World champs Knierim, Frazier dazzle in Day 1 at nationals

Jan 26, 2023, 2:47 AM | Updated: 9:04 pm

Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier compete in the pairs short program at the U.S. figure skating cha...

Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier compete in the pairs short program at the U.S. figure skating championships in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

(AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)


              Valentina Plazas and Maximiliano Fernandez compete in the pairs short program at the U.S. figure skating championships in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)
            
              Valentina Plazas and Maximiliano Fernandez compete in the pairs short program at the U.S. figure skating championships in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)
            
              Valentina Plazas and Maximiliano Fernandez compete in the pairs short program at the U.S. figure skating championships in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)
            
              Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier compete in the pairs short program at the U.S. figure skating championships in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)
            
              Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier compete in the pairs short program at the U.S. figure skating championships in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)
            
              Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier compete in the pairs short program at the U.S. figure skating championships in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)
            
              Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier compete in the pairs short program at the U.S. figure skating championships in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — They held their on-ice embrace a little longer this time, kneeling in an end pose moments after a near-flawless short program.

Overwhelming favorite and reigning world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier scored a personal-best 81.96 on Thursday for a commanding lead in the first day of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

With Knierim fighting her nerves, though you’d never have known it, the pair took the ice in sparkling silver costumes for their much-anticipated nationals return after missing the event a year ago when Frazier tested positive for COVID-19. On Thursday, they delivered an awe-inspiring routine to Journey’s “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” from Stranger Things.

“I wanted to take a little bit longer when the music ended to kind of absorb that moment because I’ve learned throughout this long career that I’ve had that the most special times are usually the ones that go by too fast,” Knierim said. “And I just want to continue moving forward and being totally immersed, and embrace the present moment, and just be grateful that I’m able to do this.”

The tandem’s score was three points higher than their previous best and also less than three points shy of the world-record 84.41 set by Sui Wenjing and Han Cong at last year’s Beijing Olympics.

Knierim and Frazier led second-place pair Emily Chan and Spencer Howe by more than 15 points after the short program with the free skate competition set for Saturday at SAP Center.

“Once we got done, and you feel like you put out a great performance that you and your partner both shared, that you gave everything you had, you just want to take every second because they do go by fast,” Frazier said. “But those seconds are exactly what gets you out of bed and keep coming back.”

He and Knierim never got a chance to defend their title last January at nationals in Nashville, Tennessee, after Frazier’s positive test the night before competition began forced them to withdraw. They then had to petition for a spot on the Olympic team for Beijing.

There, the duo helped the Americans capture a silver medal in the team event and placed sixth in pairs. The twosome also earned silver in the Grand Prix final last month.

Chan and Howe are expected to be the next-best pair in San Jose behind Knierim and Frazier, who partnered after Knierim’s husband, Chris, retired from skating in 2020.

While Chan fell on their side-by-side triple toeloops, the degree of difficulty with the technical content in their routine earned her and Howe a higher score from the judges for a 66.86 — less than point off their international personal-best accomplished at Skate Canada 2022.

Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea were third with a 65.75 after the short program competing in their first season together — teaming up just four months ago.

Chan was thrilled to see Knierim and Frazier skate so beautifully back on the big U.S. stage at long last.

“We were both so happy to see them skate so well. It’s so inspiring, too, because we understand how much pressure that must be to be defending world champions,” Chan said. “She has been a great inspiration to me and so much support going through to the Grand Prix finals.”

In fourth place at 63.45, Valentina Plazas and Maximiliano Fernandez performed an elegant skate to “Maria” from West Side Story. They were the 2021 junior bronze medalists and finished sixth at nationals last year in their senior debut as a pair.

Later Thursday in the rhythm dance, favorites Madison Chock and Evan Bates — the three-time national champions who got engaged last year — led second-place pair Caroline Green and Michael Parsons (81.40) by 10 points after scoring a 91.90 as the only reigning winner in San Jose this week.

Siblings Oona and Gage Brown, the reigning junior world champions from Long Island, New York, showed poise and polish in their senior nationals debut, but were ninth with a score of 72.80.

The first day of competition concluded with the women’s short program. Fifteen-year-old Isabeau Levito led the way with a score of 73.78, ahead of two-time national champion Bradie Tennell (73.76) by a razor-thin margin. Starr Andrews and Amber Glenn round out the top four and are fewer than five points behind in the race for the title that will be awarded after Friday’s free skate.

Everyone will still have eyes on Knierim and Frazier this weekend.

And on Saturday when they perform their free skate, Knierim again will remind herself to embrace the moment and be present.

“Being able to skate today was a gift, but it’s also something very true and close to our hearts,” she said. “I didn’t want to rush through it.”

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AP Freelance Writer Sonja Chen contributed to this report.

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World champs Knierim, Frazier dazzle in Day 1 at nationals