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Kavaguti, Smirnov take lead in pairs at Nebelhorn

Scimeca, Knierim sit in third after short; Aaron, Settlage in fifth
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Russians Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov took the lead in pairs after the short program at the Nebelhorn Trophy. -Getty Images

Last October, Alexander Smirnov injured his knee at a local test competition in Russia so severely that he had to sit out the whole season. The 29-year-old pairs skater underwent meniscus surgery in Munich with the same doctor who operated on Evgeni Plushenko's knee several times. Smirnov and his partner, Yuko Kavaguti, four-time European and two-time world medalists, lost their chance to qualify for the Sochi Olympic Winter Games. 

Now, the veteran Russian pairs team, still coached by Tamara Moskvina in St. Petersburg, Russia, is back in action and looking strong. They finished first in the short program at Nebelhorn Trophy with an excellent performance that earned 66.59 points.

Skating to "Meditation" from the Jules Massenet opera Thaïs, the Russians' side-by-side triple toe loops were landed in unison, their triple twist was better than ever and their throw triple loop was excellent. Three other elements gained Level 4's. Their interpretation of the music was convincing.

"We chose this music for last season, when vocals were not yet allowed but we could not compete internationally, and kept the music because we like it," Kavaguti, 32, said.  

"We are happy to come back and to be able to do the most difficult elements again," Smirnov said. "We were able to land all our elements, but we know we can do better."     

Making their senior international debut, Russian world junior silver medalists Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov are second with 65.74 points.

The young team had an outstanding triple twist and excellent triple toe loops, but their throw triple loop was a bit shaky and their presentation still needs maturing. They are coached by Nina Mozer and her new assistant coach, five-time German world pairs champion Robin Szolkowy. 

"This was not a bad competition and a good senior debut," Morozov, 21, said. "We made a few minor errors but we hope to fix them during the season."

"We chose 'Sarabande' for our short after looking for a good piece of music for a long time," Tarasova, 19, said.  

Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim of the U.S. are in third with 55.29 points. The 2013 U.S. silver medalists, who are coached by Dalilah Sappenfield and Larry Ibarra, opened with an excellent and very high triple twist, which was rewarded with five +3 and four +2 Grades of Execution (GOEs), as well as a Level 4. Later, though, Scimeca fell on a triple Salchow and throw triple flip. The other elements were strong, and their interpretation of "El Tango de Roxanne" was good.

"We had two costly errors that hurt our performance, but the star lift was beautiful and the spins were better than at our last competition in Salt Lake City and we had good power today," Scimeca said.

"There is definitely room to grow for Skate America, but today we were committed to our competition," Knierim said. "With the exception of the two falls, it was executed really well."

Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès of France sit fourth with 55.18 points, just a tenth of a point out of third place. The skaters trained all summer in Russia, mainly with Stanislav Morozov, but also a bit with Mozer. Skating to a Tango medley, their triple twist was shaky and James performed only a double toe loop instead of a triple. The other elements were good.

U.S. junior champions Madeline Aaron and Max Settlage are fifth after earning 51.80 points for their fresh, elegant take on selections from Leon Délibes' comic ballet Coppélia. Their triple twist and triple throw loop were well done, but Settlage fell on the triple toe loop. Three other elements gained Level 4.

"We have worked hard on our triple twist and I think it has improved a lot," Settlage said.

"This short program today was an improvement from our last Senior B in Salt Lake City and I thought we overall had a good performance today," Aaron said.         

Ten withdraws: The biggest star set to skate at Nebelhorn Trophy, Olympic bronze medalist Denis Ten of Kazakhstan, withdrew from the men's competition before the short program on Thursday due to stomach flu. The illness began before he left his training site in California to travel to Oberstdorf.

"I really wanted to compete and I did the practice session, but I realized it is not possible due to weakness," Ten said.