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Hubbell and Donohue Take Skate America Dance Title, While Knierim And Frazier Win Pairs

By Lynn Rutherford | Oct. 25, 2020, 12:15 a.m. (ET)

Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier competes in the Pairs Short Program during the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating on Oct. 23, 2020 in Las Vegas.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue’s sensitive, free-flowing and powerful free dance to a medley of Jeff Buckley and k.d. lang’s renditions of the classic ballad “Hallelujah” won them a third straight Skate America title at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday.

“Tonight was a successful first step in the competitive season,” Hubbell said. “This is a program we are very passionate about. We feel we already have an easy time skating it, because every part of it feels so purposeful.”

“While there are many things to improve, going home, we are happy with this performance,” Donohue added.

Hubbell and Donohue’s ice dance victory wrapped up a unique weekend of competition in Las Vegas, where skaters had to navigate a bubble environment and the field was almost exclusively American, both due to COVID-19. Earlier in the day Mariah Bell won the women’s contest, followed by Nathan Chen winning another men’s title. Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Brandon Frazier won the pairs title.

The ice dancers, who won world medals in 2018 and 2019, have a long history with “Hallelujah.” They used it for their short dance during the 2015-16 season, when they first moved from Michigan to Montreal to train under Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, two-time world silver medalists for Canada. Since then, the Americans have performed an exhibition version of “Hallelujah” in shows.

“So this offseason we looked for different music, but inevitably, we were drawn to the idea of marrying the (Buckley and lang) versions,” Hubbell said. “I think they really show the different sides to ‘Hallelujah’ and kind of a raw, intimate quality, which is definitely something we have in our partnership.”

For choreography, they turned to their friend and former training partner Scott Moir, who with partner Tessa Virtue won two Olympic gold medals for Canada.

“Scott really took a leadership role in creating the program, and it was really lovely,” Hubbell said. “Scott is such a fun person to train with, and now that he has taken that friendship and become more of a mentor and more of a coach for us, it’s really motivational.”

“We got an amazing email from him early in the season,” she added. “I’m not going to say too much, but it was about enjoying the victories when they happen and enjoying those smaller moments and then enjoying the steeper climb. … He was really great at making us feel that what we had to bring to the table, was enough.”

The two-time U.S. champions began their quest for gold in Las Vegas on Friday, when their lively, slightly risqué rhythm dance to music from “Burlesque” won top honors and 85.30 points.

In Saturday’s free skate, their “Hallelujah” free dance gained five Level 4 elements — the highest level possible — from the judging panel. Three other elements received Level 3, which Hubbell and Donohue will want to improve before heading into the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and another face-off with longtime rivals Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who wrested the U.S. title from them last season. Chock and Bates, who also train in Montreal, elected not to compete at Skate America.

Hubbell and Donohue ended with 211.39 points.

“We have to go back home and work on raising the bar,” Donohue said, adding, “I think there’s a lot more to be discovered in this program.”

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who train alongside Hubbell and Donohue, and Chock and Bates, in Montreal, won the silver medal with a compelling free dance to Philip Glass selections, mixed with Blondie’s classic “Heart of Glass.”

The team showed deep edges and smooth transitions in the haunting program, which earned 121.32 points, second to Hubbell and Donohue. On Friday, their fast-paced, highly entertaining rhythm dance to music from “Saturday Night Fever" also placed second. Their final tally was 202.47 points.

“Jean-Luc found the music several years ago,” Hawayek said. “We felt a connection to it, and we wanted to create a story that would be universally understood by all watching (the program).”

Unlike the top two couples, Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko, winners of the bronze medal, left the ice a bit disappointed after their free dance, set to music from “Dr. Zhivago.”

The young couple, who train under Igor Shpilband in Novi, Michigan, had a shaky twizzle (fast turn) sequence early in the program and also looked uncomfortable on one of their lifts. Still, the romantic, waltz-like free dance holds great promise.

“We left points on the table,” Ponomarenko said. “This program is still new. We probably only did run-throughs in the single digits before coming here.”

Considering Carreira’s condition earlier this year, they are fortunate to compete at Skate America at all. The ice dancer tripped while running on an uneven road at the end of March, fracturing her foot. She was in a boot for four months and could not return to the ice until June 1.

“I had to learn to walk and run again, before I could (fully) skate,” Carreira said.

“It was very much a slow process,” Ponomarenko added.

Knierim And Frazier Making Stunning Grand Prix Debut To Win Skate America 

Skating together just six months, Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Brandon Frazier may have made the most exciting Las Vegas debut since Frank Sinatra hit Sin City in the 1950s.

The freshly minted pair skated clean programs on Friday and Saturday to win Skate America with 214.77 points, some 7.37 points more than their Irvine, California, training partners, Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson. But it was the calm and confidence of their performances that stood out most.

On Saturday, Knierim and Frazier hardly put a foot wrong in their free skate to “Fall on Me” by Andrea Bocelli and Matteo Bocelli. Opening with triple toe loop-double toe loop combinations and a stunning throw triple loop, they went on to land triple salchow jumps as well as a throw triple lutz. Their lifts were secure; their pair spin, interesting and challenging.

When their total points — an impressive 214.77 points — flashed up, Knierim couldn’t hide her glee.

“I made a joke to Brandon when we got our score — I said, ‘This partnership is going to work,’” she said. “We feel like our hard work is being validated. We’re excited to keep improving.”

Knierim and Frazier also won Friday’s short program in commanding style, with another set of clean side-by-side triple toe loops — especially impressive, considering this is Frazier’s first season competing with the triple toe. Their 74.19 points put them more than three points ahead of the pack.

Both athletes had long careers with their former partners. Knierim won three U.S. titles, including the most recent one, with her husband, Chris, as well as a team bronze medal at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. Frazier is the 2017 U.S. champion with Haven Denney.

In April, Frazier relocated from Florida to join Knierim and coaches Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, three-time U.S. champions who competed in two Olympics (1994, 1998) together. The new pair’s development was challenged by limited ice during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they still seem to have gelled in record time.

“With Alexa and I having such long-term partnerships in the past, it’s been learning (about) each other, getting the timing on certain elements,” Frazier said. “But I would say for the most part, the biggest thing we’ve done such a good job on is working well together through these unprecedented times and trying not to get everything all at once. We’re taking each thing step-by-step.”

“We both thrive off hard work, and we kind of get more excited the more we do on the ice,” Knierim said. “That adds fuel to the fire to keep going and building. I think having that same mindset and drive every day has allowed us to gel so rapidly.”

That gelling requires compromise from both skaters. While Frazier takes the lead developing lifts, he changed his throw technique to better match his new partner’s. Chris Knierim, who retired from competition in February, joined the coaching team in Irvine and is helping his wife and her new partner develop their elements.

“He’s kind of a secret weapon, especially with the twist,” Frazier said. “Todd and Jenni are great with the technical (elements), but having someone like Chris — who is fresh off the (competitive) scene and had one of the best twists in the world — to kind of guide you, it plays such a big part in Alexa and I gelling as fast as we are.”

“I kind of felt in the beginning, I needed Chris’ approval or support with everything I was doing,” Alexa Knierim said. “Now that Brandon and I are training full throttle, I feel more confident and I depend on Chris more emotionally. He always gives me a high five or talks about any positive things he’s seeing. It helps me a lot, and we have a new level to our personal relationship.”

Calalang and Johnson, the U.S. silver medalists, sat second after the short with 71.08 points. Their free skate, choreographed by Cindy Stuart to “Who Wants to Live Forever” by the Tenors featuring Lindsey Stirling, features more difficult transitions, steps and overall choreography than last season’s program.

“We were working a lot when we first got back on the ice, trying to get more intricate choreography, a little bit better expression to each other and difficulty to the steps and whatnot,” Johnson said. 

“Because we really didn’t have an idea about what the competitive season was going to be like, we were able to challenge ourselves with the transitions,” Calalang said. “We would get a transition from Cindy and if it became too easy, or if it didn’t work to our advantage, we could rework it. It was nice not to have that stress that you had to be ready by a certain time.”

The performance on Saturday was highlighted by three stunning lifts, as well as a soaring triple twist. The jumps, though, were a problem. Calalang under rotated a triple salchow, and then doubled an intended triple toe loop.

“Well, for me, my jumps were not to my standard in the program,” Calalang said. “We got here on Monday and had three days practice before the competition. It was difficult to conserve energy. Besides my jumps, the lifts felt good.”

“We’re very happy with the lifts and the twist,” Johnson said. “I thought I had a Level 4 (best level) in the death spiral, but … next time.”

Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov, third after the short, skated their free to a playful, energetic Charlie Chaplin medley. The 2018 U.S. junior champions, who recently relocated with coach Alexei Letov from Texas to the newly refurbished Skating Club of Boston, had a strong skate despite Lu’s fall on a throw triple loop. They ended with 189.65 points and won the bronze medal.

“We’re very happy and excited,” Mitrofanov said. “We’re still trying to process it. We didn’t expect it, we just wanted to put down two solid performances.”

“We need to improve the second half of our free skate,” Lu said. “We need to work on that more, because obviously, we’re getting too tired.”

Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, the Texas-based 2019 U.S. champions, sat fourth with 64.21 points after the short. Some observers — including Cain-Gribble, who looked shocked in the kiss and cry when the marks appeared — thought the judging a bit harsh, and that her triple salchow did not deserve to be downgraded to a double by the technical panel.

Johnny Weir, the three-time U.S. champion and commentator for NBC Sports, thinks figure skating is in sore need of more cameras to film jumps for better review.

“We are one of the few dinosaurs that don’t use every technical advantage possible,” Weir said. “It’s time for an upgrade, figure skating.”

The pair fought back with a powerful free skate to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, including two solid triple throws and fine lifts. The only major error was Cain-Gribble’s fall on a triple loop. They placed third in the free and missed the podium by a mere .42 points. 

“We came here with a plan, to skate two strong programs,” Cain-Gribble said. “We didn’t want to lose sight of that. We channeled all of the energy we had left into that long program tonight.”

Lynn Rutherford

Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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