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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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Katie Ledecky swims fastest at U.S. Open from B final

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For what must have been the first time in seven years, Katie Ledecky failed to qualify for an A final in one of her primary events on Friday morning. No matter, she swam the fastest 200m freestyle at the U.S. Open from the B final at night.

Ledecky, owner of 20 combined Olympic and world titles, clocked 1:56.24 to win the B final by nearly three seconds in Atlanta. In the very next race, American record holder Allison Schmitt touched first in the A final in 1:56.47.

Full results are here. The final day of the meet airs live on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

Ledecky has rarely lost domestically in freestyles from 200m through 1500m since she made her first Olympic team at age 15 in 2012.

She kept the streak intact, giving her a sweep of the 200m, 400m and 800m frees in the first three days of the U.S. Open, what could be the deepest domestic meet before the Olympic trials in June.

Internationally, Ledecky faced challengers in the 200m free in this Olympic cycle, unlike the last one. Italian veteran and world-record holder Federica Pellegrini won the last two world titles, with Ledecky missing the event this summer due to her mid-meet illness.

Ledecky ranks seventh in the world in the 200m free this year but likely would have been faster if she was able to race at her best at world champs.

Domestically, Simone Manuel has crept up, clocking 1:56.09 to lead off the 4x200m free relay at worlds to rank second among Americans in 2019. Manuel was the third-fastest American on Friday, recording 1:57.21, her fastest time ever outside of a major summer meet.

In other events Friday, Phoebe Bacon upset world-record holder Regan Smith in the 100m backstroke. Bacon, who like Smith is 17 years old, overtook Smith in the last 25 meters and prevailed by .05 in 58.63. Bacon, while shy of Smith’s world record 57.57, took .39 off her personal best to become the fifth-fastest in the world this year.

Olympic and world champion Lilly King dominated the 100m breaststroke, beating a strong field by .62 of a second in 1:05.65.

Chase Kalisz won a potential Olympic trials preview in the 400m individual medley in 4:13.07. Kalisz, the Rio silver medalist, held off 18-year-old Carson Foster by 1.69 seconds. Ryan Lochte, the 2012 Olympic champion in the event, was fifth, 6.65 seconds behind.

Rio Olympian Townley Haas won the men’s 200m free in 1:45.92, his fastest time since August 2018. Haas, the 2017 World silver medalist, improved to the second-fastest American in the event this year behind Andrew Seliskar.

Torri Huske won the 100m butterfly on the eve of her 17th birthday. Huske clocked 57.48, taking .23 off her personal best to move from sixth fastest to third fastest in the U.S. this year.

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MORE: Dressel recalls summer tears in Golden Goggles speech

Ester Ledecka stuns again, wins World Cup downhill from bib No. 26

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Consider 26 a lucky number for Ester Ledecka.

Ledecka, the snowboard champion who stunningly captured the PyeongChang Olympic super-G from bib No. 26, won her first World Cup ski race on Friday — also from bib No. 26.

Ledecka was fastest in a downhill at Lake Louise, Alberta.

She kept Swiss Corinne Suter from her first World Cup win by .35 of a second. Austrian Stephanie Venier was third. Mikaela Shiffrin was 10th in her weakest discipline. Full results are here.

“I am for sure more shocked than everybody here,” Ledecka said. “I was a little bit, not disappointed about the run, but I was not super satisfied. Then I was really surprised about the time.”

Ledecka, an Olympic and world champion in Alpine snowboarding from the Czech Republic, had a previous best Alpine skiing World Cup finish of seventh. The top-ranked racers all go in the top 20 of the start list.

Last season, Ledecka raced more World Cup skiing events than snowboarding events for the first time. She was forced to choose between world championships in skiing and in snowboarding due to schedules and picked the former with a top finish of 15th.

She’s undecided about her upcoming schedule. She could continue on the Alpine skiing tour with a super-G in Switzerland next weekend, or she could fly to Italy for a snowboarding event.

The women race another downhill and a super-G in Lake Louise the next two days. A full TV and live stream schedule for the weekend races is here.

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MORE: 2019-20 Alpine skiing season TV schedule