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

Chinese lead, star pairs struggle in world championships short program

AP
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China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong recorded the highest pairs short program score in the world since the 2014 Olympics, topping the world championships field in Helsinki on Wednesday.

Two-time defending world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada and Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov are well behind in seventh and 13th place, respectively.

Sui and Han, in just their second event this season, tallied a personal-best 81.23 points.

They lead by 1.39 over Germans Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot going into the free skate Thursday (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov are in third.

The Chinese will go for their first world title after giving up a short-program lead last year and taking silver for a second straight time.

Full worlds short program results are here.

PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Dance | TV schedule

Sui and Han missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at the Four Continents Championships in February and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

Duhamel and Radford, looking to become the first pair to three-peat in 40 years, came in slowed by Radford’s hip injury suffered in the last week. Radford was off-balance on his triple toe loop landing Wednesday. Duhamel’s hand touched the ice on her throw triple Lutz landing.

They scored 72.67 points, which is 8.56 behind Sui and Han.

Stolbova and Klimov both suffered falls in their short program and scored 65.59, qualifying for the 16-pair free skate by four points. The Russian champions missed the autumn season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury.

The top U.S. pair was Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim, who posted a personal-best 72.17 points for eighth place. The husband-and-wife pair are competing for the second time this season after Scimeca Knierim’s serious abdominal injury.

U.S. champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier suffered two falls and placed 20th, matching the worst U.S. pairs finish in worlds history. They did not qualify for the 16-pair free skate.

Therefore, the Knierims must finish 10th or better after the free skate to ensure the U.S. earns two pairs places at the 2018 Olympics.

Pairs is the U.S.’ weakest discipline. The last U.S. medal in pairs at worlds came in 2002. The last Olympic medal was in 1988.

North Korean pair Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik placed 14th in the short program, the highest of any pair expected to compete for one of four final Olympic quota spots in September.

North Korea sent no athletes to the Sochi Olympics, and it’s not a guarantee it will qualify any athletes for PyeongChang, or if it will send athletes to South Korea in February. But Ryom and Kim’s personal best by nearly 11 points on Wednesday was very encouraging.

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MORE: U.S. pairs skater back from life-threatening condition

Pairs Short Program
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 81.23
2. Aliona Savchenko/Bruno Massot (GER) — 79.84
3. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 79.37
8. Alexa Scimeca Knierim/Christopher Knierim (USA) — 72.17
20. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier (USA) — 56.23

Missy Franklin out due to shoulder surgeries

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Missy Franklin is sidelined from swimming competition for an undisclosed period of time to recover from surgeries on both of her shoulders due to bursitis, according to her social media.

“This is what’s best for me to come stronger than ever,” was posted on Franklin’s Instagram. “I’m so far from being done with this sport.”

The five-time Olympic champion was diagnosed in early January following an MRI, underwent surgeries that month and has returned to limited training.

Franklin, who has not raced since the Rio Olympics, will not compete in the next USA Swimming Pro Series meet in Mesa, Ariz., in two weeks.

Her return date is not set.

The U.S. Championships are in June in Indianapolis and serve as a qualifying meet for the world championships in Budapest in July.

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