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Pairs vie for one Olympic spot at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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When Alexa Scimeca Knierim dropped below 90 pounds in 2016, debilitated by a life-threatening illness, it was hard to believe she and her husband would arrive at this point, days before the Olympic team is named.

Alexa and Chris — the Knierims — are the prohibitive favorites to claim the lone U.S. Olympic pairs figure skating spot.

The U.S. will send its smallest pairs contingent to the Games since the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Pairs is the U.S.’ weakest figure skating discipline. No Olympic medals since 1988.

A U.S. Figure Skating committee will announce the Olympic team after the pairs free skate at nationals on Saturday.

The Knierims could be that team even if they are beaten in San Jose and haven’t won the national title since 2015.

That’s because the Knierims have been the top-scoring U.S. pair in international competition each of the last four seasons.

And because the committee chooses the Olympic figure skating team based not only on nationals results, but also on performances from the last year.

“We are in a good place with the criteria set out,” Chris Knierim said.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier won the U.S. title last season but were 20th at worlds, the main reason why the U.S. failed to qualify multiple pairs for the Olympics.

The Knierims were absent from last January’s nationals due to Alexa’s illness and three abdominal surgeries but returned and were 10th at worlds.

Denney and Frazier know that a repeat national crown might not be enough to get to PyeongChang.

“Whether we agree or disagree, our federation has every right to make their decisions,” Frazier said. “It is completely out of our control.”

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Alexa Scimeca Knierim/Chris Knierim
2015 U.S. champions
Top U.S. pair at last three world championships
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 1st

The top-scoring U.S. pair in international competition every season in this Olympic cycle. The wed in June 2016, during a stretch where Alexa suffered from a mysterious illness that kept them from training for seven months. She underwent three abdominal surgeries, resulting in a several-inch scar running north-south on her belly.

The Knierims returned to competition in February and immediately posted the highest score by a U.S. pair for the season. Then they were 10th at worlds, again better than any other U.S. pair in this Olympic cycle.

“Physically, I didn’t believe I would be able to be in the position I am today,” Scimeca Knierim said. “Grateful to have the chance to skate again.”

This season, the Knierims competed three times in the fall and posted the three highest scores by U.S. couples across all competitions. They’re ranked 16th in the world, struggling with side-by-side jumps but intending to bring back their quad twist this week.

Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier
2017 U.S. champions
Two-time Skate America silver medalists
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 5th

Denney and Frazier are the defending national champs and the only U.S. pair to make a Grand Prix podium in either of the last two seasons. Yet they are decided underdogs this week.

A big reason why was their 20th-place at worlds, counting two falls in the short program and failing to advance to the free skate. The disaster meant the U.S. qualified one pair spot for the Olympics rather than the two they had at the previous five Winter Games.

The former roller skating pairs team was seventh in both Grand Prix starts this fall, their lowest finishes in four senior seasons together.

Ashley Cain/Tim LeDuc
2017 U.S. bronze medalists
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 4th

They topped the short program at last season’s nationals eight months after first teaming up. LeDuc had not competed in pairs since the 2014 U.S. Championships. Cain was nearly 4 1/2 years removed from her last pairs event.

Cain and LeDuc go into nationals ranked fourth among U.S. pairs this season, but unlike the Olympic contenders ahead of them have not competed domestically. They counted at least one fall at all three of their international events in Italy, Germany and China.

Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea
2016 U.S. champions
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 7th

The surprise U.S. champions two seasons ago withdrew from last season’s nationals due to Kayne’s concussion after hitting her head in a short program fall. Kayne then underwent unrelated February right knee surgery.

In their return at an early December event, they scored 20 points lower than their personal best.

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U.S. Olympic figure skating picture at Grand Prix season midpoint

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Five figure skating storylines at the halfway point of the Grand Prix season …

1. Nathan Chen can win gold, but which men will join him on the U.S. Olympic team?

The 18-year-old wunderkind has the second-highest score of all men among the first three of six Grand Prix events, trailing only world silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan (scroll for full standings). Chen should qualify for December’s six-man Grand Prix Final with a top-three finish at Skate America on Thanksgiving weekend.

