Who would win the pairs competition was a question mark from the outset of the 2020 U.S. Championships. With three teams seemingly in the running for the two spots available at the upcoming World Championships, the stage was set for a battle.
Alexa Knierim and Christopher Knierim claimed top spot in the pairs short program over a trio teams that had previously stood atop a U.S. Championships podium. Skating to Beyonce’s version of the standard “At Last,” the couple showed a technical mastery that has eluded them in recent competitions. Despite a small stumble at the beginning of the program, the elements were more solid than they have been in several years.
That performance also provided an opportunity to shed some of the demons that had been haunting this team since their seventh-place finish a year ago. “I feel like the emotions that I let out at the end have been bottled up inside for a while because it’s been quite a struggle since the post-Olympic season,” said Alexa. “We’ve had a few highs here and there, but nothing really to really made me feel complete inside. I’ve been waiting for this moment to come again. I’ve been dreaming about it, and I’m just really proud that we were able to put it out there tonight.”
The duo has been working with Rafael Arutyunyan and that has “changed everything that we’ve been doing in terms of jumps,” Christopher explained. “It’s not perfect yet, but throughout the season, it has been going in the right direction and, all in all, it’s been better this season than it has been in past seasons. So, overall we’re very happy with that.”
Their score of 77.07 for the segment gave them a six-point cushion over Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, who finished second. Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc rounded out the top three.
Prior to the free skate, opinions swirled as to who would take the coveted title. Intending to show that their win in the short was not a fluke, the Knierims came out ready for battle. However, the long program was a struggle from beginning to end. Though they opened with a soaring triple twist lift and connected on both of their throw jumps — the triple loop and triple Lutz were definite highlights of the program — the side-by-side jump issues that have plagued Christopher throughout his career showed up in the form of a fall on a triple toe loop and a doubled Salchow attempt. Overall, it was an uneven and somewhat tentative performance.
Though the long program lacked the polish and technical efficiency of their brilliant short, the lead they held going into the free proved a blessing for this team, who captured their third national title with 216.15 points in total. “Redemption always feels good,” said Alexa. “It was hard last year to come so low, but we worked really, really hard and we still have work to do. We’re just elated to be able to regain our title again — that makes three. We hope that this continues to push us forward and we hope to compete better at Four Continents and Worlds.”
“We had a great short, and to pull out the win was really special,” Christopher added. “We’ve had lots of ups and downs this year, so it’s a blessing to be on top of the podium.”
In a somewhat unexpected changing of the guard, the emerging team of Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, in just their second season as a team, rewrote the script by finishing second overall with a score of 213.57, just 2.38 points out of first place.
Fourth after the short, Calalang and Johnson created magic in their Calum Scott/Leona Lewis “You Are the Reason” long program. The duo laid down a strong technical routine, nailing both throw triple jumps — a Salchow and a Lutz — and earned high scores for their triple toe loop-double toe loop combination. Calalang and Johnson added a set of side-by-side triple Salchows as the program began to grow in intensity.
The second half of the program was otherworldly in terms of how the duo connected with each other and the audience. It showed the strong connection that Calalang and Johnson have made in their short time together and inspired a rousing standing ovation. The duo won the free skate with a record-high score of 146.01 points.
“I don’t think either of us have had that kind of performance at the U.S. Championships. We’re very excited that we won the free program in just our second season together. We’re just over the moon about that. I don’t really think that it has sunk in yet,” said Calalang.
“The amount of audience support that I felt at the end of that program was overwhelming,” Johnson added. “It was the most amazing thing that I have felt on the ice. I don’t have words to describe it.”
Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea debuted a new short program to Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” after abandoning their “Sweet Dreams” routine after Golden Spin in early December. “The program never quite scored like we felt it could, or even we felt it should. It just wasn’t coming across to other people,” O’Shea explained.
Sitting in second after the short in Greensboro, Kayne and O’Shea struggled with the landings on the throw triple jumps — a Salchow and a Lutz — and lost points on the Grade of Execution for both. Though they did have some success with the triple Salchow-Euler-double Salchow sequence and the lift entries and exits were highlights, the program did not have the same quality as the two teams that finished ahead of them.
Kayne and O’Shea slipped to third overall with 204.07 points. “It was not a bad program today. We stood up on everything which is always thing good for us, but we left some points out there,” said O’Shea. “We felt like there was some improvement as the program progressed over the season, and we’re taking steps in the right direction.
“We talked to each other before stepping onto the ice and we said we’re going to do our best with each element and work really hard on rate of recovery— which to us means that after something doesn’t go perfectly, how quickly can we put ourselves back in the program and make everybody forget about the mistake. I think that’s something that we did pretty well in that performance.”
It was a disappointing competition from the outset for Cain-Gribble and LeDuc, the defending champions. The duo received no points for the death spiral in the short after the technical panel determined LeDuc had moved his toe pick before the end of the first rotation. “We did a lot of stuff well, and to be taken down by a death spiral, which is like pairs skating 101 is a bit of a shock,” said Cain-Gribble.
Things did not improve in the free skate. Cain-Gribble two-footed the landing of their throw triple Lutz attempt, and the team received a downgrade for the backend of a triple Salchow-double toe loop-double loop combination. They finished fourth with 197.12 points.
“We have a lot of good valuable lessons to take away from this competition,” LeDuc said. “I feel like we both tried our absolute hardest. We felt a lot of pressure going into this competition, not just defending the title, but also for us as athletes.”
The woes continue for Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier who had a disappointing free skate and finished fifth overall with 186.25 points.
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