Pairs Figure Skating

Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson
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Can U.S. pair Calalang and Johnson repeat their shining moment?

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Recent results would dissuade anyone from getting carried away over what seems a breakthrough performance by a U.S. pair.

Such performances have happened off-and-on in the past few decades, but not since 2011 has a U.S. pair finished in the top six at the World Championships. And not since 1996 has a U.S. pair won a world medal in a non-Olympic year. (Post-Olympic fields at worlds generally are watered down by the absence of the new Olympic medalists.) And not since 2002 has a U.S. pair won a world medal in any year. And only once (2015) since 2007 has a U.S. pair made it to the Grand Prix Final.

Even with those historical caveats, there is reason to be hopeful about Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson.

Their free skate at nationals was error-free (rare for a top U.S. pair), and it included difficult elements executed well: throw triple Lutz, two sets of triple jumps (one in combination with a double). The only (minor) ding from the judges was a triple twist given a Level 3 instead of a Level 4.

Their skating had suppleness, flow, speed and a bit of the spectacular in a final lift that covered two-thirds of the outer edge of the rink. They have eschewed intricate choreography to emphasize security on elements, a wise choice at this point in a partnership in only its second season. They have improved substantially in a year.

The California-based Calalang and Johnson, both 24, began this season hoping to get invitations to two Challenger Series (B level) events and wound up with two Grand Prix (A level) events, beating the 2019 U.S. champs, Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, in one and muddling through the other.

They then had two flawed skates while beating a desultory field to win December’s Challenger Series event in Warsaw and a flawed short program at nationals. Nothing else they had done this season foreshadowed that sparkling free skate in Greensboro, N.C.

“This was our second year together,” Calalang said. “We weren’t skating perfect at every competition, but we were training really hard, day in and day out. It all paid off to have that moment. No one can take that moment away from us.”

Their challenge at the Four Continents Championships this week in Seoul, South Korea, is to prove that free skate wasn’t a one-off.

“We have to prove ourselves still.”

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Rehashing the momentous free skate in an interview the day after was as entertaining as watching them perform it, given their narration of the often-amusing by-play between them during the four minutes of skating and of what they felt waiting for their scores. Here is an edited transcript:

Have you had time to digest everything that has happened?

Calalang: We’re speechless. Every time we get asked, we’re like, “Did that just really happen?”

At the end, what were you thinking and feeling? And how did you keep it together?

Calalang: Well, actually, from the beginning, we did the twist and we were like, “That was a pretty good twist.”

You’re actually thinking that as you go through it?

Johnson: Oh, yeah.

Calalang: I’m making faces at this one [she nods at Johnson]. He tends to get excited, and then things start to change a little bit, and I just wanted him to be calm.

So, continue the narration.

Calalang: So, then we did the toes (side-by-side triple toe loops in combination with double toes). Obviously, we were very focused on just doing our own jump. I heard the reaction of the crowd, and I was like, “I think he did it. I think we both did it.” But we still had another triple (Salchow) right afterwards… I don’t think I was smiling at all for the first minute.

Johnson: I always like to look around at people whenever I’m skating. I remember going out of the toe into the Sal and looking at the judges and going, “Nope… okay… hold on… I’ve got to do it.”

Calalang: So, then we did the Sals. I can see that he landed. I was facing opposite but I was like (she makes a slack-jawed expression). And I turned around and thought, “Now, gotta be calm.”

Johnson: Then going into the lift she’s like, “Calm, Calm.” (I thought), “Okay, okay, I’ve got this.”

Calalang: So, we do the lift, we do the death spiral, and that’s where we have our slow, breather part.

Johnson: We both look at each other like… (takes deep breath).

Calalang: Easy, easy. We did the throw Sal. Great. Go into the lift. Great. Then we have our choreo sequence, and he’s pulling me around a lot. That’s when we realize we only have three or four elements left. Todd and Jenni (coaches Todd Sand and Jenni Meno, three-time pairs world medalists) heard me talking to him, telling him to be calm, easy, gentle. I go into the throw Lutz and it’s like, “Easy.” And then do the throw Lutz. And then, “Okay. Just two more things left.”

Johnson: The last lift, people started standing, everyone was freaking out, it was amazing. And then I went, “I still have a pairs spin left. Hold on. Refocus.”

Calalang: You don’t want to leave any points on the table. We really had to hone in and make sure we got that level four pairs spin. And then in the spin, I was like, “Did you do (land) the jumps?” I just wanted to double check.”

Johnson: (I said), “Did you do them?”

Calalang: We were like, “Yeaaaaaaaaah.” That was what was happening in our program.

It sounds like a full-on conversation.

Johnson: We talk to each other all the time. It’s a lot of one-word stuff. A lot of facial expressions as well, so when she makes a face, I know what that means.

So when you’re finally done, and you don’t have to focus on being calm or gentle, in your ending pose, what was that moment for you?

Calalang: We were like, “We just did that. Oh, my god.”

Johnson: Speechless, excited relief.

You (Calalang) said, “Oh, my god!” about five times when you saw the scores.

Calalang: In my head I’m like, “We got 119 at Skate Canada. We got 120-something at Warsaw.” So, I was like, “Okay, we did both jumps…maybe 130.” Then it’s 140. Oh, my god, I’ve never dreamed of getting this score. I didn’t think it was possible.

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The score, 146.01, is the highest by a U.S. pair in the two seasons of the judging system’s latest incarnation, which has opened the way to higher scores. A better comparison is that it was 26 points higher than their free skate score at nationals in 2019.

For all that, though, they finished second overall, 2.58 points behind Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim, who won their third title. The Knierims also are competing at Four Continents, in which the pairs competition begins with the short program Thursday afternoon at 2:15 (12:15 a.m. ET).