Perhaps a bit surprisingly, there’s a great chance for another U.S. man to join Chen at the Grand Prix Final. That’s because Jason Brown and Max Aaron finished second and third, respectively, in their first of two Grand Prix starts.

The Olympic team of three men will be announced after the U.S. Championships in January. A selection committee will choose the skaters based not only on nationals results, but also performances from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons.

Qualifying for the Grand Prix Final, the biggest annual competition outside of worlds, would be a huge resume booster. So big that a skater could finish outside the top three at nationals and be put on the Olympic team on the merit of that sort of international accomplishment.

Brown or Aaron could make his first Grand Prix Final with another podium finish this week (Brown in Japan) and next (Aaron in France).

Brown, who made the 2014 Olympic team at age 19 and finished ninth in Sochi, struggled with injuries the last two seasons and has not cleanly landed a fully rotated quadruple jump in competition. He makes up for it with artistic marks, which helped him take bronze at nationals (one month after a stress fracture in his right fibula) and seventh at worlds last season.

Aaron was not favored to make the Olympic team coming into this season. He was ninth at last year’s nationals — after being top four each of the previous four years. But Aaron had a personal-best free skate at Cup of China on Saturday, landing three quads, and is now firmly in the Olympic discussion.

U.S. silver medalist Vincent Zhou, who won the world junior title in March, fell three times between two programs at his Grand Prix debut last week. He was still fourth and just 3.03 points behind Aaron.

Then there is Adam Rippon, who joined Chen at last year’s Grand Prix Final. Rippon was then unable to defend his title at nationals (broken foot). Rippon skates at his first Grand Prix in Japan this week, followed by Skate America two weeks later. He could make another Grand Prix Final with two podiums.

2. U.S. women still bunched

None of the top four U.S. women — vying for three Olympic spots — from last season distinguished themselves from the pack in their Grand Prix debuts.

U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell had the highest score of the group, good enough for sixth place at Rostelecom Cup and 15th overall so far this season. Ashley Wagner‘s bronze-medal effort at Skate Canada was actually 4.62 points shy of Bell’s total.

U.S. champion Karen Chen was seventh at Skate Canada, while Mirai Nagasu was ninth at Rostelecom Cup.

Russia and Japan each have four women who rank higher than the best American so far this season, which shows where the power lies in women’s skating.

Could any other Americans step up? Courtney Hicks, whose best nationals finish was fourth in 2013, nearly beat Wagner at Skate Canada in her only Grand Prix assignment.

Then there is Polina Edmunds, the 2014 Olympian who is slated for her first Grand Prix in two years next week in France. She will look to massively improve on a 13th-place finish in a lower-level event a month ago.

The highest-scoring U.S. woman this season has zero Grand Prix experience. That’s Bradie Tennell, who was fourth at a small event in Italy in September. Her Grand Prix debut at Skate America could shake things up.

3. For three U.S. couples, the dance resumes

There is little doubt who will fill the three U.S. Olympic spots in ice dance.

Maia Shibutani and Alex ShibutaniMadison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue have been the top three couples at nationals, in some order, each of the last five years (excluding Sochi gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who are not active).

Only once in that span have Hubbell and Donohue beaten the Shibtuanis or Chock and Bates in any competition. Which makes their scores in three separate Grand Prix events this fall so interesting.

Hubbell and Donohue have the highest U.S. score (by .19 over the Shibutanis) after each couple’s opening Grand Prix.

For the remainder of the Grand Prix series, the three U.S. couples are again separated. Hubbell and Donohue go in Japan this week, followed by Chock and Bates in France next week and then the Shibutanis at Skate America.

They’re all in line to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, which would make a great nationals preview.

Meanwhile, the favorites for Olympic gold and silver remain French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron and Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who traded world records the last two weeks in separate competitions.

