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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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Bianca Andreescu to miss U.S. Open

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Bianca Andreescu withdrew from the U.S. Open, citing “unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic” compromising her ability to prepare to defend her Grand Slam title.

“I have taken this step in order to focus on my match fitness and ensure that I return ready to play at my highest level,” Andreescu, a 20-year-old Canadian, posted on social media. “The US Open victory last year has been the high point of my career thus far and I will miss not being there. However, I realize that the unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic, have compromised my ability to prepare and compete to the degree necessary to play at my highest level.”

Andreescu’s absence means the U.S. Open, the first Grand Slam tournament since tennis resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic, will be without both 2019 male and female singles champions.

Rafael Nadal previously announced he would not defend his title, saying he would rather not travel given the global situation. Roger Federer is also out after knee surgery. Women’s No. 1 Ash Barty didn’t enter, either, citing travel concerns.

Last year, Andreescu made her U.S. Open title run as the 15th seed, sweeping Serena Williams in the final. Ranked 208th a year earlier, she became the first player born in the 2000s to win a Slam and the first teen Slam winner since Maria Sharapova at the 2006 U.S. Open.

Andreescu then missed the Australian Open in January due to rehab from a knee injury that forced her to retire during a match at the WTA Finals on Oct. 30. She also missed the French Open and Wimbledon in 2019 following a rotator cuff tear.

MORE: Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis competition

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Noah, Josephus Lyles, after years of supporting each other, meet on track’s highest level

Noah Lyles, Josephus Lyles
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When Noah and Josephus Lyles first talked about turning professional out of high school — Josephus brought it up before their junior year — the goal was, of course, to sprint on the sport’s highest international level — together.

They will do that in Monaco on Friday (2 p.m. ET, Olympic Channel and NBC Sports Gold).

The Lyles brothers will compete in the same Diamond League meet for the first time, and in the same race to boot. Though Noah has long focused on the 200m and Josephus the 400m, they will both contest the shorter distance at Stade Louis II.

“This is going to be really special,” Noah said.

“It makes me more comfortable, just knowing me and my brother are in the same race,” said Josephus, at his first Diamond League meet since 2018.

Noah, when asked the significance of the race that’s coming more than four years after they turned pro, suggested a reporter ask their mom.

“She’s probably over the moon right now,” he said.

Josephus remembered their mom, Keisha Caine Bishop, screaming in excitement upon learning last week that he earned a lane in Monaco. Noah, the reigning world 200m champion, was already in the field.

“It is definitely harder to watch,” when they’re in the same race, Bishop said, “but not because you’re worried about who’s going to win and who’s going to lose, because I don’t look at track like that.

“My nervousness more comes from I just want them both to do their best, so that we can all celebrate as a family. Because if one has a great race and the other one doesn’t have a great race, then it’s kind of hard for everybody to celebrate. You have to compartmentalize your emotions a little more.”

Bishop, an NCAA 4x400m champion at Seton Hall in the 1990s, is familiar with the balance. Even though her two sons born one year and four days apart last raced against each other in January 2017 at their first professional meet.

“The only reason I run track is because of Noah, honestly,” Josephus, who is younger, said while sitting next to Noah in 2017, days before their pro debut. “When I first started track, I quit because I didn’t like it.”

Josephus, a 400m/800m runner before giving it up, returned to the sport in eighth grade. He had planned to try out for the basketball team. Noah, originally a high jumper, was still doing track and field at the time, so Josephus went out for it, too. This time, he focused on races one lap and shorter.

“Turns out I was really good,” Josephus said. (The Lyles’ sister, Abby, ran one track race around age 6 and didn’t care for it, later finding her passion in biochemistry.)

Throughout high school, the brothers tore up tracks while attending T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Va., best known for the film “Remember the Titans.”

Bishop recalled the times one brother supported the other through adversity. Such as when Noah prayed for Josephus’ success in 2014, when Josephus was on crutches with a twisted ankle. Josephus came back that season to win the 400m at the New Balance Nationals, where Lyles took second in the 200m.

