Haven Denney

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With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Grand Prix Final: Who’s in, who’s on the bubble, and how NHK Trophy impacts the standings

Yuzuru Hanyu, Nathan Chen
NBC Sports
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Some figure skaters, like Nathan Chen and ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, have already clinched spots to the prestigious Grand Prix Final. But the December competition allows for an exclusive six-skater field, which will finalize this weekend after NHK Trophy in Japan (live, on-demand and commercial-free for NBC Sports Gold Pass subscribers).

Let’s examine what scenarios need to play out at NHK Trophy in order for skaters like Olympic champions Alina Zagitova and Yuzuru Hanyu to clinch spots at the event. The Final is Dec. 5-8 in Torino, Italy, site of the 2006 Olympic Winter Games.

Ladies

Two skaters have clinched spots prior to NHK Trophy:

  • Alexandra Trusova (won Skate Canada and Rostelecom Cup), 15, from Russia
  • Anna Shcherbakova (won Skate America and Cup of China), 15, from Russia

They train together in Moscow under coach Eteri Tutberidze and are both in their first season on the senior Grand Prix circuit. Along with Alena Kostornaia, this young trio are capable of some of the most difficult jumps being performed in women’s skating today. The ladies’ standings can be found here.

American Bradie Tennell currently sits third in the standings. She is as close to clinching a berth as one can get without technically doing so. Forcing Tennell out of the Grand Prix Final at this point would require a series of unlikely scenarios to take place this weekend at NHK Trophy.

Tennell would be the first American woman in a Grand Prix Final since Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold competed in the 2015 Grand Prix Final.

American Mariah Bell ended up with the same number of points in the standings as Tennell. However, Tennell wins over Bell on a tiebreak due to her second and fourth place Grand Prix series finishes, compared to Bell’s two bronze medals this season. The first tiebreak procedure is based on highest placement on the Grand Prix series.

Tennell also beats Satoko Miyahara of Japan on a tiebreak, because Tennell’s total combined score is higher than Miyahara’s. They both have a silver medal and a fourth place finish on the series, so the next criteria looks at total scores from both Grand Prix events. Miyahara had appeared in every Grand Prix Final since 2015 and this would’ve been her fifth straight appearance.

The remainder of the six-skater field should be decided at NHK Trophy, where reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova is skating, as is Japan’s Rika Kihira and Grand Prix France champion Kostornaia (16, and also in her first senior Grand Prix season).

Kostornaia will make the Grand Prix Final with a fifth-place finish or higher, while Zagitova and Kihira just need to land on the podium to earn a spot in Torino.

Another note: Four out of the six women’s skaters in the Grand Prix Final field are Russian. Last year, three Russians and three Japanese skaters made up the field. This year, there is likely a little more variety with as many as four Russians, a Japanese skater and an American.

READ MORE: Bradie Tennell’s personality shines through at Skate America

Men

Two skaters have clinched spots before NHK Trophy:

  • Nathan Chen (won Skate America and Grand Prix France) from the U.S.
  • Alexander Samarin (silver at Grand Prix France and won Rostelecom Cup) from Russia

Chen has appeared in the last three consecutive Finals, earning a silver in 2016 followed by winning back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018. The men’s standings can be found here.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu skates this weekend at home in Japan and needs to place inside the top four to clinch a spot in the Grand Prix Final. Hanyu won the Grand Prix Final four straight times in 2013, ’14, ’15 and ’16, but withdrew last year from the Final after qualifying due to injury. In 2017, he couldn’t qualify for the Final due to his withdrawal from NHK Trophy. This will be the first Hanyu-Chen head-to-head since the world championships in March, where Chen earned gold to Hanyu’s silver.

American Jason Brown needs to place second at NHK Trophy to clinch a Grand Prix Final berth, but is very likely qualified even if he places third.

France’s Kevin Aymoz and Russia’s Makar Ignatov would need to win NHK Trophy to clinch a Grand Prix Final berth, and if they earn silver medals they’ll end up in a tie-break scenario with Russian Dmitri Aliev (currently third in the standings; almost certainly guaranteed a Grand Prix Final spot at this point with a bronze at Skate America and a silver at Rostelecom Cup).

Other notes: France’s last men’s representative in a Grand Prix Final was Florent Amodio, who finished sixth in 2010.

This is the first time in Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno‘s senior career that he will miss the Grand Prix Final (eighth at Grand Prix France, fourth at Rostelecom Cup). Uno was on the Grand Prix Final podium four times in four previous appearances.

READ MORE: Will Nathan Chen return to six quad jumps in his free skate?

