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

Simone Biles returns to the gym, going from mental drain to physical pain

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For Simone Biles, this was supposed to be the stretch run of a legendary career.

Instead, she returned to her gym on May 18 with long-term thoughts of waiting 14 months until the Tokyo Olympics. And the immediate aches of a world-class gymnast who just missed nearly two months of regular training.

“After that amount of time off, it kind of sucks because your body hurts and then you get really sore,” Biles said in a pre-recorded ESPNW interview that aired Thursday. “So you just have to get back into the swing of things. But it felt nice to see my coaches, my teammates, and just to be back on the equipment and in the environment.”

In that same Texas gym three months ago, Biles had a far different outlook. One that would have put fear into any gymnast who still harbored ambition of ending her near-seven-year win streak.

“I never felt more ready this early in the season,” she said. “I was so ready for the Olympics to be this year.”

Biles repeated in interviews the last two months that the Olympic postponement to 2021 was devastating. Thoughts zig-zagged: How do I go on another year, at age 23, in a sport recently dominated by (but not limited to) teenagers?

“I’m getting pretty old,” she said in the interview published Thursday. “Will I be at the top of my game?”

Biles proved the last two years — after a year off — that she can win — and comfortably — while not at her best. She grabbed the 2018 World all-around title by a record margin — with two falls. Last year, she became the most decorated gymnast in world championships history. In Tokyo, she can become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around champion, and the only one older than 20, in more than 50 years.

This for a gymnast whose early goal was to earn a college scholarship. Biles did, to UCLA, but had to give it up by turning professional.

“So I’ve exceeded that,” Biles said. “And then I wanted to go to world championships and Olympics, and I’ve been to five worlds and one Olympic Games. So, I’d be more than happy [to walk away].”

After gymnastics, Biles has another goal — to be a voice for foster kids. She was in foster care multiple times before being adopted at age 6 by grandparents Ron and Nellie.

Those plans, along with so much else for Biles and so many others, have been pushed back a full year.

“I was already being mentally drained and almost, not done with the sport, but just going into the gym and feeling tired and being like, OK, I’m going to get my stuff [done], get out,” she said. “We have this one end goal, and now that it’s postponed another [year], it’s just like, how are we going to deal with that? We’re already being drained, and so it’s to keep the fire in the sport within yourself alive.”

MORE: Top U.S. gymnasts disagree with Tokyo Olympic age rule

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2022 Pan Pacific Championships canceled as swimming calendar shifts

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The Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, a quadrennial major international meet, will not be held in 2022 “out of respect for the recent changes to the international sporting calendar,” according to a press release.

The Pan Pacs’ charter nations — the U.S., Australia, Canada and Japan — agreed to the move. The 2026 event will be held in Canada, which was supposed to be the 2022 host.

The decision came after the 2021 World Championships were moved to May 2022, following the Tokyo Olympics moving from 2020 to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The quadrennial multi-sport Commonwealth Games — which includes Australia and Canada, but not the U.S. or Japan — are scheduled for July 27-Aug. 7, 2022.

“Organizing a third major championships in that window presented several challenges,” according to the Pan Pacs release.

Pan Pacs mark the third-biggest major international meet for U.S. swimmers, held in non-Olympic, non-world championships years.

MORE: Caeleb Dressel co-hosts a podcast. It’s not about swimming.

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