Olympic champion Yevgeny Plushenko. The U.S., Canada and Japan are considered medal favorites along with Russia.

Plushenko has battled injuries since winning silver at the 2010 Olympics and hasn’t competed since January. Russia earned one men’s spot at the Games. Plushenko is thought to be a lock to receive it if he proves healthy.

“He said he wants to skate for the team event for sure,” Trankov said. “He will skate both programs, and we’re very to happy to have him on our team. It’s a really good chance for us to win a medal.”

The Russians have a respectable team in Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev in ice dancing, bronze medalists at the World Championships in March, and Adelina Sotnikova, ninth at Worlds at 16.

“Maybe not gold, but we for sure we can win a team medal,” Trankov said. “We have good girls and pairs and not bad ice dancers. I think we’ll do it. If Evgeni will help us, that will make it even better.”

And the eight years since a pairs gold in Russia?

“That helps us a little bit,” Volosozhar said. “Because we want to win a medal for Russia.”

Quad quandary for top U.S. men

Maia, Alex Shibutani repeat as U.S. champions, just miss record

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KANSAS CITY — Maia and Alex Shibutani proved again they are the best in the U.S. The task will be much tougher in two months at the world championships.

The siblings totaled 200.05 points to repeat as national champions on Saturday.

They missed the U.S. Championships overall record score, set by Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, by .14 of a point, after setting the short dance record Friday.

“A year out from the Olympics, this is exactly where we want to be,” Maia Shibutani told Andrea Joyce on NBC. “I know we’ve improved so much.”

Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the 2015 U.S. champions, were second, 1.01 points behind the Shibutanis. Chock and Bates actually outscored the Shibutanis in the free dance.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue were third after Hubbell shockingly fell during their free dance.

Full results are here.

The Shibutanis are riding a tidal wave of momentum. They earned their first U.S. title in 2016, then took silver at the world championships last March and bronze at the Grand Prix Final last month.

“The past year and a half, we’ve built so much momentum,” Alex Shibutani said. “We’re really coming into our own.”

The world’s two best couples are two-time reigning world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France and Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

Virtue and Moir took Olympic gold in 2010 and silver in 2014, then took two seasons off and returned this year to post the highest scores under the current system implemented in 2010.

The U.S., though, is unquestionably the deepest ice dance nation. The Shibutanis, Chock and Bates and Hubbell and Donohue made up half of the top six at the 2016 World Championships. All three couples qualified for each of the last two Grand Prix Finals, which take only six couples.

Meanwhile, Davis and White have watched the ascension while taking a three-year break from competition. They are running out of time to decide if they will attempt to defend their Olympic title in PyeongChang. A nation can send no more than three couples to the Olympics.

The U.S. Championships continue Saturday night with the women’s free skate (8 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Check out NBCsports.com/USFIGS for all-access coverage all weekend.

VIDEO: Tara Lipinski reflects on winning 1997 U.S. title at age 14

U.S. Championships Ice Dance
GOLD: Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani — 200.05

SILVER: Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 199.04
BRONZE: Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue — 191.42
4. Elliana Pogrebinsky/Alex Benoit — 170.29
5. Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker — 160.06

Haven Denney, Brandon Frazier win U.S. pairs title after year off

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KANSAS CITY — Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier returned from a year off to win their first U.S. pairs title on Saturday, despite an error-prone free skate and against a field lacking any previous U.S. champion teams.

Denney and Frazier jumped from second after the short program to total 188.32 points and win by 2.04 over Sochi Olympian Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran. Denney and Frazier’s total score was 23.33 points fewer than last year’s winning score.

Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, who led by 3.96 after the short program, had a strong free skate going until a fall on their throw triple Lutz and finished third Saturday.

Full results are here.

Denney and Frazier were the top U.S. pair in the fall international season by 16 points, taking a silver medal at Skate America.

But Denney struggled on landings in the short program, her right leg wrapped after blowing out her right knee in spring 2015 that caused them to miss the entire 2015-16 season. They also had multiple jumping errors in their free skate, but, unlike the rest of the top five, stayed on their feet Saturday.

“We’re trying harder elements, harder jumps, bigger throws, bigger twists,” Frazier said. “What you see is a couple of ups and downs. This is all building for the next season.”

The U.S. will send two pairs to the world championships in Helsinki in two months, but not definitively the top two finishers from Saturday. The world championships pairs teams will be named Sunday.

Denney and Frazier finished 12th at the 2015 Worlds, after placing second at that year’s U.S. Championships. Castelli and Tran, in their second year as a pair, have no worlds experience together and are ineligible for the 2018 Olympics. Tran, born in Canada, is not a U.S. citizen.

Pairs is the U.S.’ weakest discipline. The last U.S. pair to earn an Olympic or world medal was Kyoka Ina and John Zimmerman at the 2002 Worlds. Eight different pairs have won the last nine U.S. titles.

In 2016, the U.S. pairs finished ninth and 13th at worlds, but both of those teams are out due to injuries.

Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim, the top U.S. pair in international competition in recent seasons, has been out of competition all season due to her September stomach surgery. They have returned to full training.

The Knierims filed a petition to be named to the world championships team, which is selected on a discretionary basis on results from the U.S. Championships and other recent competitions.

“Whatever they decide,” Tran said of a U.S. Figure Skating selection committee, “we’re all for that.”

The 2016 U.S. champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea withdrew before the free skate Saturday after Kayne suffered a concussion in a short-program fall. They placed fifth in the short program.

The U.S. Championships continue Saturday night with the women’s free skate (8 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Check out NBCsports.com/USFIGS for all-access coverage all weekend.

VIDEO: Tara Lipinski reflects on 1997 U.S. title at age 14

U.S. Championships Pairs
GOLD: Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier — 188.32
SILVER: Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran — 186.28
BRONZE: Ashley Cain/Timothy LeDuc — 184.41

4. Deanna Stellato/Nathan Bartholomay — 173.50
5. Jessica Pfund/Joshua Santillan — 168.90