U.S. Championships pairs short program produces surprise leaders

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KANSAS CITY — The U.S. Figure Skating Championships started with a surprise. A big one.

Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, in their first year together, topped the pairs short program with a clean performance. The pre-event favorites all erred on Thursday evening.

Cain and LeDuc scored 69.33 points, edging Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier by 3.96 points. Deanna Stellato and Nathan Bartholomay are third, followed by Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran.

Bartholomay and Castelli were Sochi Olympians with different partners. Stellato, the 2000 World junior singles silver medalist, is competing at the U.S. Championships for the first time in 17 years at age 33.

Defending champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea were fifth Thursday after Kayne fell hard on their throw triple Lutz.

Full results are here.

The U.S. will send two pairs to the world championships in Helsinki in two months, likely the top two finishers after the free skate Saturday (3 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

“We definitely know what we’re capable of, and we’re hoping to show that again in the long program on Saturday, but we do know that this is only halfway through the competition,” Cain said.

Before this season, LeDuc had not competed in pairs since the 2014 U.S. Championships with DeeDee Leng (they were seventh, missing the two-pair Olympic team).

Cain had taken nearly 4 1/2 years off from pairs competition. She and LeDuc had a tryout together before this season at the suggestion of U.S. Figure Skating and instantly clicked. Within a week, they were an official pair, with LeDuc moving to Dallas to train with Cain.

“The moment I took his hand, I didn’t realize how much I had missed pairs skating,” said Cain, who competed in pairs and singles until 2012, then did only singles the last four seasons (while slowed by injury). “I had the biggest smile on my face, and I could feel how happy I was, just skating with him, him lifting me in the air.”

In his 2 1/2 years away, LeDuc joined his younger sister, Leah, to skate on cruise ships, travling the world.

“I, as a person, felt lost in a way, because I only understood my ability to figure skate,” said LeDuc, who is 26 years old and, like Cain, seeking a first senior U.S. Championships medal. “I felt that I needed to expand my horizons a little bit. I needed to step away and find myself. … [The time away] helps me to feel that it’s OK to focus on something you’re passionate about. I brought that into tonight. I love to perform. I still consider myself almost a show skater.”

Cain and LeDuc came into the U.S. Championships with the fourth-best total score among U.S. pairs in the fall international season.

Denney and Frazier, in second place, 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 spring 2015 knee surgery that caused them to miss the entire 2015-16 season.

The top U.S. pair in international competition in recent seasons, Alexa Scimeca and Christopher Knierim, has been out since Scimeca’s stomach surgery in September.

The U.S. Championships continue with the women’s short program Thursday at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app. A complete broadcast schedule is here.

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

PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance | Live Results

Pairs Short Program
1. Ashley Cain/Timothy LeDuc — 69.33
2. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier — 65.39
3. Deanna Stellato/Nathan Bartholomay — 65.04
4. Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran — 64.29
5. Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea — 61.80

Olympic ski cross champion suffers serious knee injury

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Canadian Marielle Thompson, the reigning Olympic and World Cup ski cross champion, ruptured an ACL and MCL in a training crash in Switzerland.

Alpine Canada did not say when the accident happened or what Thompson’s chances are of returning to defend her Olympic title in PyeongChang.

Thompson flew from Switzerland to Vancouver for an MRI that confirmed the injury.

“I’ll be making a plan with my team moving forward and when the time is right getting back on the ski cross course stronger than ever,” Thompson said in a press release.

Thompson, 25, tore a meniscus in January 2015 and returned to competition 11 months later. She won seven of the 13 World Cup races last season.

Other Olympic medal contenders include Swede Sandra Näslund and Swiss Fanny Smith.

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Nathan Chen leads Yuzuru Hanyu at Grand Prix opener (video)

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U.S. champion Nathan Chen hopes to become comfortable in this spot this season — ahead of reigning Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu in the standings.

The 18-year-old Chen landed two quadruple jumps in his short program at the opening Grand Prix event in Moscow, taking a 5.69-point lead over Hanyu going into Saturday’s free skate.

Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia topped the women’s short program with 80.75 points (one tenth off her world record).

Full Rostelecom Cup results are here.

Chen’s tally — 100.54 points — is the second-highest short of his flourishing international career. It would have been higher if not for two of his three jumping passes receiving negative grades of execution for wonky landings.

The Japanese megastar Hanyu fell on his final jump, a triple toe loop, on Friday. No matter, Winnie the Pooh bears rained down on the ice from the adoring crowd, many of whom traveled from Japan.

Hanyu scored 94.85 points, one month after breaking his world record short program score with 112.72 points in a small event in Canada.

“Today I made some mistakes in my short program, but overall it didn’t feel bad,” Hanyu said, according to the International Skating Union.

Hanyu, though he is the current PyeongChang favorite, has never won his season-opening Grand Prix event in seven tries.

Chen has now outscored Hanyu, who is four years older, in four of their last eight head-to-head skates.

Hanyu was better in the two biggest programs at last season’s world championships. Chen placed sixth at worlds in April, perhaps gassed at the end of his first senior season while competing on duct-taped skates.

In the women’s standings, Medvedeva topped Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy by 6.13 points.

American Mirai Nagasu landed a triple Axel that was called under rotated and fell on her other two jumping passes. She ended up ninth, two spots behind U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell.

In the short dance, two-time world medalists and U.S. champions Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani tallied 77.30 points.

The siblings lead by .97 over Russians Yekaterina Bobrova and Dmitry Soloviyev going into the free dance.

Russians are one-two in pairs. World bronze medalists Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov lead Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov by 5.49.

All of the free skates are Saturday, live on Olympic Channel. A full schedule is here.

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Rostelecom Cup
Men’s Short
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 100.54
2. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 94.85
3. Dmitriy Aliyev (RUS) — 88.77
11. Grant Hochstein (USA) — 67.56

Women’s Short
1. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 80.75
2. Carolina Kostner (ITA) — 74.64
3. Wakaba Higuchi (JPN) — 69.60
7. Mariah Bell (USA) — 63.85
9. Mirai Nagasu (USA) — 56.15

Short Dance
1. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 77.30
2. Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev (RUS) — 76.33
3. Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin (RUS) — 71.32
7. Rachel Parsons/Michael Parsons (USA) — 59.41

Pairs Short
1. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 76.88
2. Ksenia Stolbova/Fedor Klimov (RUS) — 71.39
3. Valentina Marchei/Ondřej Hotárek (ITA) — 68.48
7. Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran (USA) — 54.37