Knierim and Frazier first U.S. pairs’ team to lead at worlds in 43 years

Getty Images

Two U.S. pairs’ teams lead the field after the short program at the World Figure Skating Championships, a statement never before uttered.

Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier were first with 76.88 points and fellow 2022 U.S. Olympians Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc second with 75.85 points in Wednesday’s short program.

At the sport’s world championships, ‘small medals’ are awarded to the top three in the short program and the top three in the free skate.

This is the first time in 16 years that any American pairs’ team earned a small medal at worlds and the first time in 43 years that it was gold.

“I think it’s the result of a lot of hard work from the athletes, from the coaches and from the U.S. Figure Skating staff to help ensure that pairs can achieve such a high level of success at the world championships,” LeDuc said.

“I think, as well, we all really respect each other and we have a very healthy, competitive atmosphere around us,” Cain-Gribble added. “We both want to be the best but we’re also willing each other to have the space to do that, so I think it just comes from a lot of success.”

Knierim and Frazier’s score was a personal best — they earned 75.00 points in the Olympic team event last month — and clearly the best performance of their “The House of the Rising Sun” program this season.

“Alexa and I were very proud of what we put out,” Frazier said. “Every time we go out, we’re just trying to grow and grow these programs, so it was a great way to finish this program off for the season.”

FIGURE SKATING WORLDS: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc’s score in Montpellier, France, is their highest of the season. Their only mistake came on the side-by-side triple loop when Cain-Gribble put her hand down on the landing.

“We’re super excited with our performance, super excited for our position right now and super excited about U.S. pairs,” LeDuc said.

The two U.S. teams are within a point of each other, with Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara are over four points back after earning a 71.58. This is the first pairs’ medal for Japan.

The American and Japanese teams separated themselves from the rest of the pack and are expected to remain on the podium. Georgia’s Karina Safina and Luka Berulava are in fourth with 67.36 points, followed by Vanessa James and Eric Radford of Canada with 66.54.

The order of the podium will likely change after Thursday’s free skate: Miura and Kihara enter worlds with the highest free skate score of the season (141.04 from the Olympics), while Knierim and Frazier scored 138.45 points there and Cain-Gribble and LeDuc earned 132.04 points at NHK Trophy in November.

Knierim/Frazier, Miura/Kihara and Cain-Gribble/LeDuc were sixth, seventh and eighth at the Olympics but became podium favorites for Montpellier once Russian skaters were barred from the event, as a result of their country’s invasion of Ukraine, and China did not enter any skaters.

“I don’t care who’s here, who’s not here,” revered pairs’ coach Bruno Marcotte, who works with Miura and Kihara, said during the press conference. “These were all winning performances, no matter who was here.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

French Open: Iga Swiatek rolls toward possible Coco Gauff rematch

Iga Swiatek

Iga Swiatek reached the French Open third round without dropping a set, eyeing a third Roland Garros title in four years. Not that she needed the help, but Swiatek’s immediate draw is wide open after the rest of the seeds in her section lost.

Swiatek dispatched 102nd-ranked American Claire Liu 6-4, 6-0 on Thursday, the same score as her first-round win. She gets 80th-ranked Wang Xinyu of China in the round of 32.

The other three seeds in Swiatek’s section all lost in the first round, so the earliest that the world No. 1 could play another seed is the quarterfinals. And that would be No. 6 Coco Gauff, who was runner-up to Swiatek last year.

Gauff plays her second-round match later Thursday against 61st-ranked Austrian Julia Grabher. Gauff also doesn’t have any seeds in her way before a possible Swiatek showdown.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

Swiatek, who turned 22 on Wednesday, came into this year’s French Open without the invincibility of a year ago, when she was 16-0 in the spring clay season during an overall 37-match win streak.

She retired from her last pre-French Open match with a right thigh injury, but said it wasn’t serious. That diagnosis appears to have been spot-on through two matches this week, though her serve was broken twice in the first set of each match.

While the men’s draw has been upended by 14-time champion Rafael Nadal‘s pre-event withdrawal and No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev‘s loss in the first round, the top women have taken care of business.

Nos. 2, 3 and 4 seeds Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, American Jessica Pegula and Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan also reached the third round without dropping a set.

Though all of them have beaten Swiatek in 2023, the Pole remains the favorite to lift the trophy a week from Saturday. She can join Serena Williams and Justine Henin as the lone women to win three or more French Opens since 2000.

She can also become the youngest woman to win three French Opens since Monica Seles in 1992 and the youngest woman to win four Slams overall since Williams in 2002.

Swiatek doesn’t dwell on it.

“I never even played Serena or Monica Seles,” she said. “I’m kind of living my own life and having my own journey.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Penny Oleksiak to miss world swimming championships

Penny Oleksiak

Seven-time Olympic medalist Penny Oleksiak of Canada will miss July’s world swimming championships because she does not expect to be recovered enough from knee and shoulder injuries.

“The bar that we set was, can she be as good as she’s ever been at these world championships?” coach Ryan Mallette said in a press release. “We just don’t feel like we’re going to be ready to be 100 percent yet this summer. Our focus is to get her back to 100 percent as soon as possible to get ready for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.”

Oleksiak, who owns the Canadian record of seven Olympic medals (across all sports), missed Canada’s trials meet for worlds two months ago due to the injuries. She was still named to the team at the time in hope that she would be ready in time for worlds.

The 22-year-old returned to competition last month at a Mare Nostrum meet in Barcelona, after which she chose to focus on continued rehab rather than compete at worlds in Fukuoka, Japan.

“Swimming at Mare Nostrum was a checkpoint for worlds, and I gave it my best shot,” Oleksiak said in the release. “We reviewed my swims there, and it showed me the level I want to get back to. Now I need to focus on my rehab to get back to where I want to be and put myself in position to be at my best next season.”

Oleksiak had knee surgery last year to repair a meniscus. After that, she developed a left shoulder injury.

In 2016, Oleksiak tied for Olympic 100m freestyle gold with American Simone Manuel. She also earned 100m butterfly silver in Rio and 200m free bronze in Tokyo, along with four relay medals between those two Games.

At last year’s worlds, she earned four relay medals and placed fourth in the 100m free.

She anchored the Canadian 4x100m free relay to silver behind Australia at the most recent Olympics and worlds.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!