Ashley Cain-Gribble, Timothy LeDuc take U.S. pairs’ title in head-to-head for Olympic spot

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Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc won their second U.S. Figure Skating Championships pairs’ title and likely earned their first Olympic berth with it.

In Saturday’s free skate, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc extended their lead from Thursday’s short program, totaling 225.23 points to prevail by 15.36 over Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson. It was seen as a duel for one Olympic spot between those two teams.

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc had just one significant error between two programs — Cain-Gribble doubling a planned side-by-side triple Salchow in the free. Everything else was spot on.

“A huge weight has been lifted,” Cain-Gribble said on USA Network.

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The U.S. has two Olympic pairs’ spots, but 2021 national champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier look likely to take the other via petition. They withdrew the day before nationals after Frazier contracted the coronavirus.

The national championships are not an Olympic Trials. A selection committee meets later Saturday night to decide on the two U.S. pairs, taking into account results dating back to the 2021 U.S. Championships. The Olympic pairs’ teams are expected to be announced Sunday morning.

Cain-Gribble, 26, and LeDuc, 31, won the 2019 U.S. title, then dropped to fourth and third the last two seasons. They entered nationals ranked second among U.S. pairs this season, trailing Knierim and Frazier.

“We created a really strong body of work going into this competition,” LeDuc said. “We hoped that everything we did here was confirmation of that, and we even have more left in us.”

That despite Cain-Gribble fighting long-term affects from contracting the coronavirus in the summer. She was briefly in a hospital and later learned she developed asthma from the virus and began using an inhaler daily for training.

Cain-Gribble is set for her first Olympics, a decade after winning the U.S. junior silver medal in singles. She considered retiring in 2016, after placing 14th at senior nationals in singles for a second consecutive year. Instead, she gave one more shot at pairs, where she won a 2011 U.S. junior title before focusing on singles.

LeDuc, third at those 2011 junior nationals in pairs with a different partner, can now become the first publicly out non-binary athlete to compete at a Winter Olympics.

“We want to dedicate these performances and this title to all the people who were told that they didn’t belong,” Cain-Gribble said. “In 2016, I thought my Olympic dream would never come true.”

Calalang and Johnson took silver at nationals for a third consecutive year, after Calalang fell hard on a throw in warm-up minutes before their flawed free skate. Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov earned bronze.

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. Knierim and Frazier are the top Americans in world rankings, seventh this season among teams expected to be in Beijing.

Russian and Chinese pairs are expected to take up the Olympic medal stand.

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