By Nick McCarvel | Nov. 07, 2019, 6:23 p.m. (ET)

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier compete in the senior pairs free skate during the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 26, 2019 in Detroit.

 

With a roaring and revamped “Lion King” free skate this season, the U.S. pairs team of Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have achieved something that no American duo has on the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series in four years: They’ve landed on the podium – twice.

And both times they’ve beaten the reigning U.S. champions to do so.

You could call it a full circle (of life) moment for Denney and Frazier, themselves former U.S. champs in 2017. After finishing a disappointing fifth at nationals in 2018 – far away from Olympic team contention, they have turned the page on their careers and are eyeing the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 with fervor.

And now have two more elite bronze medals to their names – doubling their career grand prix hardware collection to four in a matter of weeks. And they’ve been on the circuit for six years.

“We set out not to focus on results… we just wanted to focus on ourselves,” Frazier told TeamUSA.org in a phone interview this week. “We played into that. That kept the pressure off of us. We’ve been around a while, but we’re still learning and developing.

“When we go in and focus on ourselves… it shows that we can perform under pressure and it gives us confidence that we can play at that level.”

It’s the kind of skating that Denney/Frazier will need to bring to U.S. Figure Skating Championships in late January, when the best skaters in the country descend on Greensboro, North Carolina.

And while Nathan Chen enters as the heavy favorite in the men’s event, Alysa Liu looks suited to defend her women’s title and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue will go head-to-head with Madison Chock and Evan Bates in ice dance, the pairs competition could be considered the most wide open.

Four former national champion teams are seeking another title – all with the legitimate chance of taking home gold. And two teams will be granted the right to head to the world championships in Montreal.

“When it comes to international competition, we have three top teams… and then you throw in (Tarah) Kayne and (Danny) O’Shea in the mix and it’s a race,” said Brooke Castile, a coach and commentator who was the 2007 U.S. pairs champion with Ben Okolski. “The focus (for the teams) has to turn to not being clean or perfect and just grabbing points. The U.S. teams have gotten lost on being perfect. We need to be consistent to establish ourselves (internationally).”

As Castile mentions 2016 U.S. champs Kayne and O’Shea, Denney and Frazier have twice this season beaten the current and aforementioned national title holders, Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, and the team that last won two grand prix medals in one season is the married duo of Alexa Knierim and Chris Knierim, the 2018 Olympians who grabbed double grand prix hardware back in 2015.

However you mix them, Greensboro is set to be a thrilling weekend of pairs skating.

“It’s without secret that we know that nationals will be a very competitive event,” Frazier said. “We have so much respect for the other teams, (but) at the end of the day, Haven and I know what it means to have a really successful event and then a disappointing one. What we’re in control of is our own ride, that’s it.”

Frazier was mentioning the pressure that he and Denney felt after Skate America, in mid-October, when they skated a near-perfect “Lion King” free, which ends in a breathtaking series of lifts and choreography, to earn the bronze.

That performance put them ahead of Cain-Gribble/LeDuc, who finished fifth, and then two weeks later both of the teams were at the Internationaux de France, going head-to-head again. Denney/Frazier came out on top, even as they knew they were no longer in the pursuit car. They had moved into the lead.

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What Frazier said is important to he and Denney, who have skated together since the spring of 2011, is being reliable for Team USA as they skate internationally, which has been a struggle for U.S. pairs teams in years past. The Knierims were the lone U.S. pair to go to the Olympics as well as the 2018 world championships.

“Our goal is to be reliable for the U.S.,” he said. “We want to put up a good score even if we are having an off day. Our federation knows wherever they send us that we will maintain that level.”

It was a surging Cain-Gribble/LeDuc who won in Detroit in January, then claimed back a second world spot for the U.S. by finishing ninth at last year’s worlds.

But the pressure has changed, too, for the Texas-based team of Cain-Gribble and Le Duc who had used a steady rise last season to become national champions.

“Something’s just off with them,” Castile said, adding that the pressure of being national champion and the responsibility that comes along with it can be daunting. “So far this season they’ve been making big mistakes on the stuff that they’re strong at (side-by-side jumps and throws). They don’t have big points in the other elements to make up for it.”

Cain Gribble/LeDuc had what many would call a nightmare of a free skate at Skate America, and as their score came up Ashley couldn’t watch because she was so disappointed. It gave the opportunity for another American team, Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, to finish ahead of them.

Add into the mix the 2018 U.S. junior champions Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov and now you’ve got six teams, as Calalang/Johnson and Lu/Mitrofanov could spring a surprise podium finish. At this point, they aren’t part of the national champion discussion – at least not yet.

In just their second season together, Calalang/Johnson train in southern California with the Knierims, who made the move to work with married couple Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, three-time U.S. pairs champions in the 1990s who also won three world medals. They were fifth at the 1994 Olympic Winter Games.

They’re the only U.S. team to medal at worlds multiple times since Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner won the world title in 1979.

“I think Alexa and Chris look really comfortable in their environment,” Castile said of the Knierims, who made the switch to Meno and Sand amidst a roller coaster last season. “I wonder if they chose Jenni and Todd for the way they were able to be a top team for so long and know how to hold that spot. I think that’s really helpful for them. They don’t really need to improve technically; they just need to figure out how to be more consistent on the ice season in and season out. It’s not like they’re missing something.”

They were out of sorts in Detroit in January, finishing seventh.

But with the Knierims on the comeback trail, Cain-Gribble/LeDuc looking to for redemption after a lackluster grand prix series, and Denney and Frazier coming back strong – along with three other teams part of the conversation – there is no clear favorite.

And good luck even trying to guess the podium and its order.

“We’ve changed our mindset on a lot of things,” said Denney as to why she and Frazier have been so solid this year. “We’re always learning. Each day is a new day and a different day. Something we talked about this year is that every completion is a stepping-stone: Our big goal is the Olympics. We are trying to learn as much as we can from every situation so we know ourselves as best we can. That helps when we’re out there knowing that we have all that experience.”

They have also made a move back to coaches John Zimmerman and Silvia Fontana, who they had worked with from 2013-16. The March 2018 switch back to a duo they know well is paying dividends, they say, even if the process has taken longer for them to jell once again on the practice ice and – in turn – competition.

As the skating world turns its focus to Cup of China this weekend, Kayne/O’Shea will look to make their own grand prix splash. There is also the outside shot that Denney/Frazier, with two bronze medals, could get into the acclaimed Grand Prix Final in Italy in early December. The top six teams from the season make it there.

But they’re not betting on that. And whether they compete again before Greensboro is up in the air. What is certain is that all U.S. pairs teams have their eyes are fixated on that last week in January.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to go into nationals and stay focused on our personal goals,” Frazier added. “We want to keep giving our most consistent performances and give the crowd a good show. We’re competitors. We know it’s going to be a fight. There’s great teams there. Our biggest test will be ourselves. How do we go out there and execute what we know we can?”

Nick McCarvel is a video host and freelance reporter based in New York City. He has covered three Olympic Games, including Rio 2016 for TeamUSA.org. Read weekly features by him this figure skating season on TeamUSA.org.