The closest that Olympic pairs skaters Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier got to the U.S. championships in Nashville last year was their hotel room, where they despondently spoke via zoom to reporters waiting for them at the arena.
Frazier had tested positive for COVID-19 and the team had withdrawn from the competition.
Little did they know that the lowest of lows that night would begin a year spent soaring to newfound heights.
Knierim and Frazier successfully petitioned for a spot at the Beijing Games, where they helped the Americans win a team silver medal that could still become gold because of allegations of Russian doping. Then they headed to worlds, where they became the first U.S. pairs champions since Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner more than 40 years earlier.
Rather than step away from competition after the long Olympic grind, like many of their teammates, Knierim and Frazier continued their hot streak. After working on new programs over the summer, the pair swept their Grand Prix assignments at Skate America and the MK John Wilson Trophy, then finished second to a team from Japan at the Grand Prix Final.
Now they're back at nationals, which begin Thursday night in San Jose, California, where Knierim and Frazier's run began — sort of — with that positive COVID-19 test the day before competition last year.
“In 30 or 40 years we can look back at statistics and great accomplishments we've made, but I just wanted to see what him and I could do together," Knierim said of the past year. “It comes down to more of a personal journey than the perception of you. And we're in a very judged sport. But at the end of the day, it's how Brandon and I skate together.”
That's been marvelous for quite some time.
The overwhelming favorites this weekend teamed up when Knierim's husband and partner, Chris, retired in 2020. They quickly became the dominant American team, winning nationals the next year, finishing sixth at the Olympics — the best for the U.S. in two decades — and earning the country's first pairs medal at the Grand Prix Final.
“I was just having a conversation about this with a couple of my friends,” Frazier said. “Alexa is a very humble person, but she will go down as one of the best of all time for U.S. pairs. I'm just so lucky to be able to skate with her, and experience the time I've had with Alexa. I think her skating has made me a better skater. The accomplishments we have had together have been just a reward for me. I just think Alexa has brought out the absolute best in me.”
Knierim and Frazier's biggest competition at nationals, the last event before U.S. teams are announced for Four Continents and the world championships, likely will come from Emily Chan and Spencer Howe, who joined them at the Grand Prix Final.
Here's a look at the favorites in the other disciplines:
Olympic ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the only defending champs competing in San Jose, are favored to win their fourth national title after training mates Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker withdrew earlier this month. Chock and Bates won Skate America and were second at the NHK Trophy and the Grand Prix Final.
Caroline Green and Michael Parsons and Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko also are podium favorites.
Eighteen-year-old Ilia Malinin, who became the first skater to land the quad axel in competition earlier this season, is the favorite to win his first senior men's national title. He had the second-best score in the world this year, more than 38 points ahead of his closest American pursuer, Camden Pulkinen.
Malinin finished second last year to eventual Olympic champion Nathan Chen, who has stepped away from the sport. But was passed over for a spot on the Beijing team in favor of veteran Jason Brown, who went on to finish sixth at the Winter Games. Brown has not competed since Beijing but will be back on the ice at nationals.
Much like Malinin on the men's side, 15-year-old Isabeau Levito arrives as both the future of U.S. women's figure skating and the favorite to win gold. Levito was second a year ago but was not old enough to compete at the Olympics, and went on to finish second in both of her Grand Prix assignments and at the Grand Prix Final this season.
The women's event may be the most competitive of the four disciplines. Bradie Tennell, a 2018 Olympian, will be competing for the first time since foot and ankle injuries sidelined her for the season. Amber Glenn also is a threat to win gold.