By Chrös McDougall | Jan. 23, 2016, 7:10 p.m. (ET)
Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea react to their scores competing in the pairs free skate at the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championship on Jan. 23, 2016 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.


ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When Tarah Kayne got off the operating table a year and a half ago, her right femur shaved, her labrum sewed together and four sutures in her hip, her figure skating coach visited her with some words of motivation.

“You’re one day closer to a clean program,” her coach, Jim Peterson, told her.

Kayne and partner Daniel O’Shea had that clean program Saturday afternoon at the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul, Minnesota. With a clean free skate that earned 142.04 points, they had a final score of 211.65 to hold off defending champions Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, who scored 196.80.

For some, the victory over the favored Scimeca and Knierim was a surprise. But not to the winners.

“We have been working so hard that I think anyone who knows us personally could probably see this coming. Maybe not? I don’t know,” Kayne said, with a chuckle. “We do work very hard, though. In some ways with my physicality it doesn’t seem like it would happen, but who knows, if you push hard enough anything can happen.”

The partners who skate out of Ellenton, Florida, took off the grand prix season following Kayne’s July 2014 torn labrum surgery, and they’ve been slowly building up their routines since. They finished third at last year’s U.S. championships, and this season they competed in two ISU Grand Prix events, finishing sixth at Skate America and fourth at the Rostelecom Cup.

Upon arrival at the Xcel Energy Center this week, Kayne and O’Shea were ready.

They won over both the audience and the judges with their short program on Thursday, earning 69.61 points skating to Hozier’s emotionally charged “Take Me to Church.” Then, skating last on Saturday to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “The Music of the Night,” they landed all of their jumps and skated strongly throughout.

“The day in between the short program and the long program, a little bit of doubt does creep into your mind, like, ‘We just had this awesome short program, am I going to be able to follow that up?’” Kayne said. “But I knew with this program, yes I could definitely follow it up. I believe in this program so much, and any bit of doubt that I had, right when the music came on, it was gone.”

Scimeca and Knierim, skating just before the champions, were the favorites coming into the competition. After winning last year’s national title, they started this season strong and became the first U.S. pairs team since 2007 to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. However, competing at that event last month in Barcelona, Spain, they struggled and finished seventh of seven teams.

The struggles continued in St. Paul, where Knierim fell on a triple Salchow in the short program and they finished second with 67.35 points. Their free skate started strong when they cleanly landed a quad twist lift and hit their next two jumps, but things unraveled as their skate went on. Their final score was more than 13 points off their event-record 210.49 set last year.

“It was much improved from the (Grand Prix) Final, and that was one of our goals,” Knierim said. “It's still not up to where it needs to be or can be. Hopefully if we get put on Four Continents or worlds, we'll step up from this.”

The United States will send two teams to the World Figure Skating Championships this spring in Boston.

Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran, the likely world alternates after finishing third, were pleased with their performance, despite a fall in the free skate. They ended with a 179.04 and improved from sixth at last year’s nationals.

“We had an uncharacteristic mistake on our throw, but you know what? We are technically still babies,” Castelli said. “This is our second year together, so we are still growing. We are competing against two teams that have been together for a while, so we are really happy with where we are and what we are able to put out there.”

Chrös McDougall has been a reporter and editor for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.