Winning the pairs short program was enough for Emily Chan and Spencer Howe at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
The duo, who had been sidelined all season while Howe recovered from a torn labrum in his shoulder, scored 65.86 points on Thursday to sit atop a crowded leaderboard in Columbus, Ohio. But just hours later, Chan and Howe decided to withdraw from the remainder of the competition so that he could continue his recovery from the surgery last May.
«Tonight was a big success for us, and a huge milestone to our comeback,» Howe said in a statement, «but we feel we want to take this time to continue to get healthy and set ourselves up for success.»
Chan and Howe could still compete at the world championships in March in Montreal, where the U.S. will send three teams. But they will need to file a petition, and U.S. Figure Skating said they have signaled their intention to do so.
Their withdrawal from nationals means Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea, who were right behind with 64.57 points, moved into first place heading into the free skate Saturday. Katie McBeath and Daniil Parkman are close behind with 64.21 points.
«I’ve been recovering for quite some time now, and we’ve had a lot of challenges leading up to this competition, and we weren’t even sure if we were going to be in it at all,» Howe said, «so for us to be here and sitting where we’re sitting, it’s definitely a huge blessing for us. It’s been a long time for us and it felt really good.»
In the rhythm dance, four-time and reigning American champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates showed exactly why they are also the defending world champs. Their program, set to music from the rock band Queen, scored 92.17 points, putting them well clear of Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko in second and Caroline Green and Michael Parsons in third.
«Queen is such a legendary band. So incredible,» Chock said. «We’ve loved their music. It’s as close to getting that concert feeling as we’d get. It gives me chills to hear how incredible they are. We love that music.»
The first day of the U.S. championships concluded Thursday night with the women’s short program, where 16-year-old Isabeau Levito was beginning her title defense. The men’s short program and women’s free skate are Friday night.
The American pairs contingent has been on the rise after years of struggling on the international stage, and that culminated with Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier winning the world title two years ago and a silver medal last season.
But with Knierim and Frazier taking the year off, and their future uncertain, that cleared the way for a free-for-all at nationals.
McBeath and Parkman staked their claim in their first U.S. championships since becoming a team last year, holding onto a throw triple lutz to finish their short program set to «Requiem for a Dream» and post the early high score. It held until the final group, when Kam and O’Shea nudged them aside despite a fall on their throw triple loop.
But it was Chan and Howe, who were coming off a fifth-place finish at worlds and had momentum on their side before his injury, who topped them all. Their program, set to music by Elvis Presley, was hardly their best performance but nevertheless earned an appreciative response from a large crowd inside Nationwide Arena.
Turns out that was the only opportunity fans would get to see Chan and Howe this weekend.
«When we got here,» Chan said, «it was a reminder of what it’s like to be in a competition environment. It’s been a while since we’ve been in a big arena. So it was really nice to be here and feel the energy of the crowd, and by the time we got out there for our performances, we were both so supportive of each other. We knew we would be out there together, so we set back in the comfort of each other, and we did our best to work together in the moment.»