U.S. Figure Skating Championships pairs’ preview: bunched battle for Olympic spots

ISU World Figure Skating Championships - Stockholm: Day Two
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This week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships marks the last competition to determine the U.S. Olympic team. Two pairs’ teams will be chosen by a committee to compete in Beijing. A look at the contenders (listed in order of best single total score this season) …

The top two U.S. pairs are separated by .just .18 of a point by best total score this season in significant competitions. The top four pairs are separated by 7.65 points.

It has been 20 years since a U.S. pair finished in the top five at the Olympics, and 34 years since the last medal.

That doesn’t figure to change in Beijing — the top teams from Russia and China are in another echelon — but, as usual and unlike other disciplines, the battles for the national title and Olympic spots are really up for grabs.

Update: Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier withdrew Wednesday after Frazier tested positive for the coronavirus. They will petition for a spot on the Olympic team. More here.

Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier
2021 U.S. champions
Knierim: Three-time U.S. champion, 2018 Olympian with Chris Knierim
Frazier: 2017 U.S. champion with Haven Denney

Teamed up in 2020, after each skater’s previous partner retired, and quickly became the top U.S. pair, winning both Skate America and nationals. U.S. pairs skating has been so volatile that Knierim is trying to become the first pairs skater to make back-to-back Olympics in 20 years (Kyoko Ina, also with different partners). Knierim and Frazier’s spot at the top is under pressure: Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc put up a score at their last Grand Prix event this fall 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 (Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov).

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Ashley Cain-Gribble/Timothy LeDuc
2019 U.S. champions

Fourth at the 2018 U.S. Championships, when only one Olympic spot was at stake. Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title the next year, then the season after that posted the highest international score by a U.S. pair. They have the most shared experience on the senior level of the top U.S. pairs and are right there with Knierim and Frazier this season. However, they have finished better than third at nationals just once, and it’s likely going to take first or second this week to be selected for Beijing. Both skaters came back from concussions in this Olympic cycle. Cain-Gribble contracted Covid in the summer, was briefly in the hospital and later learned she developed asthma from the virus. She uses an inhaler daily for training. LeDuc could become the first publicly out non-binary athlete to compete at a Winter Olympics.

Jessica Calalang/Brian Johnson
2020, 2021 U.S. silver medalists

Should make the Olympic team if they repeat their national championships finish the last two years. However, Calalang and Johnson have never competed at the world championships. The 2020 Worlds were canceled due to the pandemic, and they withdrew before 2021 Worlds due to Calalang testing positive for a banned stimulant. She was eventually cleared, several months later, after it was found that it can turn up in cosmetics that she used. Train with Knierim and Frazier.

Audrey Lu/Misha Mitrofanov
2021 U.S. Championships, fourth place

Have momentum after winning a lower-level event in Croatia in December, beating a field that included Knierim and Frazier and Calalang and Johnson. Still rank fourth in the U.S. this season by best score among significant events, but as noted not far out from the top pairs. At 19 and 24, they are the youngest of the top U.S. pairs. In the last Olympic year, they won the U.S. junior title, then placed fifth at junior worlds and moved up to senior the next season. They finished sixth, sixth and fourth at senior nationals in this Olympic cycle. In late December, Lu’s face caught Mitrofanov’s toe pick on a death spiral, resulting in four stitches in her left cheek.

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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World champion skier Kyle Smaine dies in avalanche at age 31

Kyle Smaine

Kyle Smaine, a retired world champion halfpipe skier, died in an avalanche in Japan on Sunday, according to NBC News, citing Smaine’s father. He was 31.

Smaine, a 2015 World champion in ski halfpipe, had been doing ski filming in Japan, sharing videos on his Instagram account over the past week.

The native of South Lake Tahoe, California, finished ninth in ski halfpipe at the 2016 Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado.

In 2018, Smaine won the fifth and final U.S. Olympic qualifying series event in ski halfpipe but did not make the four-man team for PyeongChang. His last sanctioned international competition was in February 2018.

Late Sunday, two-time Olympic champion David Wise won the X Games men’s ski halfpipe and dedicated it to Smaine.

“We all did this for Kyle tonight,” Wise said on the broadcast. “It’s a little bit of an emotional day for us. We lost a friend.”

Ilia Malinin wins U.S. Figure Skating Championships despite quadruple Axel miss


One year ago, Ilia Malinin came to the U.S. Championships as, largely, a 17-year-old unknown. He finished second to Nathan Chen in 2022 and was left off the three-man Olympic team due to his inexperience, a committee decision that lit a fire in him.

After the biggest year of change in U.S. figure skating in three decades, Malinin came to this week’s nationals in San Jose, California, as the headliner across all disciplines.

Though he fell on his quadruple Axel and doubled two other planned quads in Sunday’s free skate (the most ambitious program in history), he succeeded the absent Chen as national champion.

Malinin, the world’s second-ranked male singles skater, still landed two clean quads in Friday’s short program and three more Sunday. He totaled 287.74 points and prevailed by 10.43 over two-time Olympian Jason Brown, a bridge between the Chen and Malinin eras.

“This wasn’t the skate that I wanted,” said Malinin, who was bidding to become the second man to land six quads in one program after Chen. The Virginia chalked up the flaws at least partially to putting more recent practice time into his short program, which he skated clean on Friday after errors in previous competitions.


Brown, a 28-year-old competing for the first time since placing sixth at the Olympics, became the oldest male singles skater to finish in the top three at nationals since Jeremy Abbott won the last of his four titles in 2014. As usual, he didn’t attempt a quad but had the highest artistic score by 9.41 points.

Brown’s seven total top-three finishes at nationals tie him with Chen, Michael WeissBrian Boitano, David Jenkins and Dick Button for the second-most in men’s singles since World War II, trailing only Todd Eldredge‘s and Hayes Jenkins‘ eight.

“I’m not saying it’s super old, but I can’t train the way I used to,” Brown said after Friday’s short program. “What Ilia is doing and the way he is pushing the sport is outstanding and incredible to watch. I cannot keep up.”

Andrew Torgashev took bronze, winning the free skate with one quad and all clean jumps. Torgashev, who competed at nationals for the first time since placing fifth in 2020 at age 18, will likely round out the three-man world team.

Japan’s Shoma Uno will likely be the favorite at worlds. He won last year’s world title, when Malinin admittedly cracked under pressure in the free skate after a fourth-place short program and ended up ninth.

That was before Malinin became the first person to land a quad Axel in competition. That was before Malinin became the story of the figure skating world this fall. That was before Malinin took over the American throne from Chen, who is studying at Yale and not expected to return to competition.

Malinin’s next step is to grab another label that Chen long held: best in the world. To do that, he must be better than he was on Sunday.

“You always learn from your experiences, and there’s always still the rest of the season to come,” he said. “I just have to be prepared and prepare a little bit extra so that doesn’t happen again.”

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