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U.S. Figure Skating Championships pairs’ preview: bunched battle for Olympic spots

ISU World Figure Skating Championships - Stockholm: Day Two

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN - MARCH 25: Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of United States perform in Pairs Free Skating during ISU World Figure Skating Championships at Ericsson Globe on March 25, 2021 in Stockholm, Sweden. Sporting stadiums around Sweden remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Linnea Rheborg/Getty Images)

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This week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships marks the last competition to determine the U.S. Olympic team. Two pairs’ teams will be chosen by a committee to compete in Beijing. A look at the contenders (listed in order of best single total score this season) ...

The top two U.S. pairs are separated by .just .18 of a point by best total score this season in significant competitions. The top four pairs are separated by 7.65 points.

It has been 20 years since a U.S. pair finished in the top five at the Olympics, and 34 years since the last medal.

That doesn’t figure to change in Beijing -- the top teams from Russia and China are in another echelon -- but, as usual and unlike other disciplines, the battles for the national title and Olympic spots are really up for grabs.

Update: Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier withdrew Wednesday after Frazier tested positive for the coronavirus. They will petition for a spot on the Olympic team. More here.

Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier
2021 U.S. champions
Knierim: Three-time U.S. champion, 2018 Olympian with Chris Knierim
Frazier: 2017 U.S. champion with Haven Denney

Teamed up in 2020, after each skater’s previous partner retired, and quickly became the top U.S. pair, winning both Skate America and nationals. U.S. pairs skating has been so volatile that Knierim is trying to become the first pairs skater to make back-to-back Olympics in 20 years (Kyoko Ina, also with different partners). Knierim and Frazier’s spot at the top is under pressure: Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc put up a score at their last Grand Prix event this fall that’s .18 shy of Knierim and Frazier’s best this fall. Then, in their last competition before nationals, Knierim and Frazier struggled in their free skate and were outscored by another U.S. pair for the first time (Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov).

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance | Broadcast Schedule

Ashley Cain-Gribble/Timothy LeDuc
2019 U.S. champions

Fourth at the 2018 U.S. Championships, when only one Olympic spot was at stake. Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title the next year, then the season after that posted the highest international score by a U.S. pair. They have the most shared experience on the senior level of the top U.S. pairs and are right there with Knierim and Frazier this season. However, they have finished better than third at nationals just once, and it’s likely going to take first or second this week to be selected for Beijing. Both skaters came back from concussions in this Olympic cycle. Cain-Gribble contracted Covid in the summer, was briefly in the hospital and later learned she developed asthma from the virus. She uses an inhaler daily for training. LeDuc could become the first publicly out non-binary athlete to compete at a Winter Olympics.

Jessica Calalang/Brian Johnson
2020, 2021 U.S. silver medalists

Should make the Olympic team if they repeat their national championships finish the last two years. However, Calalang and Johnson have never competed at the world championships. The 2020 Worlds were canceled due to the pandemic, and they withdrew before 2021 Worlds due to Calalang testing positive for a banned stimulant. She was eventually cleared, several months later, after it was found that it can turn up in cosmetics that she used. Train with Knierim and Frazier.

Audrey Lu/Misha Mitrofanov
2021 U.S. Championships, fourth place

Have momentum after winning a lower-level event in Croatia in December, beating a field that included Knierim and Frazier and Calalang and Johnson. Still rank fourth in the U.S. this season by best score among significant events, but as noted not far out from the top pairs. At 19 and 24, they are the youngest of the top U.S. pairs. In the last Olympic year, they won the U.S. junior title, then placed fifth at junior worlds and moved up to senior the next season. They finished sixth, sixth and fourth at senior nationals in this Olympic cycle. In late December, Lu’s face caught Mitrofanov’s toe pick on a death spiral, resulting in four stitches in her left cheek.

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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