Brandon Frazier sounded like a lot of the leading U.S. pairs’ skaters who have come before him over the years.
“We’re trying to push ourselves to be more competitive with the top teams in the world,” said Frazier, reigning U.S. champion with partner Alexa Knierim.
For six decades, that goal for U.S. pairs has primarily meant trying to be competitive with teams from Russia and its predecessor, the Soviet Union.
And, despite some unexpected Russian dry spells in the past 15 years, that is what it means again.
It certainly was the case Friday night at Skate America in Las Vegas, when two of the current top three Russian teams led the short program standings in the opening Grand Prix event of the season.
Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, Russian champions three of the past four seasons, led with 80.36, less than a point from their personal best.
Teammates Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitry Kozlovskiy, reigning world bronze medalists, were second at 75.43.
The Russians were the only teams in the eight-pair field who had positive grades of execution on all seven elements.
But the Japanese team of Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, a fast-improving couple who have been an impressive surprise in the early part of this season, provoked a big positive crowd response with a performance to k.d. lang’s version of “Hallelujah” that had just one minor error.
Miura and Kihara’s 72.63 points topped the personal best they had tallied while winning the Autumn Classic Challenger Series event in Canada last month.
The U.S. teams, Jessica Calalang/Brian Johnson (68.87) and Knierim/Frazier (66.37), were fourth and fifth. Calalang and Johnson had just one small mistake in an electric skate, on their throw, but Frazier fell on his side-by-side jump.
After winning pairs’ gold in 12 straight Winter Olympics from 1964 through 2006 (plus silver in seven of those Games), Russian teams have faltered recently. They won no medals in both the 2010 and 2018 Olympics.
It has been clear since then the Russians are back – now and for the future. They have swept medals in the last three World Junior Championships, and the senior teams went 1-3-4 at last year’s World Championships and 2-3 in the previous one in 2019 (Covid forced cancellation of the 2020 senior worlds.)
Tarasova and Morozov, three-time world medalists frustrated by their fourths at the 2018 Olympics and the 2021 worlds, made a dramatic coaching change coming into this season.
They moved to the coaching team headed by Eteri Tutberidze, a former ice dancer known for her overwhelming success with the women’s singles skaters who now dominate that discipline.
“It has been very interesting working with Eteri and her team,” Morozov said. “Of course, she hadn’t worked before with pairs, but as an ice dancer she knows a lot about skating together.”
Tutberidze is focused on giving Tarasova and Morozov more jump consistency. She is getting pairs’ help from Maksim Trankov. He and skating partner (now wife) Tatyana Volosozhar were runaway Olympic champions in 2014.
That is the gap Russians usually had on their pairs’ rivals.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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