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Ashley Cain, Timothy LeDuc ready to take on Worlds pressure

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Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc had a plan for the 2018-19 season: skate well through the fall, become national champions, get named as the only U.S. pair team at the 2019 World Championships, and then win back more pair spots for the U.S. by finishing in the top 10.

So far, they’ve checked off those boxes, with one major hurdle in December. During a competition in Croatia, Cain fell on her head during a lift and had to spend the time leading up to the U.S. Championships recovering from a concussion.

Despite all that, they won their first national title together and will compete at the world championships in Saitama, Japan from March 18-24.

Cain and LeDuc opened up to NBCSports.com/figure-skating in Detroit after nationals about their preparations, the pressure they don’t feel, their coaching team, and how their fans rallied around them during their recovery.

Here we are a day after winning the national title. Has it sunk in?

Cain: At this point I think our brains are a little fried.

LeDuc: I can’t help but feeling overwhelmingly grateful.

Cain: Me too.

LeDuc: I’ve been having all these flashbacks to different points along my journey that I just remember what someone did to help me through something, how they helped me overcome something. This does not just belong to me. it belongs to so many people.

Cain: I found myself yesterday thanking everyone. It was our team around us, yes, and it was each other. It was the U.S. Figure Skating staff, but also it was the fans. They stuck with us through all of it. They were defending us at times when people were being critical. Through this whole week through every practice and through the performances. They were cheering so loud. They were on that journey with us as well. I think that we just feel an overwhelming gratefulness. We just want to keep thanking everybody because that truly is what created that performance out there.

Have you had time to do those thank yous yet?

Cain: A few here and there. Obviously, our coaches, we’ve just been “thankyouthankyouthankyou.” You could see in the Kiss and Cry, they felt every emotion with us because they saw us every day. No matter what was gonna happen in that long program, they were gonna stick by us and build us back up. To have it happen like that was almost a storybook ending to what could’ve happened. It’s crazy to think of what could’ve happened. It’s crazy because it could’ve gone either way.

LeDuc: I’ve felt defeated and down so many times so to be on the other side of that is like… I’m not sure what.

Cain: I’ve also been able to watch these moments happen over and over with other people. I’ve wanted it so bad and to finally have it I’m like, ‘Oh this is what it feels like!’ I still feel like the same person. Nothing changed, you know? I’m still the athlete I was yesterday, but at the same time our goals happened. Everything that we wanted.

LeDuc: We have a few more.

And what are they?

LeDuc: Get the spots at worlds.

Cain: This [a national title] was one of the biggest goals of my skating career.

LeDuc: Same

Cain: And we accomplished it. It’s almost like when people ask, you went to the Olympics, you accomplished all your goals, why are you still skating? Because there’s always more. Yes, you accomplished that goal and it’s a big deal but you always want more. That’s like heading into Worlds, we want to get the spots back for the U.S. teams. We want there to be more teams at Worlds.

[Note: To earn two quota spots for the U.S. at the 2020 World Championships, Cain and LeDuc need to finish 10th or better at Worlds. To earn three spots, they need to win gold or silver.]

You mentioned fan support. It seemed like there was a lot of support, shock, and outrage all at once after Croatia. Was that surprising to see, or did you know they’d always have your back?

Cain: It wasn’t surprising to see.

LeDuc: I think everyone just felt badly for you, and wanted you to be better and happy to see you here. I don’t think anyone would’ve betrayed you for any reason. I understand why people dragged me through the mud a little bit.

Cain: That wasn’t right.

LeDuc: I understand the controversy surrounding maybe the officials side of things.

Cain: I would say to anybody that spoke negatively about the whole ordeal is that I finished. I got up and I finished the program. At that point, I know that my health comes first. But I kept going. You never know how things are gonna work out. Luckily, it worked out in a positive way for us. We finished the program in Croatia strong, nothing happened. I was able to get the right treatment back home.

It was definitely tough… for me, I knew I had the injury and I was gonna get through it, and it was gonna be okay. I was more concerned about Tim, because just some of the comments that were being thrown around. It’s really tough because at the same time, he wants to be there for me and all that. I needed to be there for him in that moment because that was so tough for him to go through as well. I think some people didn’t realize how hard it was for him to have to deal with. That was our first fall, too. For him having to come to terms with that—that was our first lift fall. Ever. And it was in competition, it happened like that.

LeDuc: And it went viral.