Pairs

Three pairs have so far clinched spots for the GPF:

  • Aleksandra Boikova/ Dmitry Kozlovskiy (won Skate Canada and Rostelecom Cup) from Russia
  • Peng Cheng/ Jin Yang (won Skate America, silver at Cup of China) from China
  • Daria Pavliuchenko/ Denis Khodykin (silvers at Skate Canada and Grand Prix France), from Russia

Pairs’ standings can be found here.

Sui Wenjing and Han Cong from China compete at NHK Trophy this weekend and can clinch a berth to the Final with a podium finish. The two-time world champions own three previous Grand Prix Final medals, but none are gold.

Anastasia Mishina and Alexandr Galliamov from Russia also compete this weekend and need to finish on the podium to clinch a spot in Torino. They already won Grand Prix France earlier this season.

For Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro to make the Grand Prix Final, they need to earn gold or silver at NHK Trophy. If they finish with bronze medals, they’ll enter a tiebreak scenario with Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov of Russia. That tiebreak will be determined by total cumulative score from both teams’ two Grand Prix events this fall, with the higher score getting the spot at the Final.

Two-time U.S. national pair champions Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim skate in Japan this weekend, too, but they need help in the standings from other teams in order to earn a spot in the Final. They skated in the Grand Prix Final in 2015, finishing seventh (under a rare circumstance where the Final allowed for seven, instead of the usual six, slots). 2017 U.S. national champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier are fifth in the standings for the Final before NHK Trophy, but the three-year long streak of a Grand Prix Final without an American team is likely to continue.

Ice dance

Three teams have so far clinched spots for the Grand Prix Final:

  • Viktoria Sinitsina/ Nikita Katsalapov (won Cup of China and Rostelecom Cup), from Russia
  • Piper Gilles/ Paul Poirier (won Skate Canada, silver at Rostelecom Cup), from Canada
  • Madison Hubbell/ Zach Donohue (won Skate America, silver at Skate Canada), from U.S.

Hubbell and Donohue are last year’s Grand Prix Final champions. Ice dance standings can be found here.

Four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France skate at NHK Trophy and clinch a berth to the Grand Prix Final with a podium finish.

Russia’s Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin also skate at NHK Trophy, and can only clinch a spot in the Final with a win. However, if they finish second to the French team, both will make the Final.

Currently fourth in the standings are U.S. duo Madison Chock and Evan Bates. They earned silver medals at both Grand Prix France and Cup of China, and are as close to certainly getting a spot at the Final as can be without technically clinching a spot. The most likely NHK Trophy scenario is that Papadakis and Cizeron win NHK Trophy, and Stepanova and Bukin finish second – and if that happens, Papadakis and Cizeron, Stepanova and Bukin and Chock and Bates all make the Final.

Other notes: Gilles’ and Poirier’s first and only trip to the Grand Prix Final came in the post-Sochi 2014 season, when they finished fifth.

Prior to Chock’s ankle injury, which kept the duo out of the Grand Prix series and Final last season, they appeared in four straight Finals from 2014-17, earning two silver medals.

The last appearance in the Grand Prix Final by Papadakis and Cizeron was in 2017 – prior to PyeongChang – when they beat eventual Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada. The French couple missed the Grand Prix Final last year because they withdrew from a regular-series event and could not qualify.

READ MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron on ‘Fame,’ chasing history

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: 10 things we’ve learned halfway through the Grand Prix figure skating season

10 things we’ve learned halfway through the Grand Prix figure skating season

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With the senior Grand Prix series at its halfway point and skaters heading for Chonqing, China for the fourth of six “regular season” events, here are 10 things we’ve learned from the series so far:

WOMEN

1. The kiddie corps of Russian women has been even better than expected – and expectations were very high.

Anna Shcherbakova, 15, Alexandra Trusova, 15, and Alena Kostornaia, 16, each has easily won gold in the first three events. Shcherbakova took Skate America by 10-plus points; Trusova won Skate Canada by 10-plus points over reigning Grand Prix Final champion Rika Kihira of Japan; and Kostornaia took Grand Prix France by nearly 20 points over reigning world and Olympic champion Alina Zagitova of Russia.

It is likely that only Kihira, at the season-ending NHK Trophy in Japan, can prevent Russian women from sweeping gold in the six events. That has happened in only one of the four Grand Prix disciplines; Russian men swept in 1998-99 and 1999-00, an era when some skaters did three events instead of the current two.

The three young Russian women have posted the three highest free skate scores in the two seasons of the revised scoring system.

2. The jump revolution in women’s skating, with quads and triple Axels, has had a bigger and faster impact than expected – even though women cannot do quads in the short program.

