Ice Network

Kavaguti, Smirnov use throw quad to clinch gold

Denney, Frazier win surprise silver; Cheng, Peng settle for bronze
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Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov ran away with the pairs competition for Russia, winning gold behind a stellar 140.00-point free skate to "Manfred Symphony" by Tchaikovsky. They finished with 209.16 points for their second international title of the young season after winning at the Nebelhorn Trophy. -Getty Images

Somewhere between the angst, the foot-stomping and the throw quadruple Salchow, Yuko Kavaguti lost her way.

Coach Tamara Moskvina gave Kavaguti and her partner, Alexander Smirnov, a passionate story to help them withstand the powerful strains of Tchaikovsky's "Manfred Symphony," the music Moskvina chose for the team's free skate. But this is the second year the pair has practiced the program, and Kavaguti can't count the number of run-throughs they've done.

"In the beginning, I was [acting] like I was crazy," she said. "After that, I got lost. I do it differently every time."

Smirnov's memory is a bit better.

"The story is that I love her, but I lose my mind because of the unfulfilled love," he said.

The sentiments, if not the storyline, came through. Costumed and coiffed like a gothic imp, the diminutive Kavaguti and her uber-masculine partner hit impossibly difficult elements -- including a triple toe-triple toe sequence, a throw quadruple Salchow and three spectacular lifts -- while emoting like actors in a telenovela. At one point, Smirnov shook his fists and beseeched the heavens.

Somehow, it all worked. The frenzied grief suited them better than their more anodyne programs of the past, and they earned an ISU personal-best 140.00 points. The veteran Russians won their sixth Grand Prix title, and first Skate America, with 209.16 points, some 25 points over the field.

Anguish on ice turned to joy in the press conference, with both skaters thrilled to be back in competition after Smirnov's severe knee injury cost them the Olympic season.

"My motivation [to continue] is that I love skating," Kavaguti, 32, said. "I think I haven't completed what I want yet -- that's why I keep skating. My partner has had injuries, so we missed a lot of competitions. Maybe that's why."

Smirnov's new son, born less than two weeks ago, inspired him this week.

"I was skating for him; he helped me to focus," the 29-year-old skater said, adding, "I was very happy we did the quad (throw Salchow) so well here."

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier accomplished something that hadn't been done by a U.S. pair since the fall of 2008 -- finish as high as second at a Grand Prix event. It last happened when Rena Inoue and John Baldwin took silver at the 2008 NHK Trophy.

Performing their free skate to music from Disney's The Lion King, the Southern Florida pair opened with a Level 4 triple twist, followed by a throw triple loop and side-by-side triple Salchows. The near-clean program built to a dramatic close, ending with effective back-to-back lifts. The 2013 world junior champions earned 122.76 points, some 17 more than their previous personal best, set at NHK Trophy last season. They finished with 183.84 points.

"Going into the program, we felt calm," Denney, 18, said. "We tried to keep it just as if it was a practice. ... It's still early in the season, so the program has a lot of room to develop."

"These programs took a lot of work in the offseason to build, and it felt like a long offseason, so it's good to come out here and see that hard work pay off," Frazier, 21, said. 

"I was a little nervous in the beginning; I needed to feel my legs," he continued. "Our coaches have us train sections and full run-throughs when we're sick, when we're tired, so when I went out there, I knew it would happen and I trusted it."

The team's primary coach, three-time U.S. pairs champion John Zimmerman, has assembled an impressive team at the Florida Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs, Florida. The most recent addition is Ingo Steuer, the 1997 world pairs champion who coached Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy to five world titles.

"It was their third competition (after Lombardia Trophy and the Skate Canada Autumn Classic), and we worked on the small details," Steuer said. "They skated clean, like in practice."

"There are still more points to earn. We have to see where we can get more levels, and that's why I'm here," he continued. "It's a good result for U.S. pairs. They are back on the podium, and I am happy I can work for them."

China's Cheng Peng and Hao Zhang, second after the short program, opened their free skate with a sensational quadruple twist that earned 9.60 points but lost ground when Peng fell on an under-rotated triple toe and double Axel. They settled for the bronze medal with 182.43 points.

"We performed a nice program, really focusing on the performance aspect this time," Zhang said. "We also want to congratulate our competitors. We did a quad twist, so we're happy with that, but we want to congratulate [Kavaguti and Smirnov] on a beautiful quad throw."

Like Kavaguti, the 30-year-old Zhang -- who won the 2006 Olympic silver medal with former partner Dan Zhang -- fielded questions on his longevity in the sport.

"I still like it, and I still want to be a part of it," he said. "Participating in another Olympic Games is a big goal."

It was a frustrating free skate for Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim. The Colorado Springs team opened their Gershwin program with a huge triple twist, but then Knierim fell on a triple Salchow and singled the second double Axel in a sequence. Later, Scimeca fell on a throw triple loop. They placed fourth with 168.62 points.

"I'm not really sure [what went wrong]," Scimeca said. "I don't think we've ever been more prepared for a competition, and to skate with errors was very discouraging."

Their Colorado Springs training partners, Madeline Aaron and Max Settlage, were far happier with their charming free skate to music from Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, choreographed by Julie Marcotte.

Skating in their first senior Grand Prix event, the U.S. junior champions landed both their triple throws, as well as their triple Salchows. They missed their levels on several elements, including their death spiral and pairs combination spin, but were pleased with their fifth-place finish and 160.04 points.

Both skaters enjoy playing the musical's lead characters.

"I think the audience really connects to the story," Settlage said. "When Meryl [Davis] and Charlie [White] did Scheherazade, they told a story that was beautiful, and we're really trying to emulate them and entertain the audience."

"When we have characters to become while we're skating, it helps us feel the music more and helps us express ourselves," Aaron said.