Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier, with tears of joy, lead pairs at figure skating nationals

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Alexa Knierim was in tears after she and Brandon Frazier finished their U.S. Figure Skating Championships pairs’ short program.

“I already cried once I got off the kiss and cry,” area where skaters receive scores, Knierim said minutes later. “All positive emotions of course.”

Knierim, an Olympian and three-time national champion with her now-retired husband, Chris, and new partner Frazier hit their nationals debut together in Las Vegas.

They lead by a significant 6.16 points going into Saturday’s free skate, taking the driver’s seat for one of two U.S. pairs’ spots at March’s world championships.

Knierim and Frazier, just as they did en route to winning Skate America three months ago, landed side-by-side triple toe loops and a throw triple loop. They tallied 77.46 points, distancing 2020 U.S. silver medalists Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Results | TV Schedule

Calalang and Johnson and 2019 U.S. champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, the other pre-event favorites, counted a fall on side-by-side triple jumps.

Knierim and Frazier teamed 10 months ago, after Chris left skating, citing a lack of passion for competition, after the Knierims won their third national title.

Frazier was also solo after the end of his partnership with Haven Denney, which produced a 2017 national title. He visited the Knierims for a tryout in March.

“I had already made up our minds that I wanted to skate with Brandon before he got here, but we didn’t tell him that,” Knierim joked before nationals. “I just needed to see if he liked me and liked our skating, and if he would even be comfortable coming into an environment by himself with a whole new team. To me it wasn’t a tryout. To me it was the beginning of our partnership.”

In one offseason limited by a pandemic, they rose to the top of U.S. pairs, a discipline marked by turnover and a lack of international success in the last 20 years.

“We just worked so hard,” Knierim said, explaining the tears. “I can’t even describe the work we put in to get here, and the programs we drilled.”

Knierim, 29, can become the first pairs’ skater to win four national titles since Kyoko Ina, whose fifth and final crown came in 2002.

Just before they skated Thursday, Knierim’s husband and part-time coach provided a FaceTime pep talk. Skate like you’ve been doing at home, and you’ll be fine.

Knierim still felt tight as she stepped on the ice at Orleans Arena, where the only fans were cardboard cutouts.

“You do have doubts when you take that starting pose, and I just looked at Brandon,” she said. “I was like, ‘I need you.’ And he’s like, ‘I need you, too.'”

Frazier, 28 and a 2013 World junior pairs’ champion, sensed the nerves.

“There was a little bit of that uncomfortable competitive feeling you get,” he said, “but her and I stayed locked in.”

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