Trusova’s four quad attempts (three clean) helped her wipe out Kihira’s 7.95-point edge after the short program at Skate Canada. Shcherbakova’s two clean quad Lutzes carried her from fourth after the short (7.5 points from first) to the title at Skate America. Kostornaia’s three triple Axels (even the one under-rotated in the short) were difference-makers in France.

And these stats, courtesy of skatingscores.com: Four women – Trusova, Shcherbakova and juniors Kamila Valieva of Russia and Alysa Liu of the United States, the latter two winners of two Junior Grand Prix events each this season – have done 19 jumps credited as quads in international events (including the free skate-only Japan Open) this season. There had been only 22 other jumps called quads in the previous history of the sport.

The success rate for women’s quads is the big change: Last season, just five of the 16 jumps called quads got a positive Grade of Execution (another got a neutral 0.0). This season, 16 of the 19 jumps have positive GOEs – 12 of them at 2.30 or higher.

3. Mariah Bell’s two strong skates in France produced the second Grand Prix medal of her career, a bronze (after her silver at Skate America in 2016).

More striking: Bell never lost her focus and made no significant mistakes, as she frequently had in the past, and she beat Zagitova in the free skate. Yet it still seems unlikely (but not impossible) that either Bell or Bradie Tennell, second and fourth at her two events, will be the first U.S. woman to qualify for the Grand Prix Final since Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold in 2015. Bell’s second event is Rostelecom Cup in mid-November.

MEN

4. Two-time men’s Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, the sport’s superstar, may be heading for an even higher level of brilliance if his performance at Skate Canada is any indication.

Hanyu’s skating was his finest ever in his Grand Prix season debut. Clean in a two-quad short program, one minor mistake in a four-quad free skate, full of passion and competitive fire, this was a Hanyu asking “Can you top this?” to rival Nathan Chen, winner of the last two world titles.

5. The answer? Chen could not top it – so far.

In finishing first in all four programs at his two Grand Prix events, taking gold in both by a mile, Chen extended his Grand Prix winning streak to eight (including two wins at the Final) and became the first man to qualify for this season’s Final. But just one of his four performances (the short at Skate America) was clean.

Of course, Chen had an even messier Grand Prix record last season, but he improved in each event before lights-out, landmark performances at the U.S. and world championships.

6. All skating fans should keep their fingers crossed for a Hanyu-Chen meeting at the Grand Prix Final, since Hanyu missed the last two with foot injuries. Hanyu’s second event is the series finale (NHK in Sapporo) three weekends from now.

7. Hanyu and Chen are now light years ahead of the rest of the men in the world.

Reigning Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan is struggling, reigning world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou of the U.S. is sitting out the Grand Prix to concentrate on his first semester of college, and eye-catching Kevin Aymoz of France is a year or two from international title contention.

PAIRS

8. Few would have foreseen heading into the season that three young Russian couples, Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin (ages 16 and 20), Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitri Kozlovski (17 and 19) and Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov (18 and 20) would take command of the pair scene so far.

Call it making hay while the sun shines (and the veteran teams haven’t – yet). Reigning world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong (24 and 27) of China make their season debut this week at Cup of China. Reigning Grand Prix Final and European champions Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres (32 and 28) are taking the long view at contending for a 2022 Olympic medal by skipping this season’s Grand Prix for a mental and physical break. Reigning world silver medalists Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov (24 and 27) slogged to third at their first competition.

And a veteran U.S. couple, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier (24 and 26), have stepped into the open space with two second-place free skates to get bronze medals and, if results are jumbled enough the next three weeks, have a shot at a spot in the Final. Only one U.S. pair has made it in the past 11 seasons (Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim in 2015.)

ICE DANCE

9. It is no surprise that there is the team Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, first at the Grand Prix of France, and then there is everyone else. Their “Fame” rhythm dance is disco delight, goofy costumes included, even if it is better in execution than conception. The spoken passages in their free dance are more distraction than enhancement. But the skating – oh, the skating. The attention to detail, the synchronicity, flow, edge work. They are prohibitive favorites to win Olympic gold in 2022.

10. What a battle there should be at 2020 Worlds in Montreal for the silver and bronze medals in dance. Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier of Canada threw themselves into the mix with a Skate Canada upset of Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue of the U.S. (Hubbell and Donohue are reigning Grand Prix Final champions and world bronze medalists who have won medals in 13 straight series events.)

Madison Chock and Evan Bates of the U.S., looking for their first worlds medal since 2016 after 11 straight medals on the Grand Prix, were a solid second behind Papadakis and Cizeron in France. Reigning world silver medalists Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia make their Grand Prix season debut this week. Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri of Italy are contenders, as are Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia. Musical chairs dance, anyone?

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Will Nathan Chen return to six quad jumps in his free skate?

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!