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Thursday January 20th, 2022 3:53PM

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc take pairs lead at US championships

By The Associated Press
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc saw the scores of Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson during the pairs short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and knew they had to be great.

They were nearly perfect.

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc, skating last among the eight teams at Bridgestone Arena, floated through a brilliant program set to music from the 2018 biographical drama film “The White Crow.” It was highlighted by a soaring triple loop and piled up 79.39 points, a score that would have been third best in the world this season.

More importantly, it put the 2019 national champions ahead of their biggest rivals — Calalang and Johnson — heading into the free skate at what amounts to the U.S. trials for the Beijing Olympics next month.

“Without giving away too much of what works for us away, we've prepared in every way possible to be prepared for anything that could happen,” Cain-Gribble said. “We set ourselves up in practice to not be surprised by anything.”

Even the performance of their lives.

“We said at the end, ‘Check that off,’” Cain-Gribble said, “and move forward.”

Calalang and Johnson opened with a brilliant side-by-side triple salchow that has caused them problems in the past, and the reigning silver medalists finished with a tremendous lift that left them with 77.48 points after their short program.

Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov made a couple of mistakes and were in third place with 68.11 points.

The competition continued later Thursday with the women's short program.

The U.S. has two pairs spots for the Beijing Games, and one of those could go to defending U.S. champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, who were forced to withdraw Wednesday night following his positive COVID-19 test.

Knierim and Frazier plan to petition U.S. Figure Skating for one of the spots based on their exemplary scope of work. If they are successful, that would leave just one spot up for grabs; the pairs free skate takes place Saturday night.

“We’re aware of the process and I have been through it before,” said Knierim, who successfully petitioned to make the 2017 Four Continents with husband Chris after undergoing abdominal surgery. “It’s not a great feeling to go through it for anyone, but we are grateful that our federation has this mechanism.”

If there's indeed one spot left for the taking, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc gave themselves the inside track.

The pair, who had to halt work over the summer when Cain-Gribble was briefly hospitalized with COVID-19, looked as if they'd never been off the ice. They were effortless in the solo jumps that have caused them problems in the past, and now they can look ahead to the free skate, which has been their strength all season.

“We love this short program. It's a little different from any other short program we've done in the past," LeDuc said. “We feel like its a really good vehicle to show what makes us special as a team. It's lyrical but it also picks up at the end with the footwork. We just hope people saw two really strong athletes come together to create something beautiful.”

Calalang and Johnson also spent time off the ice this past year, though for a much different reason: They spent several months fighting a positive test for a banned stimulant that was found to have been in one of Calalang's cosmetics.

They even had to withdraw from the 2021 world championships.

“So many emotions, you know? I really had no option other than to be strong and make it through,” Calalang said as she began to choke back tears. “It was just a really hard time for me, knowing that we're a partnership and it's us together and for something like that to happen that's solely on me is really hard for me to keep going through.”

After composing herself, Calalang added: “I'm just very thankful that Brian is the person he is. He came in every day to the rink with a positive attitude. Always said, ‘Everything is going to be fine.’ Meanwhile, I didn't think everything was going to be fine. But that just made us stronger as partners and people.”

That was evident in their performance to a rocking version of The Beatles' hit “Come Together” performed by Aerosmith.

“Every day is a new day,” Johnson said. “Go out there, enjoy, have fun and whatever happens, happens."

___

More AP Winter Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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