Cain: It kept getting spread. Yes, people wanted to weigh in and give their opinions. At the same time, it was tough to go through that. We actually shut down social media for a bit while we were going through all of it.

Concussion is such a buzzword. Do you think that was part of why it got bigger and bigger?

Cain: Yes. It just kept spreading. The video kept getting shared everywhere. That’s okay, now it’s a… a pivotal moment in our careers.

LeDuc: It is. Thankfully, through this – not defining, but in a full circle story – concerning concussions, we followed every plan that the U.S. Figure Skating team gave to us and that’s why we were able to be here strong. We stuck together every plan, every doctor visit.

Cain: All the exercises. The rest.

LeDuc: The treatment, just following the plan and sticking to it. We’re really grateful to have a really good group of people to help us.

One of the things I noticed in the way you guys talk about your coaches is that it’s ‘coaches’ and not ‘mom and dad.’ Is that a mental thing?

Cain: It is. I feel like it’s a business as well. They are our coaches when they’re in the rink and when we’re at things like this, yes, they’re also my parents and they’re excited to feel all the feelings as my parents and see me go through this journey. But at the same time, they look at it as a business as well.

We have a really good relationship and I think it’s worked because we keep it that way. We keep a lot of other emotions out of it.

Did that come from any trial and error or did you set it out to be that way?

Cain: I think we set out for it to be like that at the start when I was a little kid. We always set it up to be like that. We didn’t want to get to my teenage years and start butting heads or anything like that. That never happened. It’s been a really good relationship.

And in your own partnership, it seems like you always speak very highly and thoughtfully of each other.

LeDuc: This is only our third season together but we’ve really… I think that’s why we’ve come together and progressed so quickly is because we have that synergy right from the start. You can’t really force that. It just worked. It was like chemistry really aligned. When you put mutual respect at the center of your partnership, it allows you to deal with things that come toward you. We’ve had a lot of obstacles –

Cain: Oh my god, so many!

LeDuc: – and challenges come at us. We’ve learned how to come together through those so we can overcome them better. That’s really made us strong. I think that’s how we were able to deal with this last six weeks, overcoming the injuries. Because we came together to deal with it and to build each other up. Otherwise separately, I don’t know what we would’ve done.

Hard to do as half and half instead of a whole team, it sounds like.

Cain: We think of each other as equal units as well, equal energies. That’s what we try to bring to our programs and to every performance. I think yesterday [during the free skate at the U.S. Championships], that’s what carried us through that performance. That we counted on each other to bring the equal amount of energy. I remember thinking at the beginning of our program, ‘Our energies are going to come together at this program.’ That’s how we like to think about ourselves.

LeDuc: I knew whatever energy I would give, she would give back. It’s like a positive feedback.

That’s pretty zen.

LeDuc: It was pretty zen yesterday.

Cain: It was really zen!

LeDuc: we were so dialed in and focused.

I have also heard you use the phrase “pillars of strength” to describe your free skate. Tell me more about that concept.

LeDuc: Equality is really important to us. Not necessarily conforming to traditional gender roles and also not the traditional romantic storyline that a lot of pairs and dance teams have. It’s not just because I’m gay. It’s not just because she’s engaged to somebody else. You can still have a great storyline in your partnership that isn’t about being in love.

MORE: Madison Chock and Evan Bates look to peak at Worlds and return to podium

As a reminder, you can watch the world championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Cain and LeDuc target world top 5, starting at Skate America

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Don’t tell Ashley Cain-Gribble, even gingerly, that there’s been a lull in U.S. pairs’ international results the past few years. She isn’t buying it.

“I would not say there’s a lull,” Cain-Gribble said after Thursday’s practice at Skate America in Las Vegas. “If you look at the last two years, there are a lot of international medals coming from pairs.”

True, to an extent. Cain-Gribble and partner Timothy LeDuc took home a bronze medal at Skate America last season, and last month they won the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City, defeating out-of-form Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, three-time World medalists from Russia. Their U.S. teammates Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim also opened the 2019-2020 campaign strong, with a silver medal at Nebelhorn Trophy.

Still, a U.S. pair hasn’t stood on a world championships podium since 2002, and no U.S. pair has ever won a medal at the Grand Prix Final.

“I think it’s all coming down to doing it at the right moment and I think we’re all going to be doing that,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re technically strong, all of us.”

The skater’s coach and father, Peter Cain, thinks “nervy” errors have cost U.S. pairs big on the international stage.

