U.S. Nationals Preview: Pairs

Last year’s pairs event at Nationals was so surprising! Who expected Leng/LeDuc to come out of nowhere and skate a brilliant, third-place short program? Who expected Zhang/Bartholomay to make the Olympic team ahead of Denney/Coughlin?

With all the surprises last season, I wasn’t planning on even trying to predict what would happen this year! Plus, I don’t want to jinx anyone. I’m really a supporter of all U.S. pairs. I may have my favorites—what skating fan doesn’t?–but I genuinely want all our pairs to do well.

As Nationals got closer, though, I got curious: Could the numbers from this season’s events shed any light on what to expect? I piled the season’s scores into a no-doubt-poorly-designed spreadsheet. (Reaching new highs–or lows–of skating-fan-geekdom in the process. And yes, crunching numbers in exactly the way I questioned in my last blog post!)


What conclusions did I reach? Let’s see!

Going for Gold: The Top Two Teams

Everyone seems to believe the title is between Alexa Scimeca/Chris Knierim and Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier.

The top 2 teams
The top 2 teams

Last year, Scimeca/Knierim placed fourth; Denney/Frazier were fifth. This year, the two teams have been close again. Both won their first Challenger Series event and medaled in their second. Denney/Frazier then had a great competition at Skate America, winning silver over Alexa/Chris, who were a disappointing 4th. Both teams placed 4th at their second GP events.

Denney/Frazier have shown so much improvement this season. Their programs have interesting transitions, are well-constructed, and display a newfound maturity. Their Lion King LP, in particular, is a fan favorite. The program builds dramatically to a strong finish, which has helped carry D/F past some mistakes at times and still leave a good impression.

Scimeca/Knierim’s programs have not been quite as well received. Unfortunately they had mistakes in their early outings, which hurt the initial impression. The programs have many interesting moments. I especially enjoy the lightness and charm of their An American in Paris LP, and their SP was much improved at TEB. But realistically, S/K’s programs are probably a net neutral for them. Where S/K have shown progress is on the technical side. They’ve added a difficult new lift, with Alexa in upside-down position and Chris supporting her one-handed. Also, the big news: They announced this week they will add a quad twist to their free skate (as well as a 2A/2A sequence).

It’s been 2 months since these teams competed, so it’s hard to say who has momentum. Denney/Frazier caught everyone’s attention with their silver at Skate America. It was the highest GP finish for a U.S. pair since 2008. However, Rostelecom was a step backward: They failed to capitalize on their SA success, made mistakes, and missed the bronze medal by a painfully close .02 margin. Scimeca/Knierim, meanwhile, followed up their SA disappointment with a generally cleaner, stronger performance at Trophee Eric Bompard. I feel the momentum is slightly with Scimeca/Knierim.

Haven & Brandon are steady competitors. An impressive stat about their season is that they’ve fallen only one time in 4 competitions. They’ve had their struggles with SBS jumps, but the mistakes have mostly been pops or stumbles, not falls. Alexa & Chris, meanwhile, have suffered many disruptive falls on jumps. I think S/K’s nerves have hurt them not only technically but artistically. The nervous tension has been obvious at times, and I think it’s held them back from expressing their programs as well as they could.

How close are these two teams by the numbers? Quite close. Let’s consider PCS. Although Denney/Frazier’s programs are generally considered superior, these teams’ average total PCS scores this season are almost identical. Scimeca/Knierim’s average total PCS per competition is 83.3. Denney/Frazier’s average is 83.2. So, they are effectively tied in PCS.

When you look at their average total TES scores, Scimeca/Knierim have a clear advantage in base value. Over 4 competitions, S/K’s average total base value is 82.7, versus only 77.1 for Denney/Frazier. D/F have great elements, but are less consistent in getting difficulty levels than S/K. D/F made up some of this deficit with higher GOE. Their average total GOE per competition was 8.4, compared to S/K’s 5.8. When you add it all up, though, Scimeca/Knierim still had a 3-point advantage. (Which is consistent with last season; S/K beat D/F at Nationals last year by just under 3 points.)

