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‘At last,’ Knierims bring total package to lead pairs’ short program

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – The title of their romantic music said it all for Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim: At Last.

After a 2018-19 season of upheaval, with moves from Colorado Springs to Germany, Chicago and, finally, Southern California – “We were couch-hopping before nationals,” Scimeca-Knierim said – the two-time U.S. champions (2015, 2018) had a settled training situation. Full teaching schedules providing a financial cushion. A renowned technical specialist, Rafael Arutunian, to address their longtime nemeses, side-by-side triple jumps.

And, on Thursday at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, they had something that eluded them the first half of this season, as well as all of last season: a short program with seven clean elements, at last.

“I’m actually extremely emotional,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “I was excited after the program, I was excited when I got my scores, but then I started to cry a little bit and now I feel like it’s coming up again and I’m going to cry.”

“No one sees how much work we put in, how much struggles we have on the day-to-day,” Knierim said.

Their tender yet powerful short, opening with a soaring triple twist and clean side-by-side triple toe loops, with a strong throw triple Lutz in its second half, earned 77.06 points. They take a near seven-point lead into Saturday’s free skate.

“It was a dream that was attainable to skate the way we did today, but it always seems something gets in the way,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “I’ve just been wanting for this moment to happen, because it’s been a little bit of time for Chris and I to have a skate that makes you feel, like, alive. I’m just so happy.”

Their moment of triumph nearly died aborning when Knierim tripped on a connecting step early in the routine, but the skater recovered in time to set up for the triple twist.

“I thought it was a little funny in the moment,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “I was like, ‘Here we go again, it’s always something that gets in the way,’ and then it didn’t go that way.”

Too often, what has “gotten in the way” are the skaters’ triple jumps. The couple credits the tough-talking but caring Arutunian, who began work with them last May, with re-working their technique and rebuilding their confidence.

“You know Raf, he’s going to tell you if you’re horrible, and he does sometimes,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “But knowing he believes in us, he was the only person I needed to hear it from besides myself. I think that’s what helped me get my confidence in my jumps.”

“We take his morning stroking classes a couple times a week, with Michal Brezina and Nathan (Chen) there sometimes and Mariah (Bell), all his high-level kids,” Knierim said. “When we started, it was eye-opening how far behind we were. It was a little embarrassing being in the class and being so terrible at everything. Now I think it’s played into our skating a little bit. There are a lot of exercises we do day-to-day to help our jumps.”

Todd Sand, who coaches the pair with his wife, Jenni Meno, in Irvine, California, called Thursday’s short program “a validation” of the couple’s training plan.

“Last year was a challenge for them, it was hard, they were just trying to survive, I think,” Sand said. “Chris had wrist surgery (last February). It took a while to get going, but now they are doing great. They’ve been working really hard with Raf, and he’s been wonderful, but these changes take time, and the same thing with some pair things, too.”

Sand revealed it will take additional grit for his team to get through their free skate on Saturday.

“They had a setback the last few weeks, Chris hurt his shoulder pretty seriously, so he wasn’t lifting for a while,” he said. “It’s only been healthy the last week or so, and it still gives him little issues. They have a lot of foundation from early in the year and I think they are relying on that. If they just trust themselves, they will be fine.”

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea sit second with 70.35 points after a near-clean program. Their only notable error was an under-rotation on their triple Salchows (VIDEO).

The couple, who won the U.S. title in 2016, debuted a new short set to Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” after their coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, determined their previous routine (set to “Sweet Dreams”) wasn’t showing them to best advantage.

“Over the international season, we never felt the short program scored the way we thought it should,” O’Shea said. “It wasn’t coming across to other people. Dalilah and Tarah came up with the idea for ‘Claire de Lune’ and I think it’s amazing.”

“I get really nervous at competitions,” Kayne said. “The music comes on and I feel comfortable … It puts me in the right headspace to skate.”

The skaters kept their “Sweet Dreams” step sequence designed by Charlie White, and worked with Sappenfield to put the new routine together in three days.

“I said, ‘We’re going to go to Zagreb for Golden Spin, and if you skate clean and don’t score 70 or above, we’re going to have to scrap it,’” Sappenfield said. “And they scored about 66 points, so it went. I wanted Tarah to shine in the short, and I felt in the other one, Danny overshadowed her.”

Defending champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, third with 68.86 points, lost ground when their death spiral was invalidated by the technical panel, costing them about four or five points (VIDEO).

Coach Peter Cain, who also works as an ISU pair’s technical specialist, explained that the technical panel determined LeDuc lifted his blade’s toe pick off of the ice during the element.

