Mariah Bell hangs on for first Grand Prix gold; Knierim/Frazier take pairs title

Bell denied a surging Bradie Tennell, who finished second at Skate America, as Knierim/Frazier won their first major event together having paired up earlier this year.

By Nick McCarvel

Mariah Bell has the first Grand Prix gold medal of her career – just barely.

The 24-year-old American fell in the latter half of her free skate on Saturday, but had skated nearly perfect before that, enough so to hold off compatriot Bradie Tennell for the win at Skate America in Las Vegas. The event is the first of a truncated figure skating Grand Prix Series this season.

Bell, skating to an ABBA medley, won with a 212.73 overall. Tennell, a team bronze medallist for the U.S. at PyeongChang 2018, finished with 211.07, having won the free skate.

Sixteen-year-old Audrey Shin, making her senior Grand Prix debut, impressed with a bronze medal finish. She competed earlier this year at the Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne, where she finished seventh.

In pairs, the new duo of Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Brandon Frazier, which came together earlier this season, got off to a strong start, winning the event with a seven-point cushion over teammates Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson (214.77 to 207.40). Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov captured the bronze.

The field in Vegas featured mostly American skaters as the ISU limited athletes to one Grand Prix this season versus the usual two. The event was open to only American athletes and those who train in the U.S. and no fans were allowed on site to watch.

Bell becomes the first U.S. woman to win Skate America since Ashley Wagner did so in 2016.

She was, however, critical of her late-program fall, which came on a triple Lutz attempt, but said she’s still working into the program itself. It's the first major international event of the season.

“I was a little shaky, I felt a little stiff,” Bell told reporters.

She told NBC TV in the U.S.: “This free skate is a little different for me; I’ve been trying to get into the character and perform it a bit more. I know what I want to work on moving forward. There are going to be more technical elements in there moving forward.”

Shin scored a 206.15 for the bronze, while 2018 Olympian and former U.S. champ Karen Chen was fourth and in impressive form in both the short and long programs, scoring a 204.90 total. Amber Glenn finished fifth, while Lin Shan of China was sixth.

Mariah makes her move

Bell, who trains in California with coaches Adam Rippon and Rafael Arutunian, had a three-point lead after the short program. She hit a double Axel-triple toe in combination to open her free, then was nearly flawless throughout, completing three Level 4 spins and earning eights and above for her program components.

She nearly held on in her missed triple Lutz, which was downgraded, but was visibly frustrated after the fall. She and Tennell are the leading U.S. women, along with two-time and reigning U.S. champ Alysa Liu. Liu, 15, is still not eligible to compete at the senior level internationally due to age restrictions.

Bell was second at U.S. nationals in January behind Liu.

"I had a lot of great momentum coming off of last year," she said on Friday. "The thing that works best for me in general is just trying to be the best that I can be. I have complete control over what I’m doing. I love that personal challenge. I truly feel like I’m just coming into my prime."

It was Tennell who won the free skate, though the top four scores (Bell being fourth) were separated by just 1.53 points.

Tennell's much-talked-about triple Axel was not tried, the Chicago-area native instead opting for a triple Lutz-triple toe in combination.

Shin: YOG 'felt like a dream'

Shin, still just 16, had a breakout weekend, finishing third in both the short and free and hanging on for the bronze ahead of Chen.

After ankle surgery in May 2019, the teen feels as though she's settling in to some of her best skating, which she displayed with a sort of youthful ease in two skates inside the Orleans Arena. Coached by Tammy Gambill, Shin says her experience in January at the Youth Olympic Games have been a huge motivating factor in her blossoming career.

"(Lausanne was) my favorite competition by far," she said, beaming. "I felt really lucky to get that spot… after coming back from the Youth Olympics I thought, 'I really want to go to the Olympics now.' … It felt like a dream while I was there."

While Beijing 2022 is on her mind, Shin said it's about setting one goal at a time: "I worked really hard on trying to perform the best that I can here. This is my first major competition this season. ... We’ve talked about what my goals are. Skate America was a chance to show how consistent I am, (and) we’re trying to improve every day."

Former U.S. champ and Sochi 2014 team bronze medallist Gracie Gold finished 12th.

Pairs: Knierim/Frazier 'excited for what's to come'

While the U.S. has struggled internationally in the pairs discipline, Knierim/Frazier could mark a new era, both skaters being veterans and coming off long-standing relationships with separate partners. The two joined forces in the spring of 2020.

“We’re very happy with the progress we made this week," said Frazier, who previously skated with Haven Denney. "We had small goals to achieve and we’re very satisfied with the foundation that we’ve laid down and now we have loads of work ahead of us.” 

The pair won both the short program and free skate, and in the latter displayed a monster triple twist and side-by-side triple Salchows, as well as a throw triple Lutz and triple loop, both of which received positive Grades of Execution (GOEs).

"I made a joke to Brandon when we got our scores that this partnership is going to work," Knierim said in the post-skate press conference. "But I didn’t have my doubts prior. More than anything inside, we’re pleased with the progress. We feel like our hard work is being validated. We’re excited for what’s to come and excited to keep moving.”

Knierim previously skated with her husband Chris Knierim, who retired in February.

Former U.S. champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc just missed out on the podium, finishing 0.42 points behind Lu/Mitrofanov, who won their first Grand Prix medal.