Given the closeness in these pairs’ scores, Scimeca/Knierim upgrading to a quad twist in the free skate is important. Let’s assume S/K land the quad and get maybe a level 2 on it. That would add 1.4 points in base value to the 3-point technical cushion they typically hold over D/F. It’s significant.

My feeling is that Scimeca/Knierim will defeat Denney/Frazier for the title. I think it will be close. And Denney/Frazier may well prevail if S/K succumb to nerves again and fall on their jumps (a distinct possibility). However, I think the quad twist, their greater maturity, and the slightly higher quality of their technical elements will carry Scimeca/Knierim to the title.

Battle for Bronze?: The Next Tier

Two other American pairs skated a full international season this year: Jessica Calalang/Zack Sidhu and Madeline Aaron/Max Settlage. Both teams did two Challenger Series and two Grand Prix events. With both teams competition-tested, they could battle for the bronze in Greensboro.

Calalang/Sidhu and Aaron/Settlage
Calalang/Sidhu and Aaron/Settlage

Calalang/Sidhu were only 11th last year. However, they moved up quickly this season, with so many teams ahead of them split/injured. Surprisingly, they medaled in both their CS events. They then finished 5th/7th at Cup of China and Rostelecom. In their first senior season, Aaron/Settlage did not medal at their CS events. However, they finished 5th/4th at Skate America and Skate Canada.

Calalang/Sidhu won many new fans this season. Jessica has a sparkly, sweet presence on the ice, which adds much to their appeal. Their programs and packaging are rather generic, however. The SP is set to show music, and the LP is yet another rendition of Nino Rota’s Romeo & Juliet. Neither program is particularly interesting. Calalang/Sidhu attempt all the difficult technical elements. However, their fundamentals are not the strongest; they lack speed and edge quality in their basic footwork.

Aaron/Settlage are skating to Coppelia and The King and I. Their programs show off their youthful chemistry and energy and Maddie’s balletic carriage and extensions. This pair has improved from event to event and made a strong impression on both fans and judges. They skate with a lot of energy and commitment. Their technical elements are not the biggest or highest, but are pretty consistent.

I think both teams come into Nationals with similar momentum. Both teams had fairly strong performances in their second GP events. A poster on FSU reported that Aaron/Settlage have been looking very good in practice. No reports on Calalang/Sidhu.

Looking at the numbers, these pairs are very close. Although Aaron/Settlage’s programs have received more praise, the two teams surprisingly have exactly the same average total PCS score per competition this season: 77.3. Both teams also have exactly the same average number of falls per competition: 1.3.

The difference comes on the technical side. Calalang/Sidhu have just over a 1-point advantage in average base value and average GOE. As a result, their average total TES score per competition is currently 78.4, versus 76.0 for Aaron/Settlage.

These numbers suggest Calalang/Sidhu might finish ahead of Aaron/Settlage at Nationals. However, my feeling is that Aaron/Settlage will likely overcome the TES disadvantage and beat Calalang/Sidhu.

It comes down to performance level. Assuming the two teams perform similar elements, I think Aaron/Settlage will make a stronger impression artistically because they have better basic skills, better musicality, better programs, and a generally higher performance level. I think internationally, A/S have been marked down a little in PCS because they are: 1) a new, young-looking team just up from juniors, 2) do not have the biggest lifts or twist, and 3) are a rather short, small team (just 4’10”/5’9”). Those factors are all more important internationally than nationally. At Nationals, I think what’s going to matter is which team performs the cleanest and connects most with the audience. And of these two, I see Aaron/Settlage as crowd favorites, with their high-energy, fun, character-driven programs.

The Spoilers: Kayne/O’Shea

Because Calalang/Sidhu and Aaron/Settlage have competed so much this season, normally I’d expect one of them to get the bronze. However, if there’s one team that could spoil their party, it’s Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea.

Kayne/O'Shea: Have only competed once this season
Kayne/O’Shea: Have only competed once this season

Kayne/O’Shea were a strong 6th last year at Nationals and won silver at 4CCs. Unfortunately Tarah had to undergo hip labrum surgery over the summer, which cost them many months of training. They came back to win bronze at Golden Spin of Zagreb, the last Challenger Series event of the year.

