Believe it or not, all eyes on U.S. teams for pairs’ podium at figure skating worlds

Figure Skating - Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Day 15
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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.

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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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WATCH LIVE: Ironman Kona World Championships women’s pro race

Ironman Kona World Championship
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The Ironman Kona World Championships return after a three-year hiatus with a new format, live on Peacock on Thursday and Saturday at 12 p.m. ET.

The Ironman, held annually in Hawaii since 1978, and in Kailua-Kona since 1981, was not held in 2020 or 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The world championships made a one-time-only stop in St. George, Utah, on May 7 to make up for the 2021 cancellation. The winners were Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt, the Tokyo Olympic triathlon champion, and Swiss Daniela Ryf, who bagged her fifth Ironman world title.

Both are entered in Kailua-Kona, where the races are now split between two days — Thursday for the women and Saturday for the men.

An Ironman includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a marathon — totaling 140.6 miles of racing. It takes top triathletes eight hours to complete. Very arguably, it crowns the world’s fittest man and woman.

WATCH LIVE: Ironman Kona, Thursday, 12 p.m. ET — STREAM LINK

Ryf, 35 and a 2008 and 2012 Olympian, can tie retired countrywoman Natascha Badmann for second place on the women’s list at six Ironman world titles. Only Zimbabwean-turned-American Paula Newby-Fraser has more with eight.

The field also includes German Anne Haug, the 2019 Kona champ and only woman other than Ryf to win since 2015. Brit Lucy Charles-Barclay, the Kona runner-up in 2017, 2018 and 2019, returns after missing the St. George event due to a stress fracture in her hip.

Blummenfelt, 28 and in his Kona debut, will try to become the youngest male champion in Kona since German Normann Stadler in 2005. His top challengers include countryman Gustav Iden, the two-time reigning Half Ironman world champion, and German Patrick Lange, the 2017 and 2018 Ironman Kona winner.

Also racing Saturday is Dallas Clark, a retired All-Pro NFL tight end with the Indianapolis Colts, and Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indy 500 champion who completed the 2011 Kona Ironman in 12 hours, 52 minutes, 40 seconds.

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U.S. men’s gymnastics team named for world championships

Asher Hong
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Asher Hong, Colt Walker and world pommel horse champion Stephen Nedoroscik were named to the last three spots on the U.S. men’s gymnastics team for the world championships that start in three weeks.

Brody Malone and Donnell Whittenburg earned the first spots on the team by placing first and second in the all-around at August’s U.S. Championships.

Hong, Walker and Nedoroscik were chosen by a committee after two days of selection camp competition in Colorado Springs this week. Malone and Whittenburg did not compete at the camp.

Hong, 18, will become the youngest U.S. man to compete at worlds since Danell Leyva in 2009. He nearly earned a spot on the team at the U.S. Championships, but erred on his 12th and final routine of that meet to drop from second to third in the all-around. At this week’s camp, Hong had the lowest all-around total of the four men competing on all six apparatuses, but selectors still chose him over Tokyo Olympians Yul Moldauer and Shane Wiskus.

Walker, a Stanford junior, will make his world championships debut. He would have placed second at nationals in August if a bonus system for attempting difficult skills wasn’t in place. With that bonus system not in place at the selection camp, he had the highest all-around total. The bonus system is not used at international meets such as world championships.

Nedoroscik rebounded from missing the Tokyo Olympic team to become the first American to win a world title on pommel horse last fall. Though he is the lone active U.S. male gymnast with a global gold medal, he was in danger of missing this five-man team because of struggles on the horse at the U.S. Championships. Nedoroscik, who does not compete on the other five apparatuses, put up his best horse routine of the season on the last day of the selection camp Wednesday.

Moldauer, who tweeted that he was sick all last week, was named the traveling alternate for worlds in Liverpool, Great Britain. It would be the first time that Moldauer, who was fourth in the all-around at last fall’s worlds, does not compete at worlds since 2015.

Though the U.S. has not made the team podium at an Olympics or worlds since 2014, it is boosted this year by the absence of Olympic champion Russia, whose athletes are banned indefinitely due to the war in Ukraine. In recent years, the U.S. has been among the nations in the second tier behind China, Japan and Russia, including in Tokyo, where the Americans were fifth.

The U.S. women’s world team of five will be announced after a selection camp in two weeks. Tokyo Olympians Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles are in contention.

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