The first event up on Thursday evening will be the pairs, a discipline that is historically and currently the weakest among the US field. The last World medal for the US was in 2002, but this event is always an interesting watch at Nationals given how close many of the teams are domestically, even if they aren’t as competitive internationally. However, a number of notable team splits over the past year have considerably narrowed the field at the top.
The New, Old Kids
Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier are both veterans on the US pairs circuit, but this will be only their second real competition as a team. Alexa previously skated with her husband, Chris Knierim, who retired from competition shortly after they won gold at Nationals last season, citing struggles with motivation to continue skating and bouts of depression. About a month after the announcement, Alexa teamed up with Frazier, with Chris continuing to serve as part of their coaching team. Brandon Frazier previously skated with Haven Denny, with whom he is the 2013 Junior World Champion and a four-time Grand Prix medalist. Despite a strong start to last season, Denny and Frazier were plagued by injuries over the years and finished a disappointing fifth at 2020 US Nationals. The team split shortly after Chris Knierim’s retirement, so pretty much everyone guessed that this team-up was going to happen.
So far, Knierim and Frazier have looked strong, if still clearly getting used to skating together. They won Skate America in their competitive debut, an event that was essentially a mini-Nationals given the mostly American field and all-American judging panel, so if they perform well, then they should get high scores at this event.
Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson won the silver medal at last year’s nationals and the silver medal at this year’s Skate America, with jump errors at both events, so they’ll be looking for clean skates to avoid a streak of being the second-best American team. Despite this being only their third season together, they placed fourth at last year’s Four Continents, winning a small bronze medal in the process, so if they maintain their clear upward trajectory and minimize mistakes, they’ll have a very good shot at winning the title.
Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov were the surprise bronze medalists at this year’s Skate America, despite never finishing on the podium at US Nationals or at a Grand Prix event. One of the youngest teams here, they are the 2018 US junior national champions and finished fifth at Junior Worlds that year, so could be really coming onto their own as a senior team. A single competition isn’t enough to project a team’s whole career, but a Grand Prix medal will certainly give them a boost in the judges’ eyes and bring them into the upper tier of this event.
Don’t Count Them Out
Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc were consistent bronze and potato medalists in the US, until their breakout season in 2019 saw them win the national title and achieve a top-ten finish at the World Championships, despite a terrifying fall at the 2018 Golden Spin of Zagrab which left Cain with a concussion and possible neck injuries. (Warning for that footage: seriously scary fall and blatant failing by referees to ensure athlete safety.) Since that stellar Worlds performance, the team have struggled, failing to win a medal on the Grand Prix in 2019, finishing fourth at 2020 US Nationals, and fourth at 2020 Skate America. Given the number of team splits in the past year, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc should still finish somewhere on the podium, but they are a team with a history of overcoming great challenges, so if they are successful with their slightly higher technical content, they will still be in the hunt for the title as well.
The Knierim/Frazier team up has removed one top team from the roster, but this event will also be missing 2016 national champions, Tara Kayne and Danny O’Shea. Previously the longest-running partnership in US pairs, Kayne and O’Shea announced their split last month, following a disappointing fifth at Skate America that came on the heels of suddenly leaving their long-time coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, and not finding a more permanent coaching situation. Neither have said whether they plan to continue skating, but we wish them all the best in their future endeavors.
- The pairs short program will air Thursday, January 14th at 6pm EST on NBCSN and streaming on Peacock Premium.
- The pairs free skate will air Saturday, January 16th at 8:15pm EST on NBCSN and streaming on Peacock Premium.