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US FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS

Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc take US Figure Skating Championships lead with near-flawless performance in pairs

Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc skate in the Pairs Short Program during the US Figure Skating Championships at Bridgestone Arena on Thursday in Nashville, Tenn.Matthew Stockman/Getty

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc upstaged a brilliant performance by Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson on Thursday to take the lead after the pairs short program at the US Figure Skating Championships.

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc, skating last among the eight teams at Bridgestone Arena, were near-flawless in a program set to music from the 2018 biographical drama film “The White Crow.” It was highlighted by a soaring triple loop and piled up 79.39 points, a score that would have been third-best in the world this season.

More importantly, it put the 2019 national champions ahead of Calalang and Johnson heading into the free skate at what amounts to the US trials for the Beijing Olympics next month.

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“We’re thrilled. It was exactly the way we wanted to skate,” Cain-Gribble said with a bright smile, “and we knew we had to be perfect with the program that went before, but we didn’t focus on that too much.”

Calalang and Johnson opened with a brilliant side-by-side triple salchow that has caused them problems in the past, and the reigning silver medalists finished with a tremendous lift that left them with 77.48 points after their short program.

Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson were 1.91 points behind the leaders after the pairs short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Thursday.Andrew Nelles/Associated Press

Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov of the Skating Club of Boston made a couple of mistakes and were in third place with 68.11 points.

The US has two pairs spots for the Beijing Games, and one of those could go to defending US champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, who were forced to withdraw Wednesday night following his positive COVID-19 test.

Knierim and Frazier plan to petition US Figure Skating for one of the spots based on their exemplary scope of work. If they are successful, that would leave just one spot up for grabs; the pairs free skate takes place Saturday night.

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Ashley Cain-Gribble (right) is from the Skating Club of New York and and partner Timothy LeDuc is from the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club.Andrew Nelles/Associated Press

“We’re aware of the process and I have been through it before,” said Knierim, who successfully petitioned to make the 2017 Four Continents with husband Chris after undergoing abdominal surgery. “It’s not a great feeling to go through it for anyone, but we are grateful that our federation has this mechanism.”

If there’s indeed one spot left for the taking, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc gave themselves the inside track. The pair, who had to halt work over the summer when Cain-Gribble was briefly hospitalized with COVID-19, looked as if they’d never been off the ice. They were effortless in the solo jumps that have caused them problems in the past, and now they can look ahead to the free skate, which has been their strength all season.

Calalang and Johnson also spent time off the ice, though for a much different reason: They spent several months fighting a positive test for a banned stimulant that was found to have been in one of Calalang’s cosmetics.

“What we went through was really awful. We didn’t even know if we would be here at this US championships,” she said, “and if we learned anything this year — we just have really connected on such a deeper level.”

That was evident in their performance to a rocking version of The Beatles’ hit “Come Together” performed by Aerosmith.

“Every day is a new day,” Johnson said. “Go out there, enjoy, have fun and whatever happens, happens.”

Bell leads after women’s short program

Mariah Bell landed the triple flip-triple toe loop that had been causing her problems Thursday night, then ramped up the energy inside frigid Bridgestone Arena. By the time Bell spun to a finish, she had Adam Rippon — now one of her coaches — leaping in the air and the masked fans circling the ice standing in ovation at the US Figure Skating Champions.

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Bell’s score of 75.55 points put her one point ahead of Karen Chen, the 2017 champion and 2018 Olympian, and more than four ahead of two-time national champion Alysa Liu, who is also aiming for her first spot on an Olympic team.

“Adam went to the Olympics and he’s like, ‘No, it’s incredible,’” Bell said, “but at the end of the day it’s another competition. That’s all it is. It’s just a matter of keeping things in perspective and staying mature and professional.”

Bell was the silver medalist in 2020 and twice has earned bronze at nationals, but her flawless technical routine and strong performance in Nashville put her in Friday night’s free skate with a strong shot at the top step of the podium.