ANAHEIM, Calif. – Ashley Cain woke up Saturday morning and didn’t feel like herself.
She was in a fog.
Cain knew this was a lingering effect of the concussion she suffered in December when she fell on her head coming down from a lift during a competition in Croatia.
But Cain and partner Timothy LeDuc had the pairs final at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships a few hours later.
This wasn’t going to stop her. Not if she could help it.
At the morning practice, Cain said she felt incredibly slow and “totally off.”
Without stopping to take off her skates after the session, Cain talked to the team doctor, who checked her out, gave her electrolytes and followed a protocol.
Cain went back to her hotel, slept, ate a good meal and drank plenty of water. “When I walked back into the arena, I felt like a totally new athlete,” she said.
Cain and LeDuc were the highest-ranking American team at Four Continents, placing fourth – the same as they had in the short program.
Performing to music from the soundtrack “W.E.,” the newly minted national champions scored a season best of 129.33 points, with room to improve on their levels for their lifts and an under-rotation on their side-by-side triple loops.
“There was definitely not a point where I didn’t think I would get out there and at least give my best effort,” said Cain, who held the hands of her parents – who coach the couple – in the kiss and cry area as the score was announced. “There was a point where I was scared, because I didn’t want to fail. But I pushed failure out of my mind and I just allowed myself to skate and I counted on (LeDuc) to kind of get me through the performance and that’s what built me up and gave me the courage to get out there and give my all.”
LeDuc, as always, was there to support his partner.
“I do everything I can to be strong for her and also remember I need to do my job as well,” he said. “I will say overall through this process Ashley and I have come together stronger as a team. Adversity can either break you or bring you closer ... and we’ve gotten closer through this.”
He congratulated Cain in the media mixed zone.
“Your effort today was really inspiring to me,” LeDuc said. “I know I’ve said that before. Everybody knows what we went through, how we came back. And it’s not like we magically were perfectly 100 percent after nationals. Recovery is ongoing for us physically and mentally and we continue to work and struggle through things after nationals to prepare for this competition.”
Cain knows that her concussion two months ago will continue to affect her.
“It’s going to be an ongoing process for probably the rest of my life,” she said. “Anyone I’ve talked to that has suffered a concussion always has moments where they feel the symptoms again and you don’t always know how you’re going to feel when you wake up that day. You do have to do everything you possibly can to make yourself feel the healthiest you can.
“With the month that I had in between Croatia and nationals, I just really stuck to listening to my body and I think that’s why today I was able to understand how I was feeling and know exactly what I needed.”
Olympic silver medalists Wenjing Sui and Cong Han of China overtook Canadian leaders Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro to win the gold medal by a scant six-hundredths of a point, 211.11 to 211.05.
The Canadians struggled on two lifts, earning a Level 3 instead of Level 4.
Cheng Peng and Yang Jin of China claimed the bronze 196.82, with the three Team USA couples going 4-5-6: Cain and Leduc (196.82), Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier (184.18) and Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea (180.36).
Last season, Kayne and O’Shea won the gold medal at Four Continents, with Cain and LeDuc taking the silver.
However, this year, the Chinese and Canadian pairs were more formidable.
Denney and Frazier pulled up from seventh after the short program, while Kayne and O’Shea dropped a place.
Cain and LeDuc will be the lone U.S. entry at the world championships next month in Saitama, Japan.
Their goals are to place in the top 10, which would secure a second Team USA berth at the 2020 worlds, and to surpass 200 points, which they missed by fewer than four points Saturday.
Cain said she was listening to the podcast “The Health Code,” by Sarah Day on the way to the Honda Center.
“It said, ‘I don’t want to be given easy days. I want to be given hard days so I can become a stronger person,’” Cain said. “And I took that mentality today and I think this only sets us up better for worlds because it gave us adversity. Nothing came easy today and we put out a really good performance.”
Cain and LeDuc, the first openly gay skater to win a pairs U.S. national title, are a relatively new team after joining forces in the 2016-17 season.
“This is a year we knew we could have everything that we wanted,” he said. “We had a conversation at the beginning of the season where we said, ‘Yes, there’s going to be a lot of hard times and a lot of hard work needs to be put in, but don’t be afraid of success.’ She said, ‘Come to me if you ever feel fear of failure or fear of success and we’ll work through it as a team.’ There’s been a lot of ups and downs this season, a lot of opportunities that could have broken us apart, but we’ve come together.”
Denney and Frazier, the 2017 national champions, were pleased with their program to “Irrepressibles” music.
They scored a season-best 122.47 points and finished with a tremendous lift.
“We’re just happy that we were able to come out here and not do these performances held back or tight and let the nerves get the best of us,” said Frazier. “I think we did a good job to just come out there and sold exactly what we were trying to build for this season and that’s the performance aspect. We’re not there yet, but now we feel like we have a starting base. And the next step is plugging in all the technical things.”
What can they do better?
“The jumps,” Denney said without hesitation.
She doubled a planned triple salchow and their double axels were downgraded.
“I’ve been getting a lot better, more confident and more consistent in my practice and every day,” Denney said. “I’m a little bit frustrated because I know I’m capable of doing better and that didn’t really show today, but on the other hand, I’m super proud and happy that we were able to stay committed to the program.”
They already have plans for next season and want to begin implementing them while they’re still in shape.
For Kayne and O’Shea, the season came to a disappointing close. At U.S. nationals in Detroit last month, they dropped from first after the short program to fourth after botching a lift in their free skate. Hoping to redeem themselves at Four Continents, they struggled throughout their “Swan Lake" routine.
After they scored only a Level 1 on their triple twist lift, Kayne fell on their side-by-side triple salchows, which meant they couldn’t complete their planned combination. Kayne also fell on a throw triple loop.
“Definitely not my best showing,” said Kayne.
“For either of us,” quickly added O’Shea. “Long program is definitely something we consider one of our strengths and it has been thorough most of our career and through the beginning of the season. The past two haven’t been great. So just gotta shake it off and get back to doing what we know we can do. Practicing great and honestly consistency in skating overall we feel has improved this season and it’s a matter of showing it when it matters, so we’ll make that happen next time.
Kayne said she was thrown off by the problem on the initial twist landing.
“Our twists have been much better recently,” she said, “so to have that shaky start to the program, I immediately tried to focus and get back into it and it just didn’t happen unfortunately.”
O’Shea said they’re excited about the future.
“We both feel healthy at the moment,” he said, “and it’ll be nice to have an offseason where we can work on moving forward and not just work on recovering what we may have lost due to injury. It’s an exciting opportunity.”