“When they race, they are more concerned about the other person than they are themselves,” Bishop said.

Or in 2016. Josephus suffered a season-ending torn right hip flexor two months before the Olympic Trials. A year before, as a high school junior, Josephus ran a 400m time that would have made the Olympic Trials final, where the top six of eight men would qualify for the Olympics.

Josephus still watched his brother race at trials, in the 200m, from the Hayward Field stands.

“He was trying to be strong,” Bishop said, “but I knew, as a mom, that it was very painful.”

Josephus excitedly detailed the experience on camera after Noah broke the national high school record and nearly pulled off the incredible, coming .09 shy of the Olympic 200m team of three men.

“Sometimes it can get a little hard. If one of us is doing well and the other one is not doing well, it can be rough,” Josephus said. “On the other hand, it can be really good because it’s a lot of support. It’s almost like an accountabili-buddy.”

The brothers achieved their goal by signing with Adidas shortly after trials.

Then in 2017, Noah strained his right hamstring and withdrew from the USATF Outdoor Championships before the 200m final. The family gathered before leaving the stadium in Sacramento.

“I said, ‘OK guys, we have to walk out of this warm-up area, and we have to do it as a team,'” Bishop said. “‘At the end of the day, the only people left will be the three of us. And it’s not just the end of today. It’s going to be the end of your careers. When all the newspapers are gone, television cameras, nobody’s writing about us, we are still a family, and that is all that matters.”

Josephus continued to battle the hip injury, yet lowered his 400m personal best in 2017 (making his Diamond League debut during Noah’s absence) and 2018. At the 2018 USATF Outdoors, Noah won the 100m and Josephus placed sixth in the 400m.

If it had been an Olympic or world championships year, both would have made the U.S. team. Instead, they looked to qualify for their first biennial world outdoor championships in 2019.

That spring, Josephus began throwing up every time he ate. He left a European swing after just one race. He saw several doctors leading into nationals, where he was eliminated in the semifinals. He got an endoscopy and learned his diaphragm was restricted, affecting his eating and breathing. It was fixed after the meet.

“A rough year,” Josephus said.

Noah won the U.S. 200m title two days after Josephus’ 400m semifinal. Noah took gold at the world championships in Doha, after which his most meaningful interaction came by phone with his brother, who was back home in the States after dealing with those chest problems.

Support flowed from both ends of the line — congratulations from an inspired Josephus and excitement from Noah, amped for the upcoming Olympic year and the prospect of a Lyles in every flat sprint and men’s relay in Tokyo.

“I never try to forget that I can be in that same position of being injured, and he could be the one doing well,” Noah said last fall. “So I want to always be able to bring good support to him.”

Noah and Josephus live together in a house near their training base in Clermont, Fla.

The pandemic relegated them to grass fields when tracks were closed for nearly two months. When they returned to more normal training, their coach, Lance Brauman, started putting Josephus in groups with 100m and 200m sprinters, including his brother, regularly for the first time.

Josephus, who beat Noah and world 110m hurdles champion Grant Holloway for a Virginia high school indoor 55m title in 2016, raced a pair of 200m in July. He lowered a five-year-old personal best from 20.74 to 20.41 and then 20.24, which helped book the spot in Monaco.

“When I run 19 [seconds], that’ll be that next level,” said Josephus, while noting the 400m remains his primary event. “I still have a little bit ways to go. Hopefully, this weekend will be a game-changer.”

Here they are, the week after what would have been their first Olympics this summer. Noah and Josephus Lyles are in the same race at the most anticipated track meet of the year.

The Olympic cycle has been bittersweet, said Bishop, reminded of what she stressed to her sons through the ups and downs.

“Life comes in seasons, and your season might not come when you wanted it to come,” she said. “The lesson might not be the lesson you thought it would be, but your season will come.”

MORE: Four years later, life changes for runners who shared Olympic moment

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