How do Tarah & Danny fit into the picture at Nationals? It’s so hard to say, with just one competition to go on—and no video from that competition! At Golden Spin, they struggled with their SBS jumps. And their triple twist was only a level 1 in both segments. However, they did land several throw jumps and were successful on all their other elements.

K/O’s total TES/PCS scores at Golden Spin were several points better than Aaron/Settlage’s and Calalang/Sidhu’s total TES/PCS averages for the season. But again, it’s just one competition. How much weight does it bear?

I don’t know. But I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Kayne/O’Shea will pass both of those teams to win bronze. Again, I say this based on general quality and performance level. Kayne/O’Shea, at their best, are a talented team. They are crisp, sharp, polished, musical, and definitely more mature than either C/S or A/S. Plus, Tarah has that special star quality that simply can’t be taught.

Also, I think they are extremely motivated to come back from this injury and not lose any more time proving themselves on the world stage. I just have this feeling that they’re going to put it all out there to try and make that 4CC team, if not the World team. So much depends on Tarah’s physical readiness, of course. If it’s there, I see them on the podium.

Wild Cards: Last Year’s Champions

After a two-year reign as U.S. pairs champions, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir ended their tumultuous partnership this spring. Simon paired with DeeDee Leng (8th last year) and Marissa is skating with Mervin Tran (former World bronze medalist for Japan).

Last year's champions with their new partners
Last year’s champions with their new partners

How do the former champions fit into this year’s event? Tough to say. Leng/Shnapir were not able to skate a full season due to DeeDee fracturing her pelvis (ouch!). In their 2 GP events, L/S did not place well: 8th/last at Rostelecom, 6th/next-to-last at NHK. Meanwhile Castelli/Tran could not compete internationally, as Tran does not expect his release from Canada until this summer. Mervin/Marissa debuted their programs and skated fairly well at Boston Open, a club competition. However, their performances at U.S. Sectionals were quite disappointing.

Leng/Shnapir are skating to Carmina Burana and Miss Saigon. At this stage, the programs are a backdrop more than anything else. DeeDee & Simon are still working just on getting the elements and their timing. So far, they’re only performing double twist and throw double loop. They’ll need to upgrade those elements to get into contention.

Castelli/Tran, meanwhile, have strong material. Their Summertime SP shows off their skating skills and footwork. And their tango LP could potentially be a very nice package. Despite their newness as a team, Marissa & Mervin are going for high-level elements: triple twist, level 4 lifts, throw 3Lz. However, they haven’t been consistent yet at hitting those elements, so it’s hard to know what they will do at Nationals. What they do have is huge potential. As I said in an earlier post, I do believe the quality of their basic skating and edges is potentially among the best in the world. Individually, they are exceptionally strong skaters.

Neither team enters Nationals with any momentum. After Rostelecom, Leng/Shnapir were criticized for perhaps competing too soon. And Marissa/Mervin’s poor LP at Sectionals took much of the buzz off their new partnership.

The numbers so far indicate Leng/Shnapir are not ready to contend at Nationals. Their average total TES score so far this season is just 65.2. Their average total PCS is 70.6. For Castelli/Tran, we have only the results of U.S. Sectionals to look at. Their total TES at Sectionals was 71.5—not competitive. However, their total PCS was 80.5—much better. Comparing Sectionals scores to international scores is dicey. But the higher PCS is definitely reflective of the quality of their basic skating.

I’m going to put my money on Marissa & Mervin to surprise people with a top 5 finish at Nationals. These two are experienced competitors with a lot of pride, and I expect them to rebound from Sectionals and skate much better in Greensboro.


So after looking at everything, my predictions for the top pairs are as follows:

1. Scimeca/Knierim

2. Denney/Frazier

3. Kayne/O’Shea

4. Aaron/Settlage

5. Castelli/Tran

6. Calalang/Sidhu

7. Leng/Shnapir

Despite these predix, though, I will love it if the U.S. pairs surprise us with exciting and unexpected performances this week and it all turns out differently!! Numbers and predictions are one thing. But great performances transcend all that and are what we fans live for!

The bottom line: GOOD LUCK to all the U.S. pairs competing this week in Greensboro!! I can’t wait to watch you all! 🙂


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