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Top U.S. pair Emily Chan, Spencer Howe signal return at figure skating nationals

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Emily Chan and Spencer Howe’s rise last season was a rare sight in pairs’ figure skating. They went from fourth at the January 2022 U.S. Championships to fifth at the March 2023 World Championships.

What made it more remarkable: Howe competed all season with a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

Howe, 27, had dealt with pain for five years, but it became so significant last year that he received an MRI after worlds. The imaging showed surgery was unavoidable, so he got it done as soon as possible, as far out as possible from the next Winter Olympics in 2026.

Chan and Howe compete this week for the first time since March’s worlds. Their season debut comes late at the Prevagen U.S. Championships in Columbus, Ohio, after sitting out the fall Grand Prix Series as Howe worked his way back.


Chan and Howe set a goal as they ramped up to normal practices about a month ago. See if they can get to nationals, and if so, perform well there.

“Already we’ve come this far, and every time that we do set out to face these challenges, it really does allow me and Emily to grow,” Howe said.

Chan competed in both singles and pairs as a pre-teen, but couldn’t do both as she aged into the elite level. She chose singles and won the U.S. novice title in 2015 (at age 17) and the junior crown in 2016.

Howe, who had dropped singles for pairs around the same time, was looking for a new partner before the 2017-18 season. He messaged Chan, who by then was already full-in on singles. He didn’t get a response and later found another partner.

Chan’s first two seasons as a senior singles skater were marred by injuries. Particularly in 2018-19, when acute hamstring pain kept her from qualifying for nationals and had her questioning her future.

Chan still had a desire to skate pairs. U.S. Figure Skating high performance director Mitch Moyer suggested as such to her coach. Chan immediately had a partner in mind: Howe.

She pulled up Facebook Messenger and saw the overture that Howe had sent back in 2017.

“I looked at the message and I was like, ‘Oh, I never responded to that,’” Chan said. “I was like, ‘Do you want to try to do pairs now?’”

The invitation reached Howe at his lowest point in pairs’ skating. The downfall was the onset of right shoulder pain due to a partial dislocation. He didn’t want surgery, considered quitting instead and moved back in with his parents in California.

“For about six months, I didn’t really want to think about skating,” he said. “My mom made me go to the rink and at least skate 45 minutes. But to me, that was very tough.”

So he declined Chan’s offer.

Two days after that, Howe got a call from U.S. Figure Skating high performance director Mitch Moyer. Howe is pretty sure his mom had reached out to Moyer. By the end of the call, Howe changed his mind. He traveled to meet Chan in Texas.

They planned to make their nationals debut together in 2020, but Chan broke her foot in an off-ice triple twist shortly before the event.

They placed fifth at nationals in 2021, and then fourth in 2022.

Then Howe’s shoulder pain intensified in summer 2022. They chose to compete through it and try to mitigate it with physical therapy.

Meanwhile, Chan had pain in her landing foot from plantar fasciitis and repeated ankle sprains.

So they couldn’t train in full for a while. No lifts because of his shoulder and no throws because of her foot.

Yet they finished second in each of their fall 2022 Grand Prix events — after placing seventh in their only previous Grand Prix two years earlier — to qualify for the Grand Prix Final as one of the top six pairs in the world.

Then came a U.S. silver medal, a career-best free skate score at February’s Four Continents Championships (another silver) and a career-best short program at March’s worlds.

Their finish of fifth at worlds was the best for a U.S. pair in their championship debut since Kristi Yamaguchi and Rudy Galindo also placed fifth in 1989.

Chan and Howe credited their success amid adversity to their team, including physical therapist David Merson and their coaches, Olga Ganicheva and Aleksey Letov at the Skating Club of Boston.

“When you have such a great village around you, then you’re able to meet those challenges,” Howe said. “And then in your best moments, you rise above them and you have a sense of victory through those challenges.”

The Chan and Howe of last season would go into this week’s nationals as a considerable favorite given the absence of 2023 U.S. champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, who have stepped away from competition.

This season, who knows. Chan trained by herself in Boston for almost three months last spring while Howe did post-surgery rehab in Colorado Springs. They withdrew before their two fall Grand Prix events as they worked their way back.

The top score from a U.S. pair this Grand Prix season was 177.66 points (Chelsea Liu and Balázs Nagy). Last season, Chan and Howe scored 186.48 and 187.49 at their two Grand Prix events.

After nationals, a U.S. Figure Skating committee will choose three teams to compete at March’s worlds in Montreal.

After last May’s surgery, Howe told Chan that he doesn’t really know what it feels like to skate without pain. It has been difficult to get his full range of motion back.

“A big part of this process has been getting to that place where it’s like, OK, my shoulder now is healthy,” he said. “I’m finally starting to get to a place where it’s like, oh, wow, this is what it feels like to actually be able to skate and not always be dealing and managing with pain.”