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U.S. Figure Skating Championships 2014: Pairs Free Skate Preview and Predictions

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistJanuary 10, 2014

U.S. Figure Skating Championships 2014: Pairs Free Skate Preview and Predictions

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    The 100th edition of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships is underway at TD Garden in Boston, with the pairs' short program already in the books.

    Scores from that round will be added to Saturday's free skate competition to determine who takes home the gold, silver, bronze and pewter medals. The scores will influence which two pairs get to represent the U.S. at the 2014 Winter Olympics next month in Sochi, Russia.

    Defending champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir have a big lead after the short program, but nothing is guaranteed in figure skating.

    Check out our preview of the free skate, as well as our predictions of medal winners and who will be named Olympians.

What You Need to Know

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    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    The event: Pairs free dance

    The routine: The free dance provides competitors with a four-minute, 30-second opportunity to perform whatever routine they want, provided they meet all the requirements for certain jumps and moves.

    The schedule: The 12 pairs competing in the U.S. championships will perform starting at 11:30 a.m. ET Saturday, with the top scorers hitting the ice at 2:45 p.m. ET.

    TV info: NBC will air the latter portion of the pairs free skate from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. ET. 

What's Already Happened?

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Here's a look at the top six finishers after Thursday's short program.

    1. Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir (73.13)
    The defending U.S. pairs champs blew away the competition, putting together a nearly flawless routine that forced the judges to squint and squirm to find places to withhold points. Even the skaters seemed amazed at how high they scored, with both dropping their jaws as the results were announced. It was easy to see they've been working together for seven years.

    2. Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay (66.50)
    Last year's bronze-medal winners were atop the scoreboard until Castelli and Shnapir skated. Their routine was clean but didn't appear to take many risks, so their score was based as much on execution as aggressiveness.

    3. DeeDee Leng and Timothy LeDuc (66.40)
    The biggest surprise of the short program came from this pairing, which finished ninth in 2013 but skated with the confidence of seasoned champions. Their moves were crisp, with a combination of strength and fluidity that was wonderful to watch. 

    4. Caydee Denney and John Coughlin (65.40)
    The 2012 U.S. champions made their return to nationals after missing last year's competition while Coughlin recovered from an injury. Though they looked good, there was some tentativeness seen by Denney, who reduced a triple toe-loop into a double and touched her hand to the ice on a triple flip.

    5. Alexa Scimeca and Christ Knierim (64.68)
    Last year's silver medalists overcame a big, simultaneous fall—it almost looked choreographed—on a side-by-side triple Salchow to score well enough to remain in contention for a medal and possibly an Olympic invitation. 

    6. Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff (61.70)
    The Boston skaters fed off the hometown crowd to post a personal best and a spirited performance. The pair had a few minor missteps, which cost them points, but not so much they can't surpass or at least match last year's fourth-place finish.

Top Storylines

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Can the champs repeat?
    Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir got to skate last, and they gave their hometown crowd something that was worth sticking around for. But can the Boston-area skaters, who won the 2013 U.S. title, take home a second consecutive crown? Considering the sizable lead they have after the short program—not to mention the added incentive of the upcoming Sochi Olympicsit looks like a safe bet.

     

    Layoff letdown for Denney/Coughlin
    Hip surgery for John Coughlin kept him and partner Caydee Denney from defending their 2012 U.S. pairs title last year, and their return to the nationals was eagerly anticipated. Though they had a good skate, it wasn't good enough, with Denney looking tentative at times. The time away seems to have affected their timing, and whether that can be fixed by Saturday is uncertain.

     

    So many personal bests!
    The public address announcer told the crowd prior to the short program that Castelli and Shnapir had the top score last year, at 62.27. That total would have been good enough for sixth place this year, as nearly every team registered scores that were personal bests. This included many of the pairs that finished in the bottom half, where several first-time championship-level performances led to strong scores.

Who's the Darkhorse Pair?

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    DeeDee Leng and Timothy LeDuc

    Sitting in third, just one-tenth of a point behind Zhang and Bartholomay for second place, this duo was among the most overachieving performers on Thursday. Their confidence is high and should give them a boost with a shot at greatness on the line.

    Leng, a former U.S. junior ladies' champion, took three years away from figure skating after winning that 2009 individual title. She returned to try out the pairs discipline.

    The duo finished ninth in 2013 and have shown massive improvement, particularly with their timing.

    While catching the leaders might not be possible, getting second place is very possible. With two slots to the Olympics up for grabs—though not necessarily given to the top two teams—there's more than medals at stake.

    Leng and LeDuc will need to put together one of their best free programs to move up from third to second, which will mean nailing every jump and avoiding the little slip-ups that can knock fractions off their score.

Who Will Win Gold?

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    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir

    They've been skating together since 2007, when they placed 10th at the U.S. championships at the novice level. Since then it's been a gradual climb up the ladder, to where they're now the top pair in America.

    Castelli and Shnapir have come a long way since placing 10th in the 2010 nationals, far away from the medal stand and a shot at the Vancouver Olympics. Where the improvement has been seen most is in simultaneous moves, such as the side-by-side triple Salchow jumps that they nailed during the free skate.

    Playing in front of a partisan crowd, the Boston-trained skaters will take it down for the second straight year, making them the first pair to repeat as U.S. champs since Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker repeated in 2008 and 2009.

Complete Medal Predictions

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    Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

    Gold: Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir

    The lead isn't insurmountable, but with as much talent and experience as they have, don't expect the defending champs to let gold slip away.

     

    Silver: DeeDee Leng and Timothy LeDuc

    The rising stars continue their charge upward, going from ninth last year to second place in 2014.

     

    Bronze: Caydee Denney and John Coughlin

    You can't count these veterans out. Even with the time away and the short program mistakes, they know what it takes to win and will make a push up the medal stand.

     

    Pewter: Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay

    The difference between second and fourth place entering the free skate is just 1.1 points. With the other pairs moving up, someone has to drop.

Who Will Make the Olympic Team?

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    Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

    Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir

    How do you keep the two-time U.S. champions home? They've put in the work and gotten the results. A chance to represent their country in the Olympics is the ultimate way to reward such effort and performance.

     

    DeeDee Leng and Timothy LeDuc

    The fact that a committee ultimately decides (and will announce on Sunday) which two pairs get to go to Sochi doesn't make the U.S. silver medalists an automatic choice to be the second selection. Considering how tight the standings are entering the free skate, though, it would make sense to give it to the team that emerges from that muddled middle.

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