DETROIT – Six weeks ago, U.S. pairs skater Ashley Cain laid scared and staring at the ceiling in a hospital in Zagreb, Croatia. Medical personnel were assessing her for possible head and neck injuries after a serious fall during a free skate lift exit in competition.
She needed to mentally get away from growing anxiety, so she started imagining what winning the U.S. Figure Skating Championships title with her partner Timothy LeDuc would feel like. She went through every element in the short program and free skate, trying to keep herself in a positive state.
Cain was diagnosed with a concussion, with her recovery making competing in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in doubt. But Cain healed well, and came to Detroit to be part of the 2019 Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, at Little Caesars Arena.
Her positive visions during a dark time came true Saturday, as Cain and LeDuc cleanly executed that same free program with quiet emotion and confidence to win their first U.S. title. Cain and LeDuc finished with 212.36, second place went to 2017 U.S. champs Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier with 201.64, and Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Nathan Bartholomay were third with 201.64 to match their 2019 placement.
“I told myself I need to remember this moment, because a month from now, hopefully, I will be standing on top of the podium,” Cain said, recalling how she willed herself through that extended emergency room visit. “You never know what is going to happen during that time, but I think having that thought gave me a little bit of hope to have courage to keep fighting and to be OK with the circumstances. I think that is what showed today.”
The moment their music ended, Cain fell to her knees, put her hands to her face and started sobbing with joy. LeDuc stood at center ice with a huge grin. The crowd responded with an immediate standing ovation.
Cain and LeDuc were off the ice for two weeks in mid-December as she healed. Then, they slowly worked on getting their skills and training back in pieces in order to keep her neurological progress going.
“It was really amazing to watch each day,” LeDuc, 28, said. “We came back, adding one little thing at a time. It was like building a castle.”
Cain, 23, added another U.S. title to her resume, as she was the 2010 novice and 2011 junior champion with former partner Josh Reagan. The pairing of Cain and LeDuc is still relatively fresh, as they started competing during the 2016-17 season. In the run-up to their 2016 tryout, she was thinking of retiring, and he was a cruise ship skating performer.
Cain and LeDuc separated themselves from the 2019 field with their precise and complex jumps. They pulled off a side-by-side triple loop, and a triple salchow, double toe, double loop combo with power and control in the free. Their lifts and throws were big and showy, too.
The informed Detroit skating crowd reacted with a huge cheer when they nailed the lift and exit that brought them such peril in Zagreb.
“We were so dialed in, that nothing was going to affect us. I didn’t even have a thought in my head when we went up on that lift, you know, like what could go wrong,” Cain said. “I was thinking solely on technique. Do what we know. But when the crowd erupted, it was actually a little bit funny. Because that has been happening in practice all week, people have been cheering when we do that lift and finish it out.
“I think that it just shows that everybody in the audience, as well as the judges, they are all on this journey with us. They were in that program with us, and watched us get to this moment, and we just want to thank everyone for that support.”
LeDuc has also seen immense support from the skating community when it comes to his personal life. He is believed to be the first openly gay athlete to win the U.S. pairs title, which meant a great deal to him.
"I’m very grateful. I stand on the shoulders of many great athletes who have come before me and allowed me to be open," LeDuc said. "I believe I am the first openly queer person to win the U.S. pairs title. Rudy Galindo and Randy Gardner came before but I don’t believe they were out.
"Queer people still face a lot of challenges in this country. We’re still fighting for equality. I know for me personally I spent a lot of my earlier life self-deprecating because I didn’t understand who I was, and it’s taken years and years of work to overcome that; I still doubt myself sometimes. To be standing here today as the first openly queer athlete, I don’t say that to honor myself, I say it to show to others that you can do this, you can overcome, and you are worth it; you don’t have to doubt yourself for any reason."
While Cain and LeDuc were overcome with happiness after their performance, others were dealing with free skate disappointment.
Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, the 2016 U.S. champions, led after the short program by a slim 1.36 over Cain and LeDuc. Kayne and O’Shea nearly made it strongly through their free until disaster struck on their last element. He lifted her, getting Kayne’s horizontal body nearly to his shoulders in the progression, but she told him to stop and looked in pain.
The lift was over. It would result in a major and title hope-ending deduction, at least 5 points for missing the lift, but more likely around eight-to-10 because of their planned degree of difficulty. They executed their choreography to the final seconds of the music, but their body language showed they knew the damage was done.
Kayne was inconsolable at the end. She apologized to O’Shea, and he kept repeating, “It’s OK, it’s OK,” as he wrapped her in hugs. They finished fourth, at 198.64, 14 points out of first place.
Olympic team medalists and defending U.S. champions Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim struggled in both programs. The Knierims were seventh after the short, and suffered through falls and a missed lift entrance in the free. They finished seventh.
The U.S. can send one team to the world championships this year, and Cain and LeDuc will likely be chosen by U.S. Figure Skating’s committee.
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.