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North Korean skaters share podium with Americans at Olympic tune-up

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Pairs figure skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik stood on the podium as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played and a North Korean flag was raised beside two American flags.

Ryom and Kim, two of 22 North Korean athletes added to the PyeongChang Olympics by the IOC, finished third Friday in a tune-up for the Winter Games at the Four Continents Championships in Taipei.

“We don’t expect a medal [at the Olympics], but just we can improve and challenge ourselves,” Kim said, according to the International Skating Union.

Americans Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea and Ashley Cain and Tim LeDuc, who are not going to the Olympics, went one-two at the event that lacked the world’s top 10 pairs.

Ryom and Kim set a personal best with 184.98 total points, moving up from fourth after the short program for bronze medals despite Ryom falling on a double Axel and turning out of a throw triple loop landing in the free skate.

Kayne and O’Shea outscored them by 9.44.

“We didn’t reach the same level as we did as in practices,” Ryom said, according to the ISU. “I’m really upset, and it’s a pity.”

Ryom and Kim, two of few North Korean winter sports athletes to compete on the top international level, were 15th at last season’s worlds.

They clinched an Olympic spot for North Korea at a September event, but North Korea did not confirm it would use the spot by an October deadine and it was given to Japan.

Ryom and Kim rank No. 21 in the world this season.

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Knierims top U.S. Championships pairs short program

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With just one Olympic pairs spot available, any mistake could cost a team dearly at the U.S. Championships.

Pre-event favorites Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim avoided a big one in the short program Thursday, taking the lead with 71.10 points.

The husband and wife tangled going into their throw triple flip. At least one of her skates appeared to scrape across his pant leg, and there was a hole in those pants afterward, according to figure skating expert Jackie Wong.

The Knierims, the highest-scoring American pair each of the last four seasons, still outpaced the competition in U.S. figure skating’s weakest discipline.

The 2016 U.S. champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea are in second, 2.17 points behind. Deanna Stellato and 2014 Olympian Nathan Bartholomay are in third, 3.26 back.

The pairs free skate is Saturday in San Jose, live on NBC and streaming on NBCOlympics.com from 4-6 p.m. ET.

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The Knierims could be beaten for the national title and still be named the U.S. Olympic pairs team on the strength of their results from the past year.

“Regardless of whether we’re the leading team and we’re supposed to go, whatever, we need to skate well,” Chris said, according to U.S. Figure Skating. “We can’t come in here and have two bad skates, get third place or fourth place or off the podium and still be named to the team and feel confident about that.”

They returned to competition in February after a lengthy absence due to Scimeca Knierim’s life-threatening illness. They also got married in that difficult period.

“We skate for each other rather than for a score or for the judges,” he said on NBCSN.

In five international competitions since, they posted the five highest scores by a U.S. pair over the last two seasons.

They were 10th at the world championships and rank 16th in the world this year. A U.S. pair last won an Olympic medal in 1988.

Kayne and O’Shea, who upset the Knierims for the 2016 U.S. title, impressed to take second in the short program Thursday. They entered nationals ranked seventh among American pairs this season, with just one event under their belt.

They withdrew from last season’s nationals after she slammed her head in a short program fall and suffered a concussion. Kayne then underwent unrelated knee surgery and was off the ice for five months.

Stellato and Bartholomay have to be the best story of any pair at nationals.

Stellato was the 2000 World junior silver medalist in singles but ended that career as a teen due to injuries.

After more than a decade away from competition, she teamed with Bartholomay last season. They finished fourth at nationals.

Bartholomay and former partner Felicia Zhang were 12th at the Sochi Olympics.

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Defending pairs champions pull out of U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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KANSAS CITY — Defending U.S. pairs champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea withdrew from the national championships due to a concussion Kayne sustained in a short program fall Thursday.

“After examination and follow up, it was the advice of the chief medical officer that Kayne should not compete for her own health and safety due to symptoms of concussion,” U.S. Figure Skating said in a statement Saturday.

Kayne and O’Shea were fifth in Thursday’s short program, where Kayne fell hard on their throw triple Lutz.

Kayne and O’Shea were surprise national champions last year but came into Kansas City as underdogs behind Skate American silver medalists Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier. Kayne had been battling knee tendinitis.

Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, in their first year together, surprisingly topped the pairs short program with a clean performance and go into Saturday’s free skate (3 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app) with a 3.96-point lead.

Full pairs short program results are here.

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.

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

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