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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