By JANIE McCAULEY
AP Sports Writer
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — They held their on-ice embrace a for a few extra moments this time, kneeling in an end pose moments after a near-flawless short program.
Overwhelming favorite and reigning world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier scored a personal-best of 81.96 on Thursday for a commanding lead in the first day of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
The pair took the ice in sparkling silver costumes for their much-anticipated nationals return after missing the event a year ago when Frazier tested positive for COVID-19. This time, they delivered an awe-inspiring routine to Journey’s “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” from Stranger Things.
Their score Thursday was three points higher than they’d done before and also less than three points shy of the world-record 84.41 set by Sui Wenjing and Han Cong at last year’s Beijing Olympics.
Knierim and Frazier led second-place tandem Emily Chan and Spencer Howe by more than 15 points after the short program with the pairs free skate set for Saturday at SAP Center.
Knierim and Frazier never got a chance to defend their national title a year ago at the event in Nashville, Tennessee, after Frazier’s positive test the night before competition began forced the pair to withdraw. They then had to petition for a spot on the Olympic team for Beijing.
There, the duo helped the Americans capture a silver medal in the team event and placed sixth in pairs. The twosome also earned silver in the Grand Prix final last month.
Chan and Howe are expected to be the next-best pair in San Jose behind Knierim and Frazier, who partnered after Knierim’s husband, Chris, retired from skating in 2020.
While Chan fell on their side-by-side triple toeloops at SAP Center, the degree of difficulty with the technical content in their routine earned them a higher score from the judges for a 66.86 — less than point off their international personal-best earned at Skate Canada 2022.
Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea were third with a 65.75 after the short program competing in their first season together.
In fourth place at 63.45, Valentina Plazas and Maximiliano Fernandez performed an elegant skate to “Maria” from West Side Story. They were the 2021 junior bronze medalists and finished sixth at nationals last year in their senior debut as a pair.
AP Freelance Writer Sonja Chen contributed to this report.
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