“We all want U.S. teams to be successful again,” Cain said. “Pushing Ashley and Tim to be good pushes all of the teams to be good. I’ve been watching practices; all of the teams can put it together at the right moment, but we often see teams getting a little nervy and making mistakes. At this level you can’t do that.”

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc have set an ambitious goal: Finish in the world’s top five. Last season, their bronze medal at Skate America helped pave the way for the Texas-based duo’s first U.S. title and a top-10 finish at the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships; this week, they’re shooting for another medal, maybe silver or gold.

“This is one step, nationals another, and Worlds is the final step,” LeDuc said.

MORE: How to watch Skate America

They’re doing all they can to get there. About three years ago, U.S. Figure Skating enlisted Nina Mozer, coach of Russian World and European medalists including Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, to visit U.S. pairs’ training sites and offer expertise at pairs’ camps and seminars, including this summer’s Champs Camp.

Mozer works with several top U.S. pairs, but has formed an especially close partnership with Cain-Gribble and LeDuc. She’s coaching them here in Vegas, alongside Peter Cain.

“I’m learning a lot, too, about better planning, better ways to train. She’s really good at that, and that’s why her teams are on top,” Cain said. “I kind of stand aside and let her run the show a lot when she’s with us, and part of it for me is to learn how she handles teams in competition….That makes me a better coach in the long run for all of my students, because her mannerisms are rubbing off (on me).”

Mozer thinks Cain-Gribble and LeDuc’s goals are within reach – if they can reign in their competitive juices and skate within themselves.

“It is not possible to get to the podium immediately but step-by-step they can reach the goal,” she said through an interpreter.

“During this season they are making all of the elements well, the key thing is do not rush. I’m worried that the audience is expecting a lot, and they have to forget about that and do their work. When expectations are so high, sometimes it’s hard to concentrate and very easy to be nervous.”

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc, who teamed up in May 2016, are both strong single skaters. They use their long lines – Cain-Gribble is 5-foot-6, while LeDuc is 6’1” – to their advantage, and each season have targeted areas for improvement.

During their 2018/2019 campaign, they upgraded their triple twist, making it a high-scoring (Level 4) element.

“When U.S. Figure Skating spoke to me, one of the first things (they did) was asking me to work on the twist lift,” Mozer said. “They came up to me and said, ‘Please do something.’”

This summer, the skaters attended Mozer’s camp in Italy, where the focus was overall packaging.

“It’s a really intense camp up in the Alps,” LeDuc said at Champs Camp in August. “For the most part, we really focus on our overall packaging, and speed and power through everything. With our goal top five at the World’s this year, we’re trying to do everything we can to make that happen.”

The skaters also targeted another element: their lifts. To add difficulty (and points), LeDuc is lifting and holding aloft his partner with one arm, while Cain-Gribble’s arms remain free.

“That’s the biggest difference you’ll see this year, I think,” Cain-Gribble said at Champs Camp. “Pretty much all of our lifts are one point of contact, so I’m not holding on (to LeDuc) at all.”

“I think that when we teamed up, it was one of the things people saw as our weakness,” she added. “The thought was with my height, we wouldn’t be able to do all these intricate positions, or do the one point of contact, but we’ve made our bodies strong enough to be able to do that.”

Mozer acknowledges helping the pair with their lifts, but refuses to share too many particulars.

“It’s the secrets of the coaching staff,” she said, laughing. “We knew the problems of the (lifts) and we understood what to do, and now they have no problems. They changed some things. Timothy did a lot of work to make this element better and better.”

Skating isn’t all that’s been on the agenda. Ashley married Dalton Gribble on June 1, balancing much of her off-season with wedding and honeymoon plans.

“The way we got through it, was we scheduled everything in advance,” Cain-Gribble said. “We (choreographed) our short program in the two weeks we were in Japan between Worlds and World Team Trophy, and that made up for time we would have lost. It came down to scheduling.”

The bride doesn’t think she sacrificed anything.

“I was able to take in every emotion for this big life event,” she said. “I got married and the team around me let me relax a little bit and take it all in, instead of stressing about training and run-throughs.”

Opportunity may be knocking here in Vegas. Natalia Zabiyako and Alexander Enbert of Russia, the reigning world bronze medalists, withdrew from the event due to injury. China’s Peng Cheng and Jin Yang, who won silver at last season’s Grand Prix Final, are the top-ranked pair at Skate America; Cain and LeDuc defeated them in Salt Lake City.

