Brandon Frazier

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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.’”

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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: Canadian ice dancers overcome wardrobe malfunction at nationals

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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At Skate America, what happened in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — As always in Sin City, there were highs, along with a few lows. Final thoughts from Skate America …

Reign of the A’s: The start of the Grand Prix series marked the debut of the trio some fans call the “3As” — Alexandra Trusova, Anna Shcherbakova and Alena Kostornaia, the Russian teens who among them won seven Junior Grand Prix events last season. Trusova also captured the world junior crown. (There are other young Russian “As,” but we’ll stick with these three for now.)

What’s chilling for their competitors, and any coach not named Eteri Tutberidze, is that the three skaters have a chance of duplicating the feat this season in the senior ranks: win every Grand Prix plus the world crown, with a raft of Challenger Series events thrown in for good measure.

At Skate America, Shcherbakova, 15, brushed off a fourth-place short program by landing two quadruple Lutzes in her free skate, one in combination.

The 33.45 points earned for the jumps contributed mightily to her 92.2-point technical score, more than compensating for two under-rotation deductions later in the program. Despite holding a 7.5-point lead after the short, and earning higher program component scores for a nearly-clean free skate, silver medalist Bradie Tennell couldn’t begin to fend off the young Russian.

Tennell’s challenge continues: The 2018 U.S. champion faces Trusova at Skate Canada this weekend. Trusova broke the free-skate record (163.78 points) at a Challenger event in Slovakia last month, hitting three quads. Needless to say, she won.

In Vegas, Shcherbakova acknowledged internal competition at Tutberidze’s Moscow training rink.

“Of course, we practice together and see what (the) other girls are jumping,” she said. “Every day we want to improve more and more, because we see the other girls do more quads.”

Tennell took positives from Vegas, including a personal-best short program (75.10). But at the final press conference, she couldn’t hide a bit of frustration to this reporter’s admittedly leading question about how difficult it was to mute the quad talk.

“When you hear something over and over, it’s kind of like reprimanding a child. They just start tune it out,” Tennell said. “Everybody is so quad-crazy. … For me, it’s just better to tune out all of the buzz and focus on what I can do well.”

MORE: Tennell’s personality breaks through at Skate America

Skaters, check your protocols: Not only did the 21-year-old Tennell have quads to contend with, but a scoring error by the technical panel shaved several points off of her free skate. The error had no impact on the Skate America standings, but points earned during Grand Prix events are used to break ties to decide who competes at the Grand Prix Final.

Tennell opened her free skate with her most difficult element, a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination. She executed the same combination in the second half of her program, but the panel identified it as a triple-double.

Per ISU rules, an appeal is not permitted except in the case of an incorrect mathematical calculation; wrong identification of an element does not qualify. The rules do allow for a correction to be made, however, when an element misidentification is brought to the referee’s attention prior to the award ceremony. A spokesman for U.S. Figure Skating said that the organization did go to the ISU prior to the award ceremony, and was only told that an appeal was not permitted. No correction was made and Tennell’s score stood.

An ISU technical specialist, who consented to be interviewed about procedures, explained.

“Technical specialists call (identify) elements, which data entry operators enter into the judging system,” the technical specialist said. “At the end of the program, the data entry operator reads the list of elements, and the technical controller and assistant technical controller review the list for accuracy. Somehow, the error escaped notice.”

“Things like this should not happen,” Denise Myers, Tennell’s coach, relayed via text. “This is only the second time in my career (an error like this) happened.”

“I will say, every time something unusual happens, the ISU reviews the procedure and asks, ‘How can we prevent it from happening again?’” the technical specialist said. “This time, it was caught too late. If it had been caught before the ceremony started, it could have been changed … but human beings are not machines.”

No rest for U.S. ice dancers: Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue defended their Skate America title, the 11th straight time a U.S. couple won the event. With Donohue suffering a severe bout of bronchitis, the couple showed a well-earned sight of relief.

Still, the world bronze medalists narrowly lost the free dance to Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia, fourth in the world last season.

“There were good things and not-so-good things,” Hubbell said after the free dance to country-rock music from “A Star Is Born,” later adding, “It felt like there was a lot of energy missing. … It wasn’t the kind of performance we know we can give in that program.”

Antibiotics are on the menu for Donohue; he and Hubbell compete at Skate Canada in Kelowna, B.C., this week.

There, they will not face a world top-five dance couple. But the free dance result at their home Grand Prix shows the tough competition among the handful ranked below Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France. The two-time U.S. champions will want to make a statement in Kelowna.

“I hope to have two healthy lungs for Skate Canada,” Donohue said.

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue give U.S. ice dance 11 straight Skate America titles

A high for Denney and Frazier: Still just 23 and 26, respectively, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have had a roller-coaster career, marked by coaching changes and Denney’s severe knee injury that forced them to sit out the entire 2015-16 season.

Judging by their free skate, the roller coaster is on the ascent. Spectacular lifts and clean triple Salchows gave the U.S. silver medalists the second-highest technical score of the day, and a career-high 125.36 points. Their bronze is their third Skate America medal.

