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Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier Are First U.S. Pair To Win World Title In 43 Years

by Lynn Rutherford

Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier react after skating in the pair's free skate during the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 19, 2022 in Beijing.


The last time a U.S. figure skating pair won the world title was 1979, when Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner brought home gold from Vienna, Austria. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, the Bee Gees ruled the Billboard Hot 100 and typewriters were still standard office equipment.
“Oh my gosh — that’s a lot, that’s over four decades ago — just, wow,” Babilonia gasped when reminded of the years. “A U.S. pair winning again would be huge, and way overdue.”
The wait ended Thursday in Montpellier, France, when Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier skated a clean, dynamic program to “Fix You” to best the field by more than 21 points and bring the world title home to their Irvine, California, training site.
“We lived every moment tonight to the fullest,” Knierim, 30, said. “It was a bit of a fight, but we were excited and we really took the opportunity and seized it.” 
The skaters’ joy was tempered by an injury to U.S. pairs champion Ashley Cain-Gribble, who with partner Timothy LeDuc placed second in Wednesday’s short program. Cain-Gribble took three hard falls in the free skate and was unable to continue after the third mishap. The 26-year-old from Coppell, Texas, was carried off of the ice on a stretcher just minutes before Knierim and Frazier assumed their opening poses.
“Our hearts go out to our teammates,” Frazier, 29, said. “Ashley and Timothy are our friends first and our competitors second. We wish them a very speedy recovery.” 
Knierim and Frazier fought through the stress of the moment — and the weight of expectations — to deliver their best-ever free skate, landing two sets of clean side-by-side triple jumps and two big throw triple jumps in addition to exciting, intricate lifts. Their 144.21 points, added to Wednesday’s score, gave them a personal best 221.09 total.
“I knew today was a golden opportunity for us, but I already felt golden in my own way,” Knierim said. “I felt that whatever happened today, I would feel fulfilled with the journey I’ve been on with Brandon, and that allowed me to have freedom when I performed.”

Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier skate during the pair's short program during the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 18, 2022 in Beijing.


The skaters teamed up in April 2020 after long careers with former partners. Knierim won three U.S. titles and the 2018 Olympic team bronze medal with her husband, Chris, while Frazier was the 2017 U.S. champion with Haven Denney. Together, the pair won the 2021 U.S. title and team silver at the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing last month.

When asked how they gelled so quickly, both skaters lauded their coaching staff, including primary coaches Jenni Meno and Todd Sand — themselves three-time U.S. world medalists — as well as Michal Brezina, who worked with Knierim on her jumps, and Chris Knierim, now a coach in Irvine.
“(Chris) was able to step back and trust me to skate with his wife, and I could never imagine the difficulties of doing that,” Frazier said. 
The Americans, who placed sixth at the Olympics last month, arrived in Montpellier as the highest-ranking pair in the event. China and Russia claimed the top five pairs spots at the Games; Russia was barred from sending athletes to this week’s event, while China elected not to send any athletes.
A similar situation occurred in 1979, when two-time defending Olympic champions Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union were absent due to Rodnina’s pregnancy and childbirth.
“When you win, you win — you skate it, you deserve it and it doesn’t matter who was there,” Gardner said. “We were in the same position. We were put up to bat, and we had to hit a home run. We nudged our way up to be first in the world, and then we had to skate it to confirm it. … I think there is going to be a good boost to U.S. pair skating going forward.”
Babilonia, too, resisted the idea that this was somehow an easy victory for the U.S. team.
“When they say it’s an open field — it doesn’t matter, you still have to go out and perform,” she said. “You have to stay focused, put your blinders on and know you’ve trained well, and then get the job done. Nothing is handed to you. When we won, there was no room for mistakes. It was blood, sweat and tears, and the same here.”
Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara of Japan won silver with 199.55 points. Canada’s Vanessa James and Eric Radford claimed the bronze, scoring 197.32.

Ilia Malinin skates in the men's free skate during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 9, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.


It may be a bit early to crown a successor to “Quad King” Nathan Chen; the Olympic champion, who withdrew from Montpellier due to an unspecified “nagging injury,” has yet to announce his retirement. But Ilia Malinin, the 17-year-old who placed second to Chen at the 2022 U.S. championships in January, is making a strong run at the title.

Competing at only his second international senior event, Malinin looked like a seasoned veteran Thursday, cruising through a clean short program to David Cook’s acoustic version of “Billie Jean.”

The teenager from Vienna, Virginia, hit a spectacular opening quadruple lutz, followed by an easy-looking quad toe loop, triple toe combination and triple axel. His 100.16 points eclipsed his previous personal best by 10 points and put him fourth, less than a point out of bronze-medal position.

“I definitely delivered it today, and I hope to deliver it on Saturday for the long (program),” a relaxed and confident Malinin told reporters.

Malinin, who trains under parents Tatiana Malinina and Roman Skorniakov — as well as Chen’s coach, Rafael Arutunian — was somewhat controversially left off the U.S. Olympic team, a decision that seems to have prompted him to achieve new heights.

“You take (the disappointment) in, push it away and move on to what’s in front of you,” he said, adding, “This is definitely one of the better skates this season and I’m very happy with how I skated. I definitely think this showed everyone I was supposed to go to Beijing and I was meant to be there.”

Japanese skaters swept the top three spots in the men’s short, with Olympic bronze medalist Shoma Uno first with 109.63 points, followed by Olympic silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama with 105.69 and Kazuki Tomono with 101.12.

It was a superbly skated event, with 12 of the 24 competitors gaining new personal bests. Vincent Zhou was not among them, but the three-time U.S. silver medalist’s clean, emotional program to “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” still felt like a win to the skater, who was forced to withdraw from the men’s event at last month’s Games due to two positive COVID tests.

“After going home from the Olympics I had a very difficult time,” Zhou said. “Many days I couldn’t even pick up my skates to go to the rink, and when I did go out on the ice, I instantly felt so crushed and helpless, and just like a failure. Just getting myself on the plane for France was a huge step forward for me.”

Zhou opened his short with a quad lutz, triple toe combination, followed by a quad salchow and triple axel. His crisp spins and musical step sequence all gained high marks, but small technical deductions on his lutz and salchow added up to several points in deductions. His 95.84 points puts him sixth entering the free skate.

“Two or three days before I left for here, I was talking with the people around me and I very nearly withdrew from this competition,” the 21-year-old from Palo Alto, California said. “I guess once I made the decision to come there was a bit of a mental switch. The mind is very powerful.”

Camden Pulkinen, who placed fifth at the 2022 U.S. championships, was added to the U.S. team in Montpellier after Chen withdrew and first alternate Jason Brown was unavailable.

The Scottsdale, Arizona, native, who turns 22 on Friday, responded with his best-ever short program, a clean, stylish effort to “Come What May” from the 2001 film movie “Moulin Rouge.” He earned 89.50 points for 12th place.

Pulkinen credited his clean performance to “breathing and taking it step-by-step.” 

“I found out officially last Wednesday, three days before (we left for France),” he said. “I’m happy I was able to deliver on such short notice. I was a little bit nervous, but I knew I was physically well-trained. I did what every alternate should do, stayed fit and well-trained.”

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