Women's Short Program
The big names were saved for last at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Nashville, Tennessee on Thursday night. A sensational 25-year-old Mariah Bell took the top spot, leading the way for Friday's free skate.
Bell delivered on the ice with a clean triple flip, triple toe, and ended with a triple Lutz. Raising her arms in the air, she smiled from ear to ear as the audience showered her with flowers, plush toys, and thunderous applause. Her 75.55-point performance demolished her season-best score of 69.37.
"I'm just so happy to be here," Bell said after the event. "I have this part of me that's so gritty. When I really need to do something, I just tap into it."
Karen Chen immediately followed with the same triple-triple, though her triple-toe was slightly underrotated -- leaving her just a point behind Bell, with a 74.55 short program score.
Reigning champ Alysa Liu came into the event once again as the favorite, but her performance was tight, lacking her usual glow. She lost five points on her triple axel -- four on grade of execution, one for a spill. Technically, she was strong. "She just can't create a moment the way Karen Chen or Mariah Bell can," commentator Johnny Weir said. "It's almost like she was going through the motions with that performance."
Liu took third with 71.42 points -- far behind her season best of 74.31. Still, it should be enough to earn her one of the United States' three Olympic berths.
Perhaps the night's most surprising performance came from Gracie Gold, who has struggled with an eating disorder and depression during her decade-long senior career. Her visible enthusiasm and effort helped earn her 67.61 points for sixth place -- and a standing ovation.
Pairs Short Program
With only two Olympic pair berths available for Team USA, tonight's short program was a frenzy for the top spot.
"It's first place or nothing for all of these teams," said commentator Johnny Weir ahead of the event. With Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier's Olympic position in limbo due to COVID, each duo performed as if one place had already been claimed.
Last year's silver medalists, Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, raised eyebrows early with a U.S. Championship record score of 77.48. The crowd roared with approval.
But Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc received the second standing ovation of the night, and the higher score. They started with a beautiful triple twist, followed with a side-by-side triple loop and a sharp throw to the Lutz. Clean, fully rotated landings made for an especially compelling performance. "That was a national skate," chimed commentator Tara Lipinski. "They created a moment, and that's what this team is known to do. They skated to win." The duo earned 79.39 points, breaking the national record for the second time in a single night.
"I love this team because of how solid they are as individual skaters," Weir added.
"We're thrilled," Cain-Gribble said after her short program. "It was exactly the way we wanted to skate, and honestly, today, we knew we had to be perfect with the program that went before us ... We just focused on the task at hand, and what we could accomplish."
Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov trailed a distant third, earning 68.11 points.
One thing's for sure: Two record-breaking short programs will make for a dramatic free skate showdown.
Perhaps the biggest news in pairs skating happened before the competition even started: Reigning champions Alexa Knierim and partner Brandon Frazier were forced to withdraw Wednesday night when Frazier experienced COVID-related symptoms, despite being vaccinated. He explained in an emotional Instagram post:
However, Knierim/Frazier can still petition for an Olympic berth. Given the quality of tonight's performances, that appeal seems less like a lock. Pairs wraps up Saturday at 7 PM on USA Network, NBCOlympics.com and Peacock. Check out the full U.S. Figure Skating Championships results here.