Chris Knierim

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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.

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Nathan Chen, Knierims land U.S. contingent in second place after team event

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Grand Prix Final champion Nathan Chen made his Olympic debut in PyeongChang as part of the U.S. quad competing in the team event on Thursday night. Both Chen and two-time U.S. national pair champions Alexa Scimeca Knierm and Chris Knierim contributed their short programs.

Chen scored 80.61 points in after his short program, set to “Nemesis” by Benjamin Clementine. Chen executed the first quadruple flip ever seen in Olympic competition, before tacking on a double toeloop in combination. His planned a second quad jump, a quad toe, but doubled it instead. It was invalidated, and then he fell on his triple Axel attempt.

NBCOlympics.com: Nathan Chen finishes fourth with a fall in team event short

He finished in fourth place in the phase, and earned Team USA seven points. On the NBC broadcast, he said he was disappointed with his performance and because he felt he “let the team down.”

In first place is Shoma Uno, who is often seen as Japan’s No. 2 man behind reigning Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu. Earlier in the week, Hanyu officially opted out of the team event to allow for the maximum recovery time after he injured his ankle in November. Japan is not expected to earn a medal in the team event.

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Uno cracked the 100-point barrier with his first place score of 103.25 points. He earned 10 points for Japan. Alexei Bychenko from Israel is in second place and earned nine points for his country.

Three-time world champion Patrick Chan from Canada finished third overall, earning eight points for his country.

South Korea’s skater, Cha Jun-Hwan, made his Olympic debut by skating in front of a home audience. He scored his country five points by finishing in sixth place on home ice.

Mikhail Kolyada, competing on behalf of the Olympic Athletes from Russia, finished in eighth place and earned the team three points. The Russian squad is widely seen as a medal threat in this event, having won gold in the team event the first time it was contested in 2014.

The sole U.S. pair team at the PyeongChang Olympics took the ice later Thursday. The married U.S. pair, the Knierims, were nearly flawless after their short program. Their “Come What May” performance scored 69.75 points.

Later Thursday, European gold medalists Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov finished first in the pair event, representing Olympic Athletes from Russia. The pair team picked up 10 points for OAR/Russia. Two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford followed for second place, earning Canada nine points. The pair representing Germany, Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, finished third and earned eight points.

The sole U.S. pair team at the PyeongChang Olympics took the ice later Thursday. The married U.S. pair, the Knierims, were nearly flawless after their short program. Their “Come What May” performance scored 69.75 points and earned seven points for Team USA.

NBCOlympics.com: For the Knierims, the Olympic journey is bigger than themselves

The Gangneung venue is where the Knierims returned to competition exactly a year ago, after Scimeca Knierim recovered from multiple abdominal injuries.

The short program phase only includes a field of 10 skaters in the team event. Each earns points for their country, and after each skating discipline finishes the short program phase, the bottom five teams will be eliminated. The top five teams advance and have one entrant perform their free skate or free dance.

Team standings after the men’s and pairs’ short programs:
1. Canada – 17 points
2. United States – 14 points
3. Japan – 13 points
4. Olympic Athletes from Russia – 13 points
5. Israel – 11 points
6. China – 10 points
7. Italy – 10 points
8. Germany – 10 points
9. South Korea – 6 points
10. France – 6 points

Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim named sole U.S. pair for 2018 PyeongChang Olympics

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Married couple and pairs team Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim were selected as the pair to represent the United States at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, U.S. Figure Skating announced on Sunday. The U.S. only had a single pairs quota spot at the Games, its fewest spots since the first Winter Olympics in 1924 in Chamonix, France.

The Knierims are the first married U.S. pair to make an Olympics in 20 years, since Jenni Meno and Todd Sand at the 1998 Nagano Games.

Scimeca Knierim and Knierim won the national title in 2015 and 2018, but the years in between weren’t an easy ride. Starting in April 2016, Scimeca Knierim began suffering from a debilitating stomach illness. She was even throwing up the night before her wedding to Knierim in June 2016. They missed most of the season, returning to competitive ice at the 2017 Four Continents Championships. Incidentally, that event took place inside the same venue that will host 2018 Olympic figure skating.

“This proves that everything I went through was so worth it,” Scimeca Knierim said in a press conference. “I’ll never forget how hard we had to work to get back to the place that we are now.”

The pair has been the U.S.’ strongest, partly due to their high-flying signature element, the quad twist. They are the first U.S. pair to execute the element in competition, doing so en route to their first national title in 2015. They brought it back for 2018 nationals, when Scimeca Knierim’s stomach had healed enough to start training the element in earnest.

At the past three world championships, the Knierims have been the top placing U.S. team:

  • 2017: 10th
  • 2016: 9th
  • 2015: 7th

As the only pair team for the U.S. in South Korea, the Knierims will be responsible for the team event competition short program and free skate on top of the pairs event short program and free skate in the span of about a week. Scimeca Knierim said because they train at altitude in Colorado Springs, Colorado, their bodies would hold up. Plus, she said, she has a spirit that would compete forever; at their first Olympics, they’re seeing this extra responsibility as an honor.

The Knierims join the singles skaters named to the team earlier: Nathan Chen, Adam Rippon, and Vincent Zhou for the men, plus Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu, and Karen Chen (no relation to Nathan).

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, the 2016 U.S. champions and this year’s silver medalists, were named as the alternate team. Kayne suffered a concussion in the 2017 nationals short program and had to withdraw, then recovered from an unrelated knee surgery for much of this season. Kayne and O’Shea only returned to competition in December.

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