For decades, pairs has been the weakest discipline for U.S. figure skating. The numbers tell the story, and they are bleak:
-The last time an American pairs’ team won gold at the world championships was 43 years ago.
-The most recent Olympic medal: 34 years ago.
-The last worlds medal of any color: 20 years ago.
-The last top-five performance at worlds: 16 years ago.
So of course it comes as a surprise that U.S. pairs’ teams are favored to earn two medals at this week’s World Figure Skating Championships. Better yet, pairs is the only discipline this year where the U.S. is expected to win gold on paper.
The path to the podium was cleared for the Americans when the International Skating Union banned athletes from Russia and Belarus across all skating disciplines until further notice due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and even more so when China did not submit any entries for worlds.
The athletes competing in Montpellier, France – Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc – have been working toward making the U.S. a pairs’ powerhouse again, though no one expected that time to come this soon.
“I think it’s more excitement,” Cain-Gribble said when asked about the pressure now put on both teams. “It’s just a testament to how hard the two teams have really worked this year to build those world rankings, put out solid performances and show that we are world-class teams.
“For us, personally, we’re ready to show that at the World Championships. We’ve had a really strong season so far, we’ve had points that have kept going up and elements that have increased in difficulty all season.”
Out of the 17 teams entered, Knierim and Frazier have the top score so far this season (212.68 from last month’s Winter Olympics). They were sixth in Beijing – the best Olympic finish by a U.S. pairs’ team in 20 years – behind Sui Wenjing/Han Cong, Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov, Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov and Peng Cheng/Jin Yang, all of whom skated for China or the Russian Olympic Committee.
“Brandon and I kind of caught ourselves really quickly and tried to stay away from any thoughts of what that means because we haven’t been in that position before,” Knierim told U.S. Figure Skating Fan Zone. “We went into the Olympics and all of our other events just trying to skate well and it worked, so this time it’s a little different for us because of the elephant in the room.”
Knierim and Frazier has been together less than two years, but that hasn’t stopped them from winning the 2021 U.S. title, placing fourth or better at each of their Grand Prix assignments and seventh at worlds last year. Each was decorated with their previous partner, Knierim winning three U.S. titles and making the 2018 Olympic team with husband Chris, and Frazier winning multiple Grand Prix medals plus the 2017 U.S. title with Haven Denney.
Cain-Gribble and LeDuc, in their sixth season as a pair, were eighth at the Games (behind Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who are also competing in France) just days after Cain-Gribble sprained her ankle and pulled the ligaments and nerve in her right leg during a practice session.
Both their Olympic placement and their score of 202.79 points from the NHK Trophy in November – third highest this season among the field at worlds – have them primed for the podium.
“Being the last competition [of the season], there’s scores that we have in mind that we want to achieve and feelings after the skate that we want to feel, so we’re going more towards that,” Cain-Gribble explained, “because we know that if we just focus on that and not the results and the outcome of it, we’ll put together two performances that we feel like we gave 100% in.”
“It’s a unique situation, but I feel like every competition so far this year has been a unique situation so we’re just kind of adapting to what’s in front of us.”
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