4. Top U.S. pairs team set for Grand Prix return

Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim remain the favorites for the one U.S. Olympic pairs spot heading into their first Grand Prix since 2015 this week.

Though the Knierims missed most of last season due to her life-threatening abdominal condition, they came back to place 10th at worlds.

The U.S. champions in their absence, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, were 20th at worlds and opened their Grand Prix season with their worst result (seventh at Skate Canada) in seven career starts.

5. Canada loses its grip on team event

Pressure is on Patrick Chan to find his form, or Canada may be beaten by Russia again in the Olympic team event.

Chan, the world champion in 2011, 2012 and 2013 who took a year off after silver in Sochi, bombed in the Skate Canada free skate and then pulled out of this week’s Grand Prix in Japan.

Canada is strong in the other disciplines — world champions in ice dance, world silver and bronze medalists in the women’s event and the 2015 and 2016 World champions in pairs. But Chan has been its only reliable man in recent seasons.

This season, Chan ranks 20th in the world. Canada needs him.

Russia, meanwhile, may have finally found its successor to Yevgeny PlushenkoMikhail Kolyada was fourth at 2016 Worlds and then won Cup of China on Saturday.

Kolyada outscoring Chen in both programs of an Olympic team event could completely swing the standings in Russia’s favor.

Russia has the world’s best female skater in Yevgenia Medvedeva (plus the world junior champion), the world bronze medalists in pairs and a respectable ice dance couple in Yekaterina Bobrova and Dmitry Soloviyev that should place no worse than fourth in the team event.

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Grand Prix Season Top Scores
Men
1. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 301.10 (Skate Canada)
2. Nathan Chen (USA) — 293.79 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 290.77 (Rostelecom Cup)
4. Mikhail Kolyada (RUS) — 279.38 (Cup of China)
5. Mikhail Kolyada (RUS) — 271.06 (Rostelecom Cup)
6. Jin Boyang (CHN) — 264.48 (Cup of China)
7. Jason Brown (USA) — 261.14 (Skate Canada)
8. Max Aaron (USA) — 259.69 (Cup of China)
9. Vincent Zhou (USA) — 256.66 (Cup of China)
10. Misha Ge (UZB) — 255.33 (Rostelecom Cup)

Women
1. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 231.21 (Rostelecom Cup)
2. Carolina Kostner (ITA) — 215.98 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 213.88 (Cup of China)
4. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 212.91 (Skate Canada)
5. Wakaba Higuchi (JPN) — 212.52 (Cup of China)
6. Wakaba Higuchi (JPN) — 207.17 (Rostelecom Cup)
7. Yelena Radionova (RUS) — 206.82 (Cup of China)
8. Mai Mihara (JPN) — 206.07 (Cup of China)
9. Marin Honda (JPN) — 198.32 (Cup of China)
10. Gabrielle Daleman (CAN) — 196.83 (Cup of China)
15. Mariah Bell (USA) — 188.56 (Rostelecom Cup)
18. Ashley Wagner (USA) — 183.94 (Skate Canada)
19. Courtney Hicks (USA) — 182.57 (Skate Canada)
20. Mirai Nagasu (USA) — 178.25 (Rostelecom Cup)
24. Karen Chen (USA) — 170.40 (Skate Canada)

Ice Dance
1. Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 200.43 (Cup of China)
2. Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir (CAN) — 199.86 (Skate Canada)
3. Kaitlyn Weaver/Andrew Poje (CAN) — 190.01 (Skate Canada)
4. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue (USA) — 189.43 (Skate Canada)
5. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 189.24 (Rostelecom Cup)
6. Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev (RUS) — 184.74 (Rostelecom Cup)
7. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 184.50 (Cup of China)

Pairs
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 231.07 (Cup of China)
2. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 224.25 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford (CAN) — 222.22 (Skate Canada)
4. Aliona Savchenko/Bruno Massot (GER) — 215.66 (Skate Canada)
5. Vanessa James/Morgan Cipres (FRA) — 214.37 (Skate Canada)
18. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier (USA) — 172.95 (Skate Canada)

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