Mozer, who also coaches Zabiiako and Enbert, would like nothing more than to see her U.S. students atop the podium.

“When I started to work with international pairs, it was interesting for me to help raise the level of pairs skating,” she said. “We were hearing pairs’ skating is weak, it’s not interesting anymore. I want (pairs) to be as strong as singles and ice dance. We will reach that result if everyone is stronger.”

MORE: Nathan Chen calls 3 quads at Skate America ‘a given’

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Figure skating Grand Prix: Five things to watch

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World champions Nathan Chen and Alina Zagitova. Former U.S. champions Karen Chen and Bradie Tennell. Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu and world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou. World champion ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, and two-time U.S. ice dance champions/world championship medalists Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue. Quads, quads, quads.

All of these skaters and jumps will be featured in figure skating’s Grand Prix, which runs from this weekend’s Skate America to the Grand Prix Final Dec. 5-8 at the 2006 Olympic venue of Torino, Italy. January has the U.S. Championships and European Championships, February has the Four Continents Championships, and the season wraps up with the world championships in March.

TV SCHEDULE: How to watch Skate America

Here’s what to watch over the next two months:

1. Dominant dancers due for defeat? 

France’s Papadakis and Cizeron have won four of the last five world championships. The only duo to beat them since 2014, Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moirhas officially retired. They’re still in their mid-20s. They posted the four highest scores last season.

The reigning world championship silver medalists, Russia’s Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, had a major breakthrough last season. Until last season, they had never won the Russian championships, never skated in a Grand Prix Final, never finished higher than fourth in the European championships and never finished higher than ninth in the world championships. They still haven’t won a medal in the European championships or won a Grand Prix event. Were their second-place finishes in the world championships and Grand Prix Final a fluke or a sign that they’re ready to challenge for the top?

The top U.S. contenders, Madison Chock/Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell/Zach Donohue, train in Montreal with Papadakis and Cizeron, so they know what it takes to get to the top. Hubbell and Donohue posted the highest scores after the French champions and Russian runners-up last year to take their second straight world championship medal and a win at the Grand Prix Final ahead of Sinitsina/Katsalapov. Chock and Bates earned world championship medals in the middle of the decade and finished sixth last year as Chock returned from a long injury layoff.

Oddsmakers would surely favor Papadakis and Cizeron in every competition, but will the underdogs have their day?

The GP schedule for the top dancers and U.S. entries:

  • Skate America: Hubbell/Donohue, Christina Carreira/Anthony Ponomarenko, Caroline Green/Michael Parsons
  • Skate Canada: Hubbell/Donohue, Green/Parsons, Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker
  • Internationaux de France: Papadakis/Cizeron, Chock/Bates
  • Cup of China: Sinitsina/Katsalapov, Chock/Bates, Hawayek/Baker
  • Rostelecom Cup: Sinitsina/Katsalapov
  • NHK Trophy: Papadakis/Cizeron, Carreira/Ponomarenko, Lorraine McNamara/Quinn Carpenter

2. Can Vincent Zhou topple Chen and Hanyu?

The 2017 world junior champion has steadily and rapidly climbed the ranks since moving to senior level, taking sixth in the 2018 Olympics and third in the 2019 Four Continents before laying down two stunners, taking third in the world championships and posting a score of 299.01 in the World Team Trophy, a mark bested only by Chen and Hanyu.

This season, after spending his youth in Colorado and California, he’ll go across the country to start college at Brown.

Chen and Hanyu have been over the 300-point mark, and Japan’s Shoma Uno is consistently over 275 — the only skater other than Chen, Hanyu and Zhou to beat that standard last season. (Uno, the 2018 Olympic silver medalist and two-time world championship runner-up, picked a bad time to fall just under 275 — the world championships, where he finished fourth behind the other three high scorers.)

The GP schedule for the top men’s skaters and U.S. entries:

  • Skate America: Chen, Jason Brown, Alexei Krasnozhon
  • Skate Canada: Hanyu, Camden Pulkinen
  • Internationaux de France: Uno, Chen, Tomoki Hiwatashi
  • Cup of China: Pulkinen, Zhou
  • Rostelecom Cup: Uno, Zhou, Krasnozhon
  • NHK Trophy: Hanyu, Brown, Hiwatashi

MORE: Zhou balances Brown University with overseas assignments

3. Can the Tampa-trained pair of Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès follow up their big year?

James has taken a long and winding road to the top of the pairs world. She was born in Canada, then lived in Bermuda and Virginia before competing as a singles skater for Britain. When she moved to pairs, she also switched to France to partner first with Yannick Bonheur and then Ciprès.

