Pairs’ champs Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier out of figure skating nationals due to COVID-19

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Pairs’ national champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier withdrew from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships due to Frazier testing positive for COVID-19 with severe symptoms, it was announced the night before senior competition begins.

They are still eligible for Olympic team selection through a petition process.

“Although my symptoms are pretty bad, nothing sucks more than not being able to compete,” Frazier said in an Instagram video posted Wednesday night.

Frazier tested negative before arriving in Nashville on Monday for the competition, then started developing severe symptoms late Tuesday evening and got a test as a precaution. He was not required by event rules to be tested again until four days after his arrival.

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Frazier is vaccinated and boosted against the virus, Knierim said on social media.

“We have taken all the necessary precautions leading up to these Championships, including but not limited to social distancing, the use of KN95 masks and canceling all holiday gatherings as well as private lessons at the rink, so it has been shocking and devastating for us to process what has happened,” she wrote.

Knierim said Wednesday night that they will petition to a selection committee for one of two pairs’ spots on the Olympic team, which will be decided after Saturday’s free skate and announced Sunday morning. Skater(s) who successfully petition must be able to prove the ability to perform full competition programs by a specified date and be medically approved to compete at the Olympics.

“Brandon and I have accumulated an extremely strong body of work that positions us at the top of the field nationally and we are not letting go of our Olympic dream,” Knierim said. “That said, we have the utmost respect for the selection committee and believe that they will make decisions based on the best interest of our team and our country.”

Knierim and Frazier, the highest-ranking U.S. pair this season, did not take part in official pairs’ practice on Wednesday afternoon in Nashville after doing so on Tuesday, figure skating reporter Jackie Wong said.

Olympic figure skating competition starts Feb. 3 with the team event.

The U.S. Figure Skating Championships are not an Olympic Trials. The Olympic figure skating roster is determined by a selection committee taking into account results from last January’s nationals through this week’s nationals.

Knierim and Frazier, in addition to winning last season’s nationals, were the better of two U.S. pairs at March’s world championships (seventh place) and had the highest score for a U.S. pair in the fall Grand Prix Series.

Knierim and Frazier were expected to battle with three other top pairs for the two Olympic spots — Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDucJessica Calalang and Brian Johnson and Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov.

Knierim, who finished 15th at the 2018 Olympics with since-retired husband Chris, and Frazier partnered last year and quickly ascended to the top of U.S. pairs.

Knierim and Frazier’s spot at the top was under pressure this season: Cain-Gribble and LeDuc put up a score at their last Grand Prix event in November that’s .18 shy of Knierim and Frazier’s best this fall.

Then, in their last competition before nationals, Knierim and Frazier struggled in their free skate and were outscored by another U.S. pair for the first time (Lu and Mitrofanov) at a lower-level event in December.

U.S. pairs’ skating has been so volatile that Knierim could be the first pairs’ skater to make back-to-back Olympics in 20 years (Kyoko Ina, also with different partners). The last U.S. Olympic pairs’ medal came in 1988.

The last figure skater to successfully petition for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team after not competing at nationals was Michelle Kwan in 2006. Kwan ultimately withdrew after arriving for the Torino Games, but before competition, due to a groin injury and was replaced by Emily Hughes.

The last time the Olympic pairs’ roster did not mirror nationals results was 1998, when three-time U.S. champions Jenni Meno and Todd Sand were named to the team after withdrawing before the free skate due to Meno’s ankle injury. Meno and Sand now coach Knierim and Frazier.

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report from Nashville.

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Injured Ilia Malinin wins Grand Prix Finland, qualifies for Grand Prix Final

Ilia Malinin
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Ilia Malinin, competing “a little bit injured” this week, still won Grand Prix Finland and goes into the Grand Prix Final in two weeks as the world’s top-ranked male singles skater.

Malinin, who was second after Friday’s short program, landed four clean quadruple jumps in Saturday’s free skate to overtake Frenchman Kevin Aymoz.

Malinin, who landed a quad flip in competition for the first time, according to SkatingScores.com, also attempted a quad Axel to open his program, but spun out of the landing and put his hand down on the ice.

Malinin also won his previous two starts this season in come-from-behind fashion. The 17-year-old world junior champion became the first skater to land a clean, fully rotated quad Axel in September, then did it again in October at Skate America, where he posted the world’s top overall score this season.

Next, Malinin can become the second-youngest man to win the Grand Prix Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko. His biggest competition is likely to be world champion Shoma Uno of Japan, who like Malinin won both of his Grand Prix starts this fall. Malinin and Uno have not gone head-to-head this season.

Grand Prix Finland highlights air on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

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Earlier, Japan’s Mai Mihara overtook world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium to become the only woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this season. Mihara prevailed by .23 of a point. The top three women this season by best total score are Japanese, led by a junior skater, 14-year-old Mao Shimada, who isn’t Olympic age-eligible until 2030.

Mihara and Hendrickx qualified for the Grand Prix Final, joining world champion Kaori Sakamoto and Rinka Watanabe, both of Japan, South Korean Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito, the world junior champion.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini won both pairs’ programs and qualified for their first Grand Prix Final.

Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara and Americans Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier headline the Final. Both pairs won each of their Grand Prix starts earlier this fall. The Japanese have the world’s two best scores this season. The Americans are reigning world champions.

At least one Russian or Chinese pair made every Grand Prix Final podium — usually pairs from both countries — but neither nation competed in pairs this Grand Prix season. All Russian skaters are banned due to the war in Ukraine. China’s lone entry on the Grand Prix across all disciplines was an ice dance couple.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier improved on their world-leading score for this season in winning the ice dance by 17.03 points over Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Both couples qualified for the Grand Prix Final in the absence of all three Olympic medalists this fall.

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Lara Gut-Behrami wins Killington giant slalom, and the overall title race may be on

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Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami rallied from third place after the first run for her 35th career World Cup victory, taking a giant slalom in Killington, Vermont, on Saturday.

Gut-Behrami, 31, earned her fifth World Cup giant slalom win and first in six years. She prevailed by .07 of a second over Italian Marta Bassino combining times from two windy runs. Sweden’s Sara Hector, the Olympic champion and first-run leader, ended up third.

“Last two years I’ve been getting better in GS again,” said Gut-Behrami, who won the GS at the last world championships in 2021. “Last year I was struggling with my health. I was all the time sick.”

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Gut-Behrami’s best events are downhill and super-G, so a strong start to the season in GS could put her on a path to winning the World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing. She previously lifted that crystal globe in 2016.

Reigning World Cup overall champ Mikaela Shiffrin, who previously placed second, third, fourth and fifth in Killington giant slaloms, finished 13th after winning the season’s first two races, slaloms in Finland last week. It marked her lowest World Cup GS finish since December 2019.

“[Finland] was a spectacular weekend,” Shiffrin, who has not had much recent GS training, said after her 10th-place opening run Saturday. “Every race is a different story.”

Shiffrin won all five World Cup slaloms in Killington dating to 2016 and will go for her 50th career World Cup slalom victory across all venues on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock).

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