At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, teens will likely win the men’s and women’s events. The pre-event favorites in pairs and ice dance, and now leaders after day one, are all in their 30s.
World champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier easily took the largest pairs’ short program lead in nationals history in what may be their last U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Madison Chock and Evan Bates, eyeing their fourth U.S. title, put up the biggest gap in a U.S. short dance since its inception in 2011.
It’s believed that no pair or dance couple of skaters in their 30s has won a U.S. title in more than 50 years.
Knierim and Frazier, who last March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, tallied 81.96 points to open the four-day nationals on Thursday.
They lead by 15.1 over Emily Chan and Spencer Howe going into Saturday’s free skate in San Jose, California, the largest first-day pairs’ gap since the Code of Points replaced the 6.0 scoring system in 2006.
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The top three pairs from last year’s event — which Knierim and Frazier missed due to him contracting COVID-19 — are no longer competing together. Knierim and Frazier had a clean skate, while Chan and Howe, who entered as silver medal favorites, counted a fall.
After nationals, a committee selects three U.S. pairs for March’s world championships in Japan.
Before the fall Grand Prix Series, the 31-year-old Knierim said this will probably be their last season competing together, though the pair also thought they were done last spring. They don’t expect to make a final decision until after a Stars on Ice tour this spring.
“I don’t like to just put it out there and say it is the last or not going to be the last because life just has that way of throwing curveballs, and you just never know,” Frazier said this month. “But I would say that this is the first nationals where I’m going to go in really trying to soak up every second as if it is my last because you just don’t know.”
Knierim is going for a fifth U.S. title, which would tie the record for a pairs’ skater since World War II, joining Kyoka Ina, Tai Babilonia, Randy Gardner, Karol Kennedy and Peter Kennedy. Knierim’s first three titles, and her first Olympics in 2018, were with husband Chris, who retired in 2020.
Knierim is also trying to become the first female pairs’ skater in her 30s to win a national title since 1993. Knierim and Chock are trying to become the first female skaters in their 30s to win a U.S. title in any discipline since 1995.
After being unable to defend their 2021 U.S. title last year, Knierim and Frazier reeled off a series of historic results in what had long been the country’s weakest discipline.
They successfully petitioned for an Olympic spot and placed sixth at the Games, best for a U.S. pair since 2002. They considered retirement after their world title, which was won without the top five teams from the Olympics in attendance. They returned in part to compete as world champions and to give back to U.S. skating, helping set up younger pairs for success.
They became the first U.S. pair to win two Grand Prix Series events, then in December became the first U.S. pair to make a Grand Prix Final podium (second place). The world’s top pairs were absent; Russians banned due to the war in Ukraine and Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong from China leaving competition ice (for now).
Knierim and Frazier’s real test isn’t nationals. It’s worlds, where they will likely be the underdog to home favorites Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who edged the Americans by 1.3 points in the closest Grand Prix Final pairs’ competition in 12 years.
Like Knierim and Frazier, Chock and Bates delivered as overwhelming favorites in Thursday’s rhythm dance.
The defending champions tallied 91.90 points, distancing Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, who scored 81.40, going into Saturday’s free dance.
“Freedom and joy came through right from the start of the program,” Chock said on USA Network. “There was no holding back.”
Last year’s silver and bronze medalists aren’t in the field: Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue retired after winning Olympic bronze, while Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker withdrew last week, citing mental health.
So Chock, 30, and Bates, 33, are almost certain to make the podium for an 11th consecutive year, which would be one shy of the record for any discipline, and lead the three couples picked for March’s worlds.
“We just want to earn it,” Bates said. “Just because we’ve been around longer than most doesn’t necessarily dictate the results.”
Bates, who last year became the oldest U.S. champion in any discipline in decades, has made 12 career senior nationals podiums with Chock and former partner Emily Samuelson. It is believed that a 13th finish in the top three would break the U.S. record for a single discipline he currently shares with Michelle Kwan, Nathaniel Niles and Theresa Weld Blanchard.
But Chock and Bates’ sights are set on a place they’ve never been — the top step of a world championships podium. They earned silver or bronze a total of three times, including a bronze last year. The gold and silver medalists aren’t competing this season.
However, Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier relegated the Americans to silver at December’s Grand Prix Final.
“If we don’t win gold at worlds, we’ll be disappointed,” Bates, whose first senior nationals in 2008 came when this year’s women’s singles favorite, Isabeau Levito, was 10 months old, said earlier this month. “We’ve set the goal for ourselves in the past and haven’t met it yet.”
Nationals continue later Thursday with the women’s short.
NBC Sports’ Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.
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