By Darci Miller | Jan. 19, 2017, 10:01 p.m. (ET)
Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc compete in the short program at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Sprint Center on Jan. 19, 2017 in Kansas City, Mo.


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A lot can change in a year.

A year ago, Haven Denney was rehabbing from a brutal knee injury, relearning how to do basic elements at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

A year ago, Timothy LeDuc was skating in shows on cruise ships and traveling the world with his sister.

A year ago, Deanna Stellato-Dudek hadn’t touched her skates in almost 16 years.

Now all three are make up one half of the three teams occupying the top three spots after the pairs short program at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City, Missouri.

LeDuc and Ashley Cain hold the top spot with a score of 69.33. Denney and Brandon Frazier are in second with 65.39, and Stellato-Dudek and Nathan Bartholomay are third with 65.04.

“We’re a first-year team, so our expectations are just to stay together, to improve at every competition we’ve done this season,” LeDuc said. “We can’t push ourselves too far too fast. We’re very happy with this short program today. It’s another step forward for us.”

Cain previously competed both singles and pairs skating for many years. She then focused almost exclusively on singles for several years before teaming up with LeDuc, who hadn't skated competitively in two years, in June 2016, taking fourth at the 2016 Nebelhorn Trophy and third at the Golden Spin. The two skated their short program to “I Put A Spell On You” by Annie Lennox, electrifying the crowd with their passion and obvious chemistry.

“We definitely draw strengths from each other,” LeDuc said. “I think synergy is such an important part of pairs skating, to be able to rely on each other well and work together as a team. That came very quickly for Ashley and I. And I think it’s probably one of our biggest advantages, the relationship that we have on the ice.”

Sitting in third place with Bartholomay, Stellato-Dudek still can’t believe she’s at nationals at all. Previously a singles skater, she hung up her skates “for good” after injuries derailed her career… in 2001. Now 33 years old, she’s living out her dream alongside a 2014 Olympian all too happy to show her the ropes. Bartholomay competed at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games with Felicia Zhang, who has since retired. His ensuing partnership didn’t work out, and he found himself a single pairs skater turning to a coaching career. The two linked up barely six months ago and are now primed for their first podium finish together.

“I’ve dreamt about this moment, so I’d say ‘surreal’ would be a good word to use,” Stellato-Dudek said.

“We’re really excited to be in the position we’re in,” Bartholomay said. “We’re a very new team with not a whole lot of expectations, but we’ve really kind of kept it together for our competition just like we have in practice every day, so we’re going to put our heads down and carry forward with that.”

Denney and Frazier, on the other hand, have competed together on-and-off since they were children. Their current partnership dates back to 2011, but they also skated together from 2005-2008. Even before that, the two competed in roller figure skating together for two years, placing second in elementary pairs at the 2002 U.S. Championships. The only team of the three with prior nationals experience together, they took silver in 2015 and gold at the junior level in 2012.

But in April 2015, Denney tore her ACL, LCL and meniscus, an injury that required surgery. Prior to Skate America in October, when they won silver, their last competition had been in April 2015. Denney took the ice at the U.S. championships with a knee brace visible beneath her tights. While their program wasn’t the cleanest they’ve ever skated it, they’re pleased with how far they’ve come in a year.

“One year ago today, Haven and I watched the [2016 nationals] free skate from my dorm room [at the Olympic Training Center], and it was super inspiring to watch,” Frazier said. “But it was also such a tough thing to swallow as well, because we want to be there. We’re still coming back, but I think it’s safe to say Haven and I have the utmost respect for everybody in this competition and who’s standing here today. It’s such a privilege to be here.”

That sense of gratitude was echoed by each team, but all are aware of the free skate to come. Lurking just behind are 2014 Olympian Marissa Castelli and partner Mervin Tran in fourth with 64.29, and reigning national champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea in fifth with 61.80. Both teams were undone by falls in their short programs but could easily vault onto the podium with a clean free skate.

“I definitely think on Saturday night there’s going to be a ton of redemption skates,” Cain said. “All of these pair teams are fired up and they’re ready to go and give 100 percent. And I think for the three of us sitting here, we’re so honored to be in this position and we want to go out and give everything we have.”