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Sui, Han grab spotlight, title with superb free skate

Scimeca, Knierim break through for first Grand Prix medal; Canadians third
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Wenjing Sui and Cong Han of China completed an array of technically difficult elements in their 'Samson and Delilah' free -- quad twist, side-by-side triple toe-double toe-double toe combinations, throw triple salchow, throw triple flip -- and they made it all look easy. (Their only error came when he fell on an attempted triple salchow.) Entering the day in second, the world silver medalists moved up one spot to grab the gold medal, their first ever in the Grand Prix Series. -Getty Images

Wenjing Sui arrived at 2010 Skate America in Portland, Oregon, as a talented, 15-year-old waif. She watched quietly as her extroverted partner, Cong Han, answered questions for the team, practiced his English with reporters and charmed fans.

Flash forward five seasons to 2015 Progressive Skate America in Milwaukee, and Sui is her partner's equal in every way. The spotlight in Sui and Han's superb Samson and Delilah free skate, choreographed by Lori Nichol, is firmly on her, and the now 20-year-old oozes passion, strength and drama every second of the way -- while also landing a quad twist, two huge triple throws and two triple jumps.

"At first, my partner was like my big brother; he was the leader of our little team," Sui said through a translator at the press conference. "I really appreciate how he helped me, and led me in the competition and the training. Right now, our relationship is more an equal partnership. We are getting much closer."

Then, Sui brought the house down, while causing her partner to flinch a bit.

"I do want to make it clear we are not dating," she said firmly.

The world silver medalists rose to the challenge of Nichols' rich and intricate steps and transitions, as well the program's technical demands. The one exception was Han's disruptive fall on a triple salchow in the program's second half. The mistake pained the 23-year-old skater.

"Today, I didn't do very well," he said. "Usually, we do those jumps with success, but today I fell. Our next competition is Cup of China in our home country, and I think we can do them very well there."

Sui and Han's free skate score of 132.72, and 202.00-point total, could have been higher had the pair included a throw quadruple salchow, a move they hit in practice in Milwaukee. Their coach, 2010 Olympic champion Hongbo Zhao, instructed them to do just a triple.

"Our coach has a plan for us," Han said. "We just listen to him; he is a very excellent coach. Last night, he told us many stories about how we can get better."

Zhao, who coaches the pair in Beijing, agrees that his word is law.

"I am training China's top four teams and giving them all the same (twist and throw) technique I used with my partner (Xue Shen)," Zhao said. "I did not want [Sui and Han] to try a throw quad, because the practice today was so early."

Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, who led the Chinese by a fraction of a point after the short program, opened their free to music from the Elizabeth: The Golden Age soundtrack with a solid quad but had trouble with jumps: Scimeca fell on a triple salchow and Knierim went down on a triple toe.

The U.S. champions snapped into focus for the program's second half with a huge throw triple flip and strong, dramatic lifts. They placed fourth in the free skate with 122.28 points and won the silver medal with 191.97 points. It is their first Grand Prix medal.

"We had a few stumbles, but we're happy with the end result," Knierim said. "We can go out and skate two good programs and we know that, especially for nationals, because we want to get to worlds. We still have a good amount of the season to go and plenty to practice."

Scimeca rejected a gentle suggestion that the program's jump content was ambitious.

"Our jumping passes are very consistent (at home)," she said. "Unfortunately, today when it mattered, we both went down. It was one of the very first times we have not had to come back from the short, so it's a little bit of a different energy going in. Hopefully, we will learn how to be ahead in the short and skate a great free, too."

Making their senior Grand Prix debut, Canadians Julianne Séguin and Charlie Bilodeau grabbed the bronze medal with an arresting and entertaining program to "A Whiter Shade of Pale" that had superb lifts, a huge throw triple loop and tremendous audience appeal. They ended with 189.49 points, topping their previous ISU personal best by more than 10 points.

"Our only goal this season was to deliver beautiful programs, and that's what we did," Bilodeau said. "We're really happy with the score and that's a plus. We have nothing to lose right now. Of course, we think about someday being Canadian champions, but we don't put any pressure on ourselves. One day it could be us, if we continue this way."

Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov of Russia, fifth after the short, skated an introspective program to Danny Elfman's "Man and Shadow" marked by Stolbova's burning intensity and angular positions. There were a few glitches -- he fell on a triple salchow, and she turned out of the landing of a throw triple salchow -- but their quality shone through, and they placed second in the free with 125.65 points. They ended up fourth overall with 189.06 points.

The pair withdrew from the world championships last season, telling the Russian press they wanted to take time off to develop a quad element. It is still a work in progress.

"We are working on a quad throw, but we will not show it until the second half of the season," Klimov said. "We want to do it at Europeans."

U.S. bronze medalists Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea had a difficult opening to their "Music of the Night" free, with Kayne falling on a triple salchow as well as an under-rotated throw quad salchow. The team fought back with a solid double axel-double axel sequence, throw triple lutz and fine lifts. They placed sixth with 165.99 points.

"It was our first time trying throw quad in competition, so I think that was definitely on my mind from the start of the program," Kayne said. "It's definitely a little distracting."

"We both messed up on the triple salchows in the beginning, and the throw quad was not the best we could do," O'Shea. "I felt good about how we fought back and finished the program strong."

Kayne and O'Shea's training partners in Ellenton, Florida, Jessica Pfund and Joshua Santillan, performed a near-clean free to Borodin's Prince Igor, including a triple salchow-double axel sequence and two solid triple throws. They placed eighth with 151.40 points.

"It was really exciting to be out there, and for our first time out at a Grand Prix, it's really good for us," Pfund said. "We've only been together six months, so I'm very happy with that."