For several years, the pair won the French championship but not much else. In the 2017-18 season, they earned a couple of Grand Prix medals and placed fifth in the Olympics before claiming their biggest international prize to date, a bronze medal in the world championships.

Last year, the pair went on a hot streak. They won Skate Canada. They won the Internationaux de France. They won the Grand Prix Final. They won the European championship. Finally, their streak ended at a bad time, and they took fifth in the world championships.

Olympic silver medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong won their second world championship last season after missing the GP season because of Han’s foot injury. Russia’s Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov were second in the world championships.

U.S. champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy Leduc skated in the U.S. Classic last month and posted a higher score than any of their compatriots last year. The previous champions, Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, were seventh last year. The last two U.S. champions — Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier and Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea — also are continuing to compete this year.

The GP schedule for the top pairs and U.S. entries:

  • Skate America: Cain-Gribble/Leduc, Denney/Frazier, Jessica Calalang/Brian Johnson
  • Skate Canada: Tarasova/Morozov, Scimeca Knierim/Knierim, Calalang/Johnson
  • Internationaux de France: Cain-Gribble/Leduc, Denney/Frazier
  • Cup of China: Sui/Han, Kayne/O’Shea
  • Rostelecom Cup: Tarasova/Morozov, Audrey Lu/Misha Mitrofanov
  • NHK Trophy: Sui/Han, Kayne/O’Shea, Scimeca Knierim/Knierim

4. How many more young quad-jumping Russians can women’s skating handle? 

Zagitova is the defending world champion, and she isn’t even the Russian with the biggest buzz heading into the new season.

Back-to-back world junior champion Alexandra Trusova is the first woman to land a quadruple Lutz in competition. She’s also the first to land a quad toeloop. She landed two quads in one program at the 2018 world juniors, and she has done three in an unofficial skate this fall. She’s only 15. Her free skate this season includes music from “Game of Thrones.”

Anna Shcherbakova, also 15, has landed a quadruple Lutz and was second in last year’s world juniors, and she upset Trusova and Zagitova to win the Russian championship.

Trusova and Shcherbakova both lost in last year’s junior Grand Prix Final to yet another Russian, Alena Kostornaia, who’s 16 now and has the good taste to skate to the Muse song “Supermassive Black Hole” in her free skate.

Kostornaia, Trusova and Shcherbakova will make their senior-level Grand Prix debuts this season. Trusova already has competed this year and posted the highest score recorded under the new scoring system, just ahead of prior marks from Zagitova and Kostornaia.

5. Can the U.S. women put it together this year? 

Chen and Zhou give the U.S. men two legitimate medal threats in any competition, and the U.S. ice dance machine continues to spin forth contenders. But women’s skating has been in a long dry spell since the era of Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen ended. Ashley Wagner, the last U.S. woman on the podium in a major event, has retired.

Today, 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell has shown she’s capable of big numbers, but cracking the top five has been difficult.

The reigning U.S. champion, Alysa Liu, is age eligible for only the Junior Grand Prix series. She’s 14, and she has already posted a score higher than any U.S. woman other than Tennell posted last year.

The good news for the U.S. women is the return of 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen after an injury-riddled 2018-19 season. Like Zhou, she’s heading to an Ivy League school, enrolling at Cornell.

Two-time U.S. medalist Mariah Bell and the ever-entertaining Starr Andrews also have two Grand Prix assignments this season.

Ting Cui, the bronze medalist after Trusova and Shcherbakova in the 2019 world junior championships, withdrew from her Grand Prix events with an ankle injury.

The GP schedule for the top women and U.S. entries:

  • Skate America: Shcherbakova, Chen, Tennell, Amber Glenn
  • Skate Canada: Trusova, Tennell
  • Internationaux de France: Zagitova, Kostornaia, Andrews, Bell
  • Cup of China: Shcherbakova
  • Rostelecom Cup: Trusova, Bell
  • NHK Trophy: Zagitova, Kostornaia, Chen, Andrews, Megan Wessenberg

MORE: Tennell on self-doubt, lessons learned in 2019

MORE: Figure skating season broadcast schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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