“Man, I told Haven a week ago that sometimes there’s been more stress than there needs to be to compete,” an emotional Frazier said. “I just want to enjoy it again. … I haven’t felt like this in a long time. We know there is a lot of pressure on these jumps, we want to hit them more than anything, and this was the first baby step in rebuilding our foundation.”

“I like to think outside of the box, I come up with some crazy things sometimes,” the skaters’ coach, John Zimmerman, said of the lifts, including a thrilling variation of “fly high, say bye” at the end of the routine. “They both have a lot of courage.”

Chen hip-hops on: In his teleconference prior to Skate America, Nathan Chen told reporters “three quads are a given” in his free skate. He was as good as his word, hitting Salchow, flip and toe to “Rocket Man.”

He also performed a hip-hop sequence so entertaining that coach Rafael Arutunian said, “you cannot feel he has blades on. He manipulates his feet like he is in shoes.” He won by 44 points over Jason Brown, who debuted a stirring free to “Schindler’s List.”

Not much else to say, except that Chen’s top competition in Vegas – Jin Boyang of China – looked way out of sorts, falling twice in his free on usually reliable quads.

After a strong short, bronze medalist Dmitri Aliev of Russia was sloppy in his free, making jump mistakes and not performing his choreography up to his capabilities. Their inconsistency shows why Brown – always armed with well-trained choreography, ready to wring out every possible point in steps and spins – is able to use his skating skills and showmanship to stay near the top, despite not performing quads.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the scoring issue related to Tennell’s free skate. It wasn’t that U.S. Figure Skating did not file an appeal, it’s that one was not permitted under the circumstances. 

MORE: Jason Brown on concussions, delayed start to season

MORE: Karen Chen balances Skate America with Cornell

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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Pairs vie for one Olympic spot at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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When Alexa Scimeca Knierim dropped below 90 pounds in 2016, debilitated by a life-threatening illness, it was hard to believe she and her husband would arrive at this point, days before the Olympic team is named.

Alexa and Chris — the Knierims — are the prohibitive favorites to claim the lone U.S. Olympic pairs figure skating spot.

The U.S. will send its smallest pairs contingent to the Games since the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Pairs is the U.S.’ weakest figure skating discipline. No Olympic medals since 1988.

A U.S. Figure Skating committee will announce the Olympic team after the pairs free skate at nationals on Saturday.

The Knierims could be that team even if they are beaten in San Jose and haven’t won the national title since 2015.

That’s because the Knierims have been the top-scoring U.S. pair in international competition each of the last four seasons.

And because the committee chooses the Olympic figure skating team based not only on nationals results, but also on performances from the last year.

“We are in a good place with the criteria set out,” Chris Knierim said.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier won the U.S. title last season but were 20th at worlds, the main reason why the U.S. failed to qualify multiple pairs for the Olympics.

The Knierims were absent from last January’s nationals due to Alexa’s illness and three abdominal surgeries but returned and were 10th at worlds.

Denney and Frazier know that a repeat national crown might not be enough to get to PyeongChang.

“Whether we agree or disagree, our federation has every right to make their decisions,” Frazier said. “It is completely out of our control.”

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Alexa Scimeca Knierim/Chris Knierim
2015 U.S. champions
Top U.S. pair at last three world championships
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 1st

The top-scoring U.S. pair in international competition every season in this Olympic cycle. The wed in June 2016, during a stretch where Alexa suffered from a mysterious illness that kept them from training for seven months. She underwent three abdominal surgeries, resulting in a several-inch scar running north-south on her belly.

The Knierims returned to competition in February and immediately posted the highest score by a U.S. pair for the season. Then they were 10th at worlds, again better than any other U.S. pair in this Olympic cycle.

“Physically, I didn’t believe I would be able to be in the position I am today,” Scimeca Knierim said. “Grateful to have the chance to skate again.”

This season, the Knierims competed three times in the fall and posted the three highest scores by U.S. couples across all competitions. They’re ranked 16th in the world, struggling with side-by-side jumps but intending to bring back their quad twist this week.

Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier
2017 U.S. champions
Two-time Skate America silver medalists
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 5th

Denney and Frazier are the defending national champs and the only U.S. pair to make a Grand Prix podium in either of the last two seasons. Yet they are decided underdogs this week.

A big reason why was their 20th-place at worlds, counting two falls in the short program and failing to advance to the free skate. The disaster meant the U.S. qualified one pair spot for the Olympics rather than the two they had at the previous five Winter Games.

The former roller skating pairs team was seventh in both Grand Prix starts this fall, their lowest finishes in four senior seasons together.

Ashley Cain/Tim LeDuc
2017 U.S. bronze medalists
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 4th

They topped the short program at last season’s nationals eight months after first teaming up. LeDuc had not competed in pairs since the 2014 U.S. Championships. Cain was nearly 4 1/2 years removed from her last pairs event.

Cain and LeDuc go into nationals ranked fourth among U.S. pairs this season, but unlike the Olympic contenders ahead of them have not competed domestically. They counted at least one fall at all three of their international events in Italy, Germany and China.

Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea
2016 U.S. champions
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 7th

The surprise U.S. champions two seasons ago withdrew from last season’s nationals due to Kayne’s concussion after hitting her head in a short program fall. Kayne then underwent unrelated February right knee surgery.

In their return at an early December event, they scored 20 points lower than their personal best.

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