Ice Network

Denney, Frazier favored, but contenders abound

Kayne, O'Shea get back into competition mode; Castelli, Tran gel fast
  • Ice Network on Facebook
  • Ice Network on Twitter
Despite coming into the U.S. championships as the favorites for the first time, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier say they do not feel additional pressure on them. -Getty Images

Everything seems to be working for Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier this season.

The silver they won at Skate America in October was the first medal for a U.S. pair at a Grand Prix event since 2008. A few weeks later, they had a solid effort at the Rostelecom Cup, missing out on the bronze by a few hundredths of a point. Grand Prix success has marked them as the pair to beat in Greensboro, and playing the role of favorites suits the South Florida skaters just fine.

"Being called favorites isn't extra pressure, but it's definitely excitement," Frazier, 22, said. "We're ready to make our best showing of the season so far. Everything is a lot more consistent.

"So whatever people are saying, great. We're happy for the attention and to make a name for ourselves. We want to skate two solid programs in Greensboro and keep building, hopefully, for Four Continents and worlds."

For Denney, the 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships are a chance to do what she likes best: perform for an audience.

"It makes competing fun," the 19-year-old said. "I have a lot of love and passion for the sport, and I focus on that."

John Zimmerman, the three-time U.S. pairs champion (with Kyoko Ina) who coaches the team in Coral Springs, likes what he calls his skaters' "cool and collected" mindsets.

"They rise to the occasion," Zimmerman said. "They're not thinking placement -- they're thinking about their elements. They're very studious, mindful and systematic about what they do."

Denney and Frazier teamed up as roller skaters, before switching to the ice and competing together from 2005-08. After a few seasons apart, they re-teamed in 2011 and won the 2012 U.S. junior title. In 2013, they were world junior champions.

Last season, Denney and Frazier were fifth in the U.S., and three teams that finished above them are not competing in Greensboro.

"I don't think that matters too much," Zimmerman said. "Even if the field was the same as last season, they would still be competitive for gold."

During the offseason, Zimmerman and his wife, five-time Italian champion Silvia Fontana, went back to basics with the young pair.  

"We started in April and May working on stroking, dance lifts, just thinking outside of the box," Zimmerman said. "It wasn't just, 'Let's come up with a new Level 4 lift.' We spent a whole month not doing the big tricks, but doing dance lifts, stroking exercises, different hand holds -- things you might never think of doing, in this day and age." 

Frazier credits Ingo Steuer, who assists Zimmerman and Fontana in coaching the pair, with helping them gain higher levels on their elements.

"He was with us for six weeks after [Rostelecom Cup] and took a lot of time with us, helping us build up everything, level-wise," Frazier said. "He will be at nationals. It's exciting to have him with us, standing next to John Zimmerman."

After Rostelecom in mid-November, Zimmerman decided to revamp their short program, choreographed by Renée Roca to the theme from The Godfather.  

"We put the footwork section earlier," the coach said. "A few of the bigger tricks -- the lift and the death spiral -- are now at the end. It adds a completely different dimension to the program."

"We wanted to keep building the excitement of the program," Frazier said. "After our Grand Prix events, we saw that our weakness was the short. I'm happy we had the extra time to do something about it."

Kayne, O'Shea hope to defy odds

When Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea took the ice for their short program at the Golden Spin of Zagreb in early December, Kayne was nervous. The pair had not competed since the 2014 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, where they won silver. Since then, Kayne -- who spent much of the 2013-14 season competing through pain -- discovered she had a labral tear and underwent hip surgery in late July.

The 21-year-old skater spent the next two months recovering at Colorado Springs' Olympic Training Center (OTC), and she and O'Shea were forced to withdraw from their Grand Prix events. Zagreb was the first step in their comeback.

"Suddenly, as we were waiting for our names to be called, I turned to Danny and said, 'I remember how to do this,'" Kayne said. "I got back into that competition mode."

Jim Peterson, who coaches the team in Ellenton, Florida, marvels at Kayne's grit.

"We weren't sure they would be competing at all this year," he said. "Long story short, [the doctors] have said she is probably the quickest recovery of this type of surgery they have seen."

Peterson, who coaches his pairs with Lyndon Johnston and Amanda Evora, admits it has been challenging at times.

"Pulling out of the Grand Prix allowed her to heal properly," he said. "We've had two short program competition simulations at the rink, and two long program simulations, and they have been clean. She does every element, every day."

Kayne goes to IMG Sports Academy, just a half-hour drive away, for physical therapy three days a week.

"When she was in Colorado those two months, the medical people at the OTC pushed her to keep up with her therapy, and that's definitely one reason she has recovered so well," Peterson said, adding that the skaters are landing their side-by-side triple Salchows consistently.

They have also developed a reverse lasso lift for their free skate, choreographed by Peterson to Spartacus.

"We're going for GOE (grade of execution) points," Peterson said. "If you look at the Russian teams, you don't have to go out and do quads. You can do beautiful elements, have beautiful skating and still receive large marks."

The Ellenton group's other senior pair, Gretchen Donlan and Nate Bartholomay, also had an injury this fall. Bartholomay's ankle bone spurs forced them to withdraw from the Ice Challenge in Graz, Austria, in November.

"Nate has a very high pain tolerance, but it got to the point where he could not get a boot on," Peterson said. "After second and third opinions, it was obvious he needed surgery. Two bone spurs were taken off, and he is much better now, but he and Gretchen lost training time."

Peterson is excited about Donlan and Bartholomay's prospects -- if not for this season, then next.

"Gretchen's jumps (double Axel and triple toe) are solid, and her positions in the lifts are beautiful," he said. "They have worked up an excellent triple twist. Her cleanliness of line and flexibility accent the programs so much."

Donlan and Bartholomay, who will make their competitive debut in Greensboro, will perform their short to Neil Diamond's "Dear Father" (including some vocals) and their free skate to Debussy's "Clair de Lune."

Challengers abound in the pairs event, which starts with the short program Thursday. On a media teleconference last week, Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, who placed fourth in the U.S. last season, announced that they will try a quad twist. They have landed the move in early practices in Greensboro.

Scimeca and Knierim's training partners in Colorado Springs, Madeline Aaron and Max Settlage, had a solid fall, placing fourth at Skate Canada and fifth at Skate America.

"Since their Grand Prix events, they've been working a lot on the triple twist, including the catch," the pair's coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, said. "They are going for a Level 3 twist in Greensboro." 

Two-time U.S. pairs champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir are competing, only with new partners: Shnapir with DeeDee Leng, with whom he placed eighth and sixth at two Grand Prix events; and Castelli with Mervin Tran, the Canadian who won the 2012 world bronze medal (with Narumi Takahashi) while competing for Japan.

Castelli and Tran skated their programs this summer, and also competed at Eastern Sectionals in November. Richard Gauthier, who coaches the team in Montreal (they also work with Bobby Martin in Boston), thinks they can be a factor this week.

"They've gelled as fast as any pair I've ever coached," Gauthier said. "Marissa is the best partner Mervin ever had."