“From the video that I saw, you can see the pick move back, but it never leaves the ice,” Cain said. “The blade doesn’t completely go down… It is what it is. They decided not to go with the skater and take it away. It puts us a little bit in a hole; we would have been right behind Alexa and Chris, which would have been really good. Now we have some work to do to get back up.”

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, winners of two bronze medals on the fall Grand Prix circuit, had a disappointing program, including a fall on their throw triple loop. The 2017 U.S. champions sit sixth with 61.33 points (VIDEO).

MORE: Gracie Gold rebuilds herself to return to nationals

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. 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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Joey Mantia extends U.S. medal streak at speed skating worlds; Dutch dominance returns

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Joey Mantia ensured the host U.S. finished with a medal at the world single distances championships. Ireen WüstKjeld Nuis and Jorrit Bergsma ensured the Netherlands finished atop the medal standings.

Mantia joined Shani Davis as the only U.S. men to earn individual medals at three different editions of the championships, taking bronze in the 1500m on the last day of the speed skating meet at the 2002 Olympic oval outside Salt Lake City.

Mantia won the mass start at the last two worlds in 2017 and 2019 (and finished fifth on Sunday, after the 1500m bronze).

Mantia clocked a personal best 1:42.16 in the fifth of 12 pairs of the 1500m. It held up until Nuis (1:41.66) and countryman Thomas Krol (1:41.73) in the last two pairs.

“Was starting to think that I’m so old that I can’t time trial anymore,” Mantia, a 34-year-old whose last 1500m personal best came in 2015, told media in Utah. “Maybe there’s a little bit of hope left.”

Mantia’s medal extended the U.S. streak of making the podium at every world championships this millennium — 16 straight. The single bronze is the smallest medal output since 2000.

Full results are here.

Wüst and Nuis gave the Dutch a sweep of the men’s and women’s 1500m titles, two years after they did the same at the PyeongChang Olympics. Bergsma, an Olympic and world 10,000m champion, earned his first global medal of any color — gold — in the 16-lap mass start.

The Netherlands failed to earn any golds on the first two days of the four-day competition. The dominant Dutch, who topped the medal standings at every Olympics and worlds dating to the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, entered Sunday trailing Russia.

But Wüst began the day by clocking 1:50.92 to win the 1500m by .21 over Russian Yevgenia Lalenkova. American medal hope Brittany Bowe, the 2015 World champion who took bronze last year, finished 14th a day after taking eighth in her world-record 1000m distance.

Nuis and Krol went one-two in the men’s 1500m to tie Russia’s medal total. Then Irene Schouten took bronze in the women’s mass start to put the Netherlands ahead for good, followed by Bergsma’s capper.

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MORE: Shani Davis retires, takes new role in speed skating

Netherlands on the board; more world records at speed skating worlds

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It took four world records from other countries before the Netherlands won its first title in an Olympic program event at the world single distances speed skating championships.

Jutta Leerdam got the dominant skating nation on the board on the third day of the four-day competition and in the ninth Olympic program event. Leerdam scored an upset over defending champion and world-record holder Brittany Bowe, the American who ended up eighth.

Leerdam, 21, prevailed despite having zero World Cup podiums to her name. She clocked 1:11.84, just .23 slower than Bowe’s world record set on the same Utah Olympic Oval last year. Bowe, who recently had her yearlong win streak snapped in the 1000m, finished in 1:12.92.

“It’s a nightmare,” Bowe said, according to media on site.

Later, the Netherlands won the men’s team pursuit in a world record 3:34.68, the fifth world record in Olympic events the last two days on the world’s fastest ice at the 2002 Olympic oval outside Salt Lake City.

Full results are here.

The world championships conclude Sunday, highlighted by American Joey Mantia defending his world title in the mass start.

In other Saturday events, both the men’s 1000m and women’s 5000m world records fell. On Friday, world records were lowered in the men’s 10,000m and women’s team pursuit.

Pavel Kulizhnikov followed his Friday world 500m title with the 1000m crown, repeating his double gold from 2016. Kulizhnikov was one of the Russians banned from the PyeongChang Olympics after he served a prior doping ban.

On Saturday, Kulizhnikov clocked 1:05.69 to take .49 off Dutchman Kjeld Nuis‘ record from last March, also set at Salt Lake City. Nuis, the Olympic 1000m and 1500m champion, took silver, 1.03 seconds behind.

Russian Natalya Voronina and Czech Martina Sablikova both went under Sablikova’s world record in the 5000m. Voronina came out on top in 6:39.02, 2.99 seconds faster than Sablikova’s record from a year ago and 2.16 seconds faster than Sablikova on Saturday.

Voronina’s time would have been the men’s world record as recently as 1993. Sablikova won the previous 10 world titles in the event dating to 2007.

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MORE: World Single Distances Championships broadcast schedule