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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Diana Taurasi says 2024 Paris Olympics ‘on my radar’

Diana Taurasi

Diana Taurasi said immediately after winning her fifth Olympic gold medal in Tokyo that she might try for a record sixth in Paris.

It’s still on her mind 17 months out of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“It’s something that it’s on my radar,” Taurasi told The Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday after the first day of a USA Basketball training camp in Minnesota, her first national team activity since Tokyo. “I’m still competitive, still driven, still want to play, I still love being a part of USA Basketball.”

Taurasi will be 42 at the time of the Paris Games — older than any previous Olympic basketball player — but said if she’s healthy enough she’d like to give it a go.

“If the opportunity comes to play and be a part of it, it’s something I’ve always taken a lot of pride in,” said Taurasi, who shares the record of five Olympic basketball gold medals with the retired Sue Bird. “When you get to my age at this point in my career, you just try to win every day. Right now this is a good opportunity to be part of this team moving forward we’ll see what happens.”

She said she would have played at the FIBA World Cup last year in Australia, but had a quad strain that kept her out of the end of the WNBA season.

“I got hurt a little bit before. I had a good conversation with Coach (Cheryl) Reeve and (USA Basketball CEO Jim) Tooley. I felt like I hadn’t played enough basketball to be out there and help,” Taurasi said. “That’s the biggest thing with USA Basketball is being able to help the team win.”

Reeve said Monday that when she succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach a few months after Tokyo, she wasn’t sure whether Taurasi would play for the national team again. That was before her conversation with Taurasi.

“I look forward to having a chance to have her be around and be, as I told her, a great voice,” Reeve said. “Obviously, the competitive fire that she competes with is something that we all do well with.”

In Tokyo, Taurasi started all six games and averaged 18.8 minutes per game, sixth-most on the team (fewer than backup guard Chelsea Gray). Her 5.8 points per game were her fewest in her Olympic career, though she was dealing with a hip injury.

Taurasi is an unrestricted free agent although she is expected to return back to Phoenix where she’s spent her entire career since getting drafted No. 1 overall in 2003.

“Phoenix still has things they need to work out,” the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer said.

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Alexis Pinturault wins world championships combined; American in fourth


France’s Alexis Pinturault won the world Alpine skiing championships combined at his home venue after defending world champion Marco Schwarz blew a lead in the final seconds of his slalom run.

Pinturault, a 31-year-old who hadn’t won a race in nearly two years (the longest drought of his distinguished career), prevailed by one tenth of a second over the Austrian Schwarz in Courchevel, France.

“I hope to enjoy it because it was pretty difficult some months ago,” Pinturault said.

Austrian Raphael Haaser took bronze in an event that combined times from a morning super-G run and an afternoon slalom run, one day after his older sister took bronze in the women’s combined.

River Radamus was fourth, a quarter of a second from becoming the first U.S. man to win an Alpine worlds medal since 2015. Radamus’ best event is the giant slalom, which is scheduled for Feb. 17 at worlds.

“It’s nice, but honestly, you don’t come to world championships hoping to get fourth,” Radamus said.

Five skiers finished within 2.98 seconds of the winner in an event that has been dropped from the annual World Cup schedule and is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

ALPINE WORLDS: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Pinturault had the fastest super-G run by six hundredths over Schwarz. Schwarz, a slightly better slalom skier than Pinturault, erased that deficit early in the slalom and had a three tenths lead at the last intermediate split.

He gave it all away about six gates from the finish, slamming on the brakes. Moments later, he crossed the finish line one tenth behind Pinturault, who reacted by pumping his fists in the air.

The Frenchman earned his first race victory since the March 2021 World Cup Finals giant slalom, where he clinched his first World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing. Last season, Pinturault went winless on the World Cup for the first time since he was a teenage rookie in 2011, plus went medal-less at the Olympics.

Pinturault, who grew up in Courchevel and now co-owns the family’s five-star Hotel Annapurna there, had retirement cross his mind in the offseason, according to Eurosport. He skipped a pre-worlds Sunday press conference due to illness.

Nonetheless, Pinturault was on the front page of French newspapers this week, including L’Equipe on Tuesday. In a sports cover story for Le Figaro, Pinturault said that, given the circumstances, it would be almost a “nice surprise” to go for a medal at these worlds.

Olympic champion Johannes Strolz of Austria skied out of the slalom after tying for 29th in the super-G.

Olympic silver and bronze medalists Aleksander Aamodt Kilde of Norway and Jack Crawford of Canada were among the speed specialists who did not start the slalom. They essentially used the event as a training run for Thursday’s super-G.

Worlds continue Wednesday with the women’s super-G, where Mikaela Shiffrin is a medal contender but not the favorite. She can tie the modern-era records for individual world championships gold medals (seven) and total medals (12).

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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