KANSAS CITY, Mo. – As the only discipline at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships with no past winners competing for the title, all eyes were on the pairs free skate Saturday afternoon to see which new victors would be crowned.
Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier seized the opportunity in front of them and came from behind after the short program to win their first national title.
The longtime partners scored a 122.93 in the free skate to pull themselves up from second and win with a total of 188.32.
Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran, competing in their third season together, finished second with a 186.28, making the biggest move of the day after sitting in fourth halfway through the event.
Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc were third with 184.41. Though they fell from first after the short, reaching the podium at all was a huge achievement for the couple, which teamed up just seven months ago.
“I think Brandon and I have worked so hard to get to the point where we are right now and we still have so much more room to grow and improve, so I’m happy though that that was enough for today,” said Denney, the younger sister of two-time U.S. champion and 2010 Olympian Caydee Denney.
“Wow, what a feeling,” Frazier said of the win. “I don’t think I’ve felt this since we won junior worlds (in 2013).”
The win put an exclamation mark on the team’s comeback season.
Denney and Frazier had a breakout season in 2014-15, taking silver at Skate America for the best result by an American pairs team in six years, then finishing second at U.S. championships and making the world championships team.
But their rise to the top came to a sudden halt when Denney injured her right knee during off-ice training in April 2015, tearing her ACL, LCL and meniscus.
She was finally able to return to the ice in October 2015, but the team missed the entire 2015-16 season while she rehabbed and returned to form.
Competing again for the first time in September 2016, Denney and Frazier quickly returned to the podium, again taking silver at Skate America, followed by fourth at Skate Canada and now their first senior national title.
“Oh my gosh. I’m just so proud of where we are right now,” Denney said. “We’ve worked so hard through our ups and downs and everything. I’m just very, very blessed and appreciative to be here.”
“We’re excited to be out here again,” Frazier added. “We’re back. This entire season has been a comeback season. We’re just getting our feet warmed up again.”
The win is not only vindication for all the work they put in to return from Denney’s injury, but also a culmination of nearly 15 years of teamwork.
The two first teamed up when Denney was 7 and Frazier 10 and they competed in roller figure skating. After switching to the ice, they spent three seasons skating together before splitting up and finding other partners, due to their families living in different cities. They found themselves together again in 2011, almost immediately winning the junior national title in 2012, followed by the junior world title the following year.
Now they hope to make a mark at the senior world championships, should they be named to the team on Sunday.
Also hoping to make that team is Castelli and Train. Their silver medal marked their best finish at the U.S. championships in their partnership. Castelli previous won two U.S. titles and made the 2014 Olympic team with Simon Shnapir, then partnered up with Tran, who previously represented Japan and Canada, in June 2014.
They were able to jump from fourth in the short to second in the long with a free skate to a medley of Journey hits, which they skated to last season as well.
Castelli said the familiarity with the program helped them achieve their best levels all season.
“I was actually thinking about it and I wasn’t even nervous for today because out of the two programs, this one is more settling for me,” she said. “And I really love Journey and I feel like we really brought it home at the end of the program.”
Though Cain and LeDuc finished third, they were perhaps the biggest story of the pairs competition, winning the short and taking third in the free skate after only seven months together.
They put out surprisingly impressive performances for two skaters who had recently taken time off. Cain, who spent many years competing both ladies and pairs at the same time, had not skated pairs since 2012, while LeDuc had not skated at all since 2014.
“Keeping in mind this is seven months, we’re extremely happy with how things went today,” LeDuc said. “Each competition is a step forward for us. We took today as an opportunity to compete in front of the big crowd under a lot of pressure, and we’re very happy with how we stayed on track with our goals, which was to stay connected and keep pushing.”
Cain noted her “legs were crying” by the end of the program, but looking at LeDuc and knowing he would help push her through the program made all the difference.
“We’re still learning how to compete on this stage,” she said. “Each of our international events, they were big stages but they weren’t anything like this with media and practices and looking your best, so it’s a completely different ballgame. We’ve been away from for a while, so I think this was a good test of our character and how we would handle it.”
Another first-year team, Deanna Stellato and Nathan Bartholomay, were fourth, slipping from third after the short. Stellato is a former singles competitor, who at age 33 returned to the sport this season after a 16-year retirement, while Bartholomay is a 2014 Olympian.
The defending national champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea withdrew from the competition Saturday morning.
Kayne fell on their throw triple flip during Thursday’s short program, hitting both her head and her ribs on the ice. After seeing a physician the next day, she was diagnosed with a concussion.
The team announced they will not petition for one of the two spots available on the world championship team as Kayne also needs surgery on her right knee for tendonitis she has been suffering since the summer.