On Thursday, it was the senior pairs turn to jump into the pressure cooker at the 2018 U.S. Championships.
After missing last season’s competition due to illness, 2015 national pairs champions Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim rose to the occasion and topped the field after the short program. The married couple earned 71.10 points to take a narrow two-point lead into Saturday’s free skate.
“The score was good, our biggest of the season, but that’s to be expected at nationals,” Knierim said. “It was definitely an improvement on our Grand Prix season and our Senior B. Everything is finally coming together and we’re both feeling 100 percent in training. We’re just happy that everything’s coming together, because it’s been a long two years.”
The Knierims’ performed well in their “Moulin Rouge” program, but there were mistakes. Knierim stepped out of the side-by-side triple Salchows, and later the duo averted disaster as Scimeca-Knierim’s blade got stuck in Knierim’s pants on the approach to the throw triple flip. “It was a pretty close call. I cut a hole in his pants. I did nick it,” Sciemeca-Knierim said. “We were lucky we had enough speed and confidence.”
In the final days leading up to Olympic team selection, this team appears relaxed and comfortable with the case that they have made to earn Team USA’s lone pairs berth. Still, they do not plan to be complacent about the their approach to Saturday’s free skate. “We are aware of the criteria U.S. Figure Skating uses, and we know where we stand in that different criteria, so we’re confident in that aspect,” Knierim said.
“But regardless of whether we’re the leading team and we’re supposed to go — whatever — we still need to skate well. We can’t come in here and have two bad skates, get third or fourth place or be off the podium and be named to the team and feel confident about that. If you’re going to an Olympic Games, you need to go in high and you need to go in confident, and that’s what we plan on hopefully doing this week.”
Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, the 2016 champions, made a glorious return to the Championships after withdrawing from last year’s competition due to injury. They stand in second place with 68.93 points with an error-free performance to music from “Phantom of the Opera.”
“I was off the ice for five months so it is really nice to get off the ice just feeling good about ourselves,” Kayne said.
O’Shea added, “It is very nice to be back, be healthy and, as Tarah said earlier, to feel good and feel comfortable.”
Kayne and O’Shea earned positive grades of execution on all but one element — the twist lift received a Level 2. In just the second competition since last season’s NHK Trophy, the duo feel they are getting back to the level they enjoyed before the injury. “It’s been about two months of doing all the elements so far, so we’re happy that we’re kind of hitting our stride,” O’Shea said. “It was a little later than what we hoped for, but better than what was predicted, so that was good news for us.”
Finishing in third place were last year’s pewter medalists, Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Nathan Bartholomay with 67.84 points. Like their training mates Kayne and O’Shea, they also skated a clean performance. “It was nice. It was a little rough around the edges here and there, but I mean, we’re happy with it,” Bartholomay said. “Obviously a lot of stress, a lot of pressure goes into this year especially — but every competition really — and we really felt like we held ourselves together and gave a strong performance.”
Performing to The Canadian Tenors version of “Hallelujah,” Stellato-Dudek and Bartholomay missed levels on three elements, but managed to earn positive grades of execution across the board. “It felt pretty good. Just the same thing, almost like it was a Monday morning first-time skate,” Stellato-Dudek explained. “We clicked heels into the throw, we clicked blades, just the little messy things. And I think the competition is so close that that cost us a little bit, but it’s OK. The competition is close so that’s also the good news.”
Last year’s champions, Haven Denney and Brandon Frasier doubled the side-by-side triple Salchow jump, and finished in fourth place with 63.63 points.
“I think today we had some really solid things that we’re proud of. We had a big technical mistake on our side-by-side jumps, so that kind of affected the scores in a big way,” Frazier said. “So of course we are a little disappointed. We lost a few levels and we left points out there today. So you know…when you see that after you’re done you bite your teeth a little bit.”