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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MORE: North Korea misses Olympic figure skating deadline, but door still open

IOC gives more time to pick 2030 Olympic host, studies rotating Winter Games

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The 2030 Winter Olympic host, expected to be Salt Lake City or Sapporo, Japan, is no longer targeted to be decided before next fall, the IOC said in announcing wider discussions into the future of the Winter Games, including the possibility of rotating the Games within a pool of hosts.

The IOC Future Host Commission was granted more time to study factors, including climate change, that could impact which cities and regions host future Winter Olympics and Paralympics. The 2030 Winter Games host is not expected to be decided before or at an IOC session next September or October.

Hosts have traditionally been chosen by IOC members vote seven years before the Games, though recent reforms allow flexibility on the process and timeline. For example, the 2024 and 2028 Games were awarded to Paris and Los Angeles in a historic double award in 2017. The 2032 Summer Games were awarded to Brisbane last year without a traditional bid race.

There are three interested parties for the 2030 Winter Olympics, the IOC said Tuesday without naming them. Previously, Salt Lake City, Sapporo and Vancouver were confirmed as bids. Then in October, the British Columbia government said it would not support a Vancouver bid, a major setback, though organizers did not say that decision ended the bid. All three cities are attractive as past Winter Games hosts with existing venues.

U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee officials have said Salt Lake City is a likelier candidate for 2034 than 2030, but could step in for 2030 if asked.

The future host commission outlined proposals for future Winter Olympics, which included rotating hosts within a pool of cities or regions and a requirement that hosts have an average minimum temperature below freezing (32 degrees) for snow competition venues at the time of the Games over a 10-year period.

The IOC Executive Board gave the commission more time to study the proposals and other factors impacting winter sports.

The IOC board also discussed and will continue to explore a potential double awarding of the 2030 and 2034 Winter Olympic hosts.

Also Tuesday, the IOC board said that Afghanistan participation in the 2024 Olympics will depend on making progress in safe access to sports for women and young girls in the country.

On Monday, Human Rights Watch urged the IOC to suspend Afghanistan until women and girls can play sport in the country.

In a press release, the IOC board expressed “serious concern and strongly condemned the latest restrictions imposed by the Afghan authorities on women and young girls in Afghanistan, which prevent them from practicing sport in the country.” It urged Afghanistan authorities to “take immediate action at the highest level to reverse such restrictions and ensure safe access to sport for women and young girls.”

The IOC board also announced that North Korea’s National Olympic Committee will be reinstated when its suspension is up at the end of the year.

In September 2021, the IOC banned the North Korean NOC through the end of 2022, including banning a North Korean delegation from participating in the Beijing Winter Games, after it chose not to participate in the Tokyo Games.

North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, was the only one of 206 National Olympic Committees to withdraw from Tokyo. The country made its choice in late March 2021, citing a desire “to protect our athletes from the global health crisis caused by the malicious virus infection.”

The IOC said in September 2021 that it “provided reassurances for the holding of safe Games and offered constructive proposals to find an appropriate and tailor-made solution until the very last minute (including the provision of vaccines), which were systematically rejected by the PRK NOC.”

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Olympic champion Justine Dufour-Lapointe leaves moguls for another skiing discipline

Justine Dufour-Lapointe
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Justine Dufour-Lapointe, the 2014 Olympic moguls champion, is leaving the event to compete in freeriding, a non-Olympic skiing discipline.

“After three Olympic cycles and 12 years on the World Cup circuit, I felt that I needed to find a new source of motivation and had to push my limits even more so I can reach my full potential as a skier,” the 28-year-old Montreal native said in a social media video, according to a translation from French. “Today, I am starting a new chapter in my career. … I want to perfect myself in another discipline. I want to connect with the mountain differently. Above all, I want to get out of my comfort zone in a way I’ve never done before.”

Dufour-Lapointe said she will compete on the Freeride World Tour, a series of judged competitions described as:

There‘s a start gate at the summit and a finish gate at the bottom. That’s it. Best run down wins. It truly is that simple. Think skiers and snowboarders choosing impossible-looking lines through cornices and cliff-faces and nasty couloirs. Think progressive: big jumps, mach-speed turns and full-on attack. Think entertaining.

Dufour-Lapointe has retired from moguls skiing, according to a Freeride World Tour press release, though she did not explicitly say that in social media posts Tuesday.

At the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, Dufour-Lapointe denied American Hannah Kearney‘s bid to become the first freestyle skier to repeat as Olympic champion. Older sister Chloé took silver in a Canadian one-two.

Dufour-Lapointe also won the world title in 2015, then Olympic silver in 2018 behind Frenchwoman Perrine Laffont.

Chloé announced her retirement in September. A third Dufour-Lapointe Olympic moguls skier, Maxime, retired in 2018.

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