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Denney, Frazier climb to top of pairs field in KC

Second after short program, duo claims first U.S. title over Castelli, Tran
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Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier pulled up from second after the short to win the free skate and claim their first U.S. title Saturday in Kansas City. Skating to "Somewhere in Time," the pair, who missed all of last season while Denney recovered from a serious knee injury, amassed 122.93 points in the segment and 188.32 in total to edge runners-up Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran by two points. -Jay Adeff

It turned into a battle of attrition, with Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier literally and metaphorically serving as the best and final team standing in the senior pairs competition at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City.

The fact that Denney and Frazier were the ones to reach the peak of the senior pairs field was a fitting outcome, given that they were forced to sit out all of last season after Denney's right knee injury required surgery.

Although they were not close to flawless -- with negative grades on three of 12 elements -- Denney and Frazier were the only team in the top seven who did not suffer a fall in Saturday's free skate.

"It wasn't a perfect skate, but we fought through it," Denney said.

The pairs competition had 15 entries, until the most talented and decorated active couple -- the husband and wife duo of Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim -- withdrew earlier this month because they had lost too much training time after Alexa's surgery in September. The Knierims, out of competition since last April's Team Challenge Cup, have petitioned for one of the two places on the U.S. team at the world championships.

U.S. Figure Skating will announce the pairs world team Sunday morning.

The field at this week's U.S. championships was reduced to 11 teams -- with four dropouts before the competition began -- and then to nine with two more pairs bowing out Saturday. One of the latest to remove themselves from the competition were defending champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea, who withdrew because she sustained a concussion on a hard fall in Thursday's short program, when they finished fifth.

"Pairs is really hard," said Marissa Castelli, who finished runner-up with partner Mervin Tran. "The tricks we are doing takes a toll on your body. I think I've seen every one of us in the medical room getting small treatments done. Pairs people are just so tough."

Denney and Frazier, the final performers in the free skate, became the eighth different pair to win the U.S. title in the last nine years. Denney's older sister, Caydee, won two titles with two different partners in that time period, and Castelli won two titles (2013-14) with her previous partner, Simon Shnapir.

"Wow, what a feeling, a feeling I don't think I've felt since the day we won junior worlds (in 2013)," Frazier said.

The winners had 188.32 points compared to 186.28 for Castelli and Tran and 184.41 for Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, who earned top honors in the short program.

Under the new world team selection rules -- which were adopted by U.S. Figure Skating last week -- not even the champions are guaranteed to go to worlds.

The criteria in those selection rules make it likely the Knierims' petition will be granted, providing they demonstrate competitive fitness over the next several weeks. That decision would be based on their silver medals at last season's Four Continents and U.S. championships and their having been the top U.S. finishers at last year's worlds.

Both of the top two teams at this year's U.S. championships insisted they would not be upset if they were bumped for the Knierims.

"We have to trust our federation will do what they feel is best," Frazier said. "If they choose us, we will do everything we can. If not, we will respect the decision."

Castelli and Tran are more probable to be bumped, especially since Tran will not have U.S. citizenship in time to compete at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. Olympic eligibility rules demand an athlete be a citizen of the country he or she represents, but that is not required at the world championships.

"The best thing for the U.S. is to get three spots next year (for the Olympics, which is based on finishes at worlds)," Tran said. "Whatever we decide is our best chances for that, we're all for that."

To get three pairs entries for the PyeongChang Games, the placements of the two U.S. teams at this year's worlds must add up to 13 or fewer. The last time the U.S. had three pairs entries at the Olympics was 1994.