Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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.”

PREVIEWS: Men | Women | DancePairsTV Schedule | Olympic Selection

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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

Bianca Andreescu to miss U.S. Open

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Bianca Andreescu withdrew from the U.S. Open, citing “unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic” compromising her ability to prepare to defend her Grand Slam title.

“I have taken this step in order to focus on my match fitness and ensure that I return ready to play at my highest level,” Andreescu, a 20-year-old Canadian, posted on social media. “The US Open victory last year has been the high point of my career thus far and I will miss not being there. However, I realize that the unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic, have compromised my ability to prepare and compete to the degree necessary to play at my highest level.”

Andreescu’s absence means the U.S. Open, the first Grand Slam tournament since tennis resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic, will be without both 2019 male and female singles champions.

Rafael Nadal previously announced he would not defend his title, saying he would rather not travel given the global situation. Roger Federer is also out after knee surgery. Women’s No. 1 Ash Barty didn’t enter, either, citing travel concerns.

Last year, Andreescu made her U.S. Open title run as the 15th seed, sweeping Serena Williams in the final. Ranked 208th a year earlier, she became the first player born in the 2000s to win a Slam and the first teen Slam winner since Maria Sharapova at the 2006 U.S. Open.

Andreescu then missed the Australian Open in January due to rehab from a knee injury that forced her to retire during a match at the WTA Finals on Oct. 30. She also missed the French Open and Wimbledon in 2019 following a rotator cuff tear.

MORE: Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis competition

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Noah, Josephus Lyles, after years of supporting each other, meet on track’s highest level

Noah Lyles, Josephus Lyles
Special to NBCSports.com
Leave a comment

When Noah and Josephus Lyles first talked about turning professional out of high school — Josephus brought it up before their junior year — the goal was, of course, to sprint on the sport’s highest international level — together.

They will do that in Monaco on Friday (2 p.m. ET, Olympic Channel and NBC Sports Gold).

The Lyles brothers will compete in the same Diamond League meet for the first time, and in the same race to boot. Though Noah has long focused on the 200m and Josephus the 400m, they will both contest the shorter distance at Stade Louis II.

“This is going to be really special,” Noah said.

“It makes me more comfortable, just knowing me and my brother are in the same race,” said Josephus, at his first Diamond League meet since 2018.

Noah, when asked the significance of the race that’s coming more than four years after they turned pro, suggested a reporter ask their mom.

“She’s probably over the moon right now,” he said.

Josephus remembered their mom, Keisha Caine Bishop, screaming in excitement upon learning last week that he earned a lane in Monaco. Noah, the reigning world 200m champion, was already in the field.

“It is definitely harder to watch,” when they’re in the same race, Bishop said, “but not because you’re worried about who’s going to win and who’s going to lose, because I don’t look at track like that.

“My nervousness more comes from I just want them both to do their best, so that we can all celebrate as a family. Because if one has a great race and the other one doesn’t have a great race, then it’s kind of hard for everybody to celebrate. You have to compartmentalize your emotions a little more.”

Bishop, an NCAA 4x400m champion at Seton Hall in the 1990s, is familiar with the balance. Even though her two sons born one year and four days apart last raced against each other in January 2017 at their first professional meet.

“The only reason I run track is because of Noah, honestly,” Josephus, who is younger, said while sitting next to Noah in 2017, days before their pro debut. “When I first started track, I quit because I didn’t like it.”

Josephus, a 400m/800m runner before giving it up, returned to the sport in eighth grade. He had planned to try out for the basketball team. Noah, originally a high jumper, was still doing track and field at the time, so Josephus went out for it, too. This time, he focused on races one lap and shorter.

“Turns out I was really good,” Josephus said. (The Lyles’ sister, Abby, ran one track race around age 6 and didn’t care for it, later finding her passion in biochemistry.)

Throughout high school, the brothers tore up tracks while attending T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Va., best known for the film “Remember the Titans.”

Bishop recalled the times one brother supported the other through adversity. Such as when Noah prayed for Josephus’ success in 2014, when Josephus was on crutches with a twisted ankle. Josephus came back that season to win the 400m at the New Balance Nationals, where Lyles took second in the 200m.

“When they race, they are more concerned about the other person than they are themselves,” Bishop said.

Or in 2016. Josephus suffered a season-ending torn right hip flexor two months before the Olympic Trials. A year before, as a high school junior, Josephus ran a 400m time that would have made the Olympic Trials final, where the top six of eight men would qualify for the Olympics.

Josephus still watched his brother race at trials, in the 200m, from the Hayward Field stands.

“He was trying to be strong,” Bishop said, “but I knew, as a mom, that it was very painful.”

Josephus excitedly detailed the experience on camera after Noah broke the national high school record and nearly pulled off the incredible, coming .09 shy of the Olympic 200m team of three men.

“Sometimes it can get a little hard. If one of us is doing well and the other one is not doing well, it can be rough,” Josephus said. “On the other hand, it can be really good because it’s a lot of support. It’s almost like an accountabili-buddy.”

The brothers achieved their goal by signing with Adidas shortly after trials.

Then in 2017, Noah strained his right hamstring and withdrew from the USATF Outdoor Championships before the 200m final. The family gathered before leaving the stadium in Sacramento.

“I said, ‘OK guys, we have to walk out of this warm-up area, and we have to do it as a team,'” Bishop said. “‘At the end of the day, the only people left will be the three of us. And it’s not just the end of today. It’s going to be the end of your careers. When all the newspapers are gone, television cameras, nobody’s writing about us, we are still a family, and that is all that matters.”

Josephus continued to battle the hip injury, yet lowered his 400m personal best in 2017 (making his Diamond League debut during Noah’s absence) and 2018. At the 2018 USATF Outdoors, Noah won the 100m and Josephus placed sixth in the 400m.

If it had been an Olympic or world championships year, both would have made the U.S. team. Instead, they looked to qualify for their first biennial world outdoor championships in 2019.

That spring, Josephus began throwing up every time he ate. He left a European swing after just one race. He saw several doctors leading into nationals, where he was eliminated in the semifinals. He got an endoscopy and learned his diaphragm was restricted, affecting his eating and breathing. It was fixed after the meet.

“A rough year,” Josephus said.

Noah won the U.S. 200m title two days after Josephus’ 400m semifinal. Noah took gold at the world championships in Doha, after which his most meaningful interaction came by phone with his brother, who was back home in the States after dealing with those chest problems.

Support flowed from both ends of the line — congratulations from an inspired Josephus and excitement from Noah, amped for the upcoming Olympic year and the prospect of a Lyles in every flat sprint and men’s relay in Tokyo.

“I never try to forget that I can be in that same position of being injured, and he could be the one doing well,” Noah said last fall. “So I want to always be able to bring good support to him.”

Noah and Josephus live together in a house near their training base in Clermont, Fla.

The pandemic relegated them to grass fields when tracks were closed for nearly two months. When they returned to more normal training, their coach, Lance Brauman, started putting Josephus in groups with 100m and 200m sprinters, including his brother, regularly for the first time.

Josephus, who beat Noah and world 110m hurdles champion Grant Holloway for a Virginia high school indoor 55m title in 2016, raced a pair of 200m in July. He lowered a five-year-old personal best from 20.74 to 20.41 and then 20.24, which helped book the spot in Monaco.

“When I run 19 [seconds], that’ll be that next level,” said Josephus, while noting the 400m remains his primary event. “I still have a little bit ways to go. Hopefully, this weekend will be a game-changer.”

Here they are, the week after what would have been their first Olympics this summer. Noah and Josephus Lyles are in the same race at the most anticipated track meet of the year.

The Olympic cycle has been bittersweet, said Bishop, reminded of what she stressed to her sons through the ups and downs.

“Life comes in seasons, and your season might not come when you wanted it to come,” she said. “The lesson might not be the lesson you thought it would be, but your season will come.”

MORE: Four years later, life changes for runners who shared Olympic moment

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!