Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier compete in the Pairs Free Program during the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating - Skate America on Oct. 23, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Knierim, Frazier take second in free skate
Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier brought the Las Vegas crowd to its feet with an electric performance to “Fix You” that brought with it 136.60 points, a new international best.
The U.S. champions placed second in the free skate, but it was not enough to overcome the deficit after their fifth-place short program and win a medal. They finished fourth overall with a score of 202.97. Two-time European champions Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov of Russia won gold with 222.50 points.
“That program was just the beginning of what we are capable of, that program was scratching the service compared to what we do at home without any nerves and adrenaline,” said Knierim, 30. “At home we actually skate stronger, faster, cleaner.”
On Friday, Frazier fell on a triple toe loop jump in the pair’s short program. But Saturday, it was clear sailing, with both skaters landing triple toe combinations and triple salchow jumps, and Knierim staying upright on two throw triple jumps.
More importantly, they delivered Renee Roca’s exciting, free-flowing choreography with style and polish, especially the lifts.
“I did too much thinking yesterday, and when you’re at these events, you just got to deal,” said Frazier, 29. “Yesterday, I was thinking. Today, I was doing.”
“We were pretty discouraged after the short,” Knierim said. “It was hard to look at the levels being so low, we have to go back home and clean that up. Today, we wanted to make a statement that we belong in the last warmup group (top four).”
The skaters, who teamed up in the spring of 2020 after long careers with other partners, are coached by three-time U.S. pairs champions Jenni Meno and Todd Sand in Irvine, California. Meno thinks their matching tough work ethics set them apart.
“Alexa and Brandon are very capable of breaking into the top five or six in the world,” she said. “From the beginning, they had a very common goal. They train like they are at a competition every single day. It’s impressive.”
Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, who train alongside Knierim and Frazier in Irvine, showed superb lifts and strong throws in their free to “Who Wants to Live Forever,” but both skaters made major mistakes on individual triple jumps. They earned 128.55 points, also a new international best, and placed fifth at 197.42.
“It wasn’t really the program we wanted to skate, but knowing we can achieve that high score with the two big (jumping) errors really says something about the work we’ve been putting in the past year,” Calalang said.
Chelsea Liu and Danny O’Shea, who also train with Meno and Sand in Irvine, placed seventh with 175.40 points.
Rika Miura and Ryuichi Kihara’s second-place finish made history, the first Japanese pair to win a Grand Prix medal with a score of 208.20. Russia’s world bronze medalists, Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii, took bronze at 205.53.
Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue compete during the Ice Dance Short Program of the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating - Skate America on Oct. 23, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Hubbell, Donohue near fourth straight crown
In the rhythm dance hip-hop rumble, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue edged Team USA rivals Madison Chock and Evan Bates, 83.58-82.55, to take a slim lead into Sunday’s free dance final.
Since 2018, the couples have trained together under coaches Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer at the Ice Academy of Montreal (I.AM). Their hip-hop selections are a study in contrasts: raw energy and power versus more subtle pop-techno.
Reigning U.S. champions Hubbell and Donohue — winners of three consecutive Skate America titles — arrived in Las Vegas with a Janet Jackson medley, while Chock and Bates chose Billie Eilish selections. Ironically, Eilish was Dubreuil’s original recommendation for Hubbell and Donohue.
“We tried it on the ice and we just thought, ‘No,’” Hubbell said. “At least for us, it just felt like it was highlighting the things that we do naturally, but not really lifting up the things that people don't see in us. It wasn't vibing.”
When one of the I.AM choreographers, Sam Chouinard, played some Jackson music during training, Hubbell and Donohue decided it was just the ticket.
“So we went to (Dubreuil) and she was like, ‘Really? You saw that?’" Hubbell said. “And she said, ‘I really thought you would go more the Billie route. But, I guess, if you feel inclined.’ So we started doing some off-ice, and we worked with Vincent Noiseux, who was one of Janet Jackson’s backup dancers.”
In addition to interpreting a street dance rhythm, couples must execute a sequence of the Midnight Blues, a pattern dance that requires strong edges and deep-knee action — specialties of Hubbell and Donohue. After winning the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic last month, the skaters tweaked this portion of their program.
“We made a new transition at the beginning on the blues music to pull in the crowd, as well as adding difficulty in the blues in our holds,” Hubbell said. “Since it’s a pattern everyone has to do, we wanted to do something to stand out.”
Hubbell and Donohue achieved the event’s highest score for their Midnight Blues pattern, although there is room to improve. Several elements of both couples gained lower-than-expected levels from the event’s technical panel.
“We definitely left a lot of points on the table,” Hubbell said. “We are hoping with extra technical points, we get (our score) closer to 90, but today, it was enough.”
Haguenauer called the Skate America technical panel “very, very strict.”
“I don’t say it’s not fair, but when I see junior teams getting some Level 3s and here, the top teams in the world just getting Level 1 and 2, I think there is a problem for me in the uniformity of the technical panels across competitions,” he said.
Chock and Bates, too, missed some levels. Their closing midline steps gained just Level 1. (The highest possible score is a Level 4.)
“We definitely skated better, we had a lot more attack than at (Finlandia Trophy) two weeks ago,” Bates said. “We came off the ice not expecting the levels to be so low. But that’s OK, we felt we really attacked the program and it was a step up from Finland.”
Canadians Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen sit third with 75.33 points. Competing their second season at the senior level, Molly Cesanek and Yehor Yehorov — the third U.S. pair — had a spirited outing to Bruno Mars and Beyoncé tunes, earning 61.07 points for ninth place.
Amber Glenn competes during the Women's Short Program of the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating - Skate America on Oct. 23, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Russians in position to sweep women’s event
To no one’s surprise, Russian skaters dominated the women’s short program, with Alexandra Trusova (77.69), Daria Usacheva (76.71) and Kseniia Sinetsyna (71.51) grabbing the top three positions.
Two-time and reigning U.S. champion Bradie Tennell had planned to compete, but was forced to withdraw due to a foot injury. U.S. silver medalist Amber Glenn turned in the top performance among Team USA skaters, placing seventh with 67.57 points, about 10 points off the lead and four points out of medal position.
Glenn had a strong program, opening with a solid triple flip, triple toe loop combination and gaining Level 4s on her spins and steps. She did falter slightly on the landing of a triple loop.
“We wanted to come in here and put out a performance I could be happy with and, unfortunately, today I’m not very happy with how I did,” Glenn said. “I feel in the free skate I will be able to come out and do what I know how to do.”
Glenn, who will turn 22 on Oct. 28, has been attempting to land a triple axel in competition, most recently at Finlandia Trophy in Espoo, Finland earlier this month. The 3½-revolution jump has been achieved by just three U.S. women in international competition: Tonya Harding, Mirai Nagasu and Alysa Liu.
While Glenn landed the jump in practices here, she elected not to try it in Saturday’s competition. A few near collisions with another competitor during the six-minute warm-up put her off her mental game.
“I had a couple of close calls with a skater, and just having that and being high-strung in the six-minute warmup, we made the decision not to throw the triple axel in there and risk injury,” she said.
Audrey Shin, who won bronze at Skate America last season, is ninth with 62.82 points. Starr Andrews replaced Tennell in the event and sits 10th with 61.94 points.