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Recent results would dissuade anyone from getting carried away over what seems a breakthrough performance by a U.S. pair.
Such performances have happened off-and-on in the past few decades, but not since 2011 has a U.S. pair finished in the top six at the World Championships. And not since 1996 has a U.S. pair won a world medal in a non-Olympic year. (Post-Olympic fields at worlds generally are watered down by the absence of the new Olympic medalists.) And not since 2002 has a U.S. pair won a world medal in any year. And only once (2015) since 2007 has a U.S. pair made it to the Grand Prix Final.
Even with those historical caveats, there is reason to be hopeful about Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson.
Their free skate at nationals was error-free (rare for a top U.S. pair), and it included difficult elements executed well: throw triple Lutz, two sets of triple jumps (one in combination with a double). The only (minor) ding from the judges was a triple twist given a Level 3