The Four Continents pairs field is strong. It has three teams who competed in the Grand Prix Final, including the top two finishers: Chinese pairs Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, the reigning world champions, and Peng Cheng and Jin Yang, fourth at worlds last year.

Where Calalang and Johnson finish is less important than whether they can show consistent, high-level skating.

“We have to prove ourselves still,” Calalang said.

She and Johnson have had a shining moment.

The question now, as it usually is for U.S. pairs, is whether it will be just one shining moment.

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

MORE: 2020 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships TV, 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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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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With new outlook and new coaching team, Knierims look ahead

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Two-time U.S. champions Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, who placed fourth at Skate Canada in Kelowna, British Columbia last week, know the U.S. pairs’ scene is growing more competitive with each event this season, and they’re OK with it.

After four podium finishes at the U.S. Championships, including two U.S. titles and five trips to the World Championships, the couple placed seventh in the U.S. last season. At the start of 2019-20, for the first time in years, “the Knierims” were not top on everyone’s list.

“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. “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.”

“We found out after the first U.S. title we won (2015), that is was a lot of pressure to come back and try and win again,” Knierim said. “It doesn’t really matter what we did last competition, or last year, or four years ago. We’re kind of fresh every year now, not worrying about the past.”

After seven years of partnership, highlighted by a team bronze medal at the PyeongChang Olympics, the couple – married since June 2016 – could have retired to enjoy domestic life. Instead, they spent the off-season regrouping, starting with Knierim’s surgery in February to repair a torn wrist tendon.

“We had this really cool flip into our short program lift, and it put strain on his wrist to push me up for the press,” Scimeca Knierim said. “Over time, he damaged it. But we just kept doing it anyway, because it was cool.”

Her husband added what might be a motto for all pair skaters.

“If it’s cool, you gotta keep doing it, even if it hurts,” he said.

After many years in Colorado Springs, Colorado, followed by far shorter stints in Chicago and Obertsdorf, Germany, the skaters completed their move to Southern California, where they began training with Jenni Meno and Todd Sand last November. An earlier coaching arrangement with German Olympic pair champion Aliona Savchenko ended after just a few months.

“There were assumptions of what maybe happened there, but it’s all very positive for us,” Scimeca Knierim said. “We’re on very good terms. We don’t talk every day, but Aliona is supportive and so is her husband Liam (Cross). He texts us a lot.”

As married athletes, Meno and Sand – who won three U.S. pairs titles and three world medals – have a lot in common with their students. The two couples clicked right away.

“I think Jenni and I are very similar in the sense that we are pretty aggressive and assertive on the day-to-day,” Scimeca Knierim said. “She helps listen to me when I have thoughts or emotions, and helps me kind of organize them. Whereas I feel like Todd and Chris are very similar in more of a lowkey energy on the day-to-day.”

“They’ve been through what we have,” Knierim said of their coaches. “They were married and competing and going through all of it. They can understand where we’re coming from, I think better than anyone has.”

The Knierims plan to compete through the 2022 Olympics. Meno and Sand  support that vision.

“It’s very obvious to me they love skating, they love competing,” Sand said. “They feel, and I feel, they have a lot left to give skating, and I’ve really seen that now that we’ve been with them not quite a year yet. Their commitment level to what they do is really impressive.”

The couple opened the season with a silver medal at Nebelhorn Trophy, where excellent lifts showed Knierim’s wrist fully healed. As often happens, though, errors on triple jumps cost them points. To improve that relative weakness, they added Rafael Arutunian to their Irvine coaching team.

Schedules permitting, Scimeca Knierim said, “We work with Rafael privately two days week, and we take his class two days week. That’s been a huge asset training (in Irvine).”

“They’ve made a commitment to working with Rafael on their jumping,” Sand said. “That’s a process as well, but they’re really committed to it. I’m committed to it. It’s something you have to get into your bodies. It’s about putting old habits away and making new habits.”

In Kelowna, the couple landed side-by-side triple Salchows in their free skate, but small errors on triple throws and on their side-by-side combination spins in the short program cost them a medal.

“We’re very disappointed in our spins. They’ve been very good and are something we’ve improved on since last season,” Scimeca Knierim said after the short. “The positive is that it was a great skate. Last year we would have been ecstatic if we skated like this.”

Knierim thinks the free skate in Kelowna was an improvement over Nebelhorn.

“No falls. I fell on the jump at Nebelhorn. All the elements were good,” he said.

Other experts are on hand in Irvine. The skaters occasionally work with five-time world pairs champion Robin Szolkowy, as well as two-time Olympic pairs champion Katia Gordeeva.

“Katia often talks to me off the ice and kind of gives me encouragement or advice if she sees that I’m struggling a bit mentally,” Scimeca Knierim said. “She’s been there and she knows how hard it is to stay optimistic and positive all the time …. She’s very warm and loving and she kind of gives me the confidence and inspiration that maybe I need sometimes. Her belief in us goes deep with me.”

Then there’s Nina Mozer, coach of Russia’s 2014 Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, who consults with several top U.S. pairs including U.S. champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, and the Knierims’ training partners, Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson.

“She’s been very helpful, it’s been interesting to gain her insight,” Sand said. “We have a lot of the same ideas, and then we have some ideas – I don’t want to say  completely different, but maybe she has a different way of going about it. I found that very refreshing. I like the way she works. She’s been extremely helpful in periodizing our skaters a little differently.”

It all adds up to, if not a clean slate, then a new outlook, and a determination to make the final years of their career count.

“I think that this year, we’ve worked really hard with Rafael (on jumps) and I think that’s going to come out through the year,” Knierim said. “It’s exciting to know we can improve. We’re skating because we love to skate. We have just a few more years before we’re moving on from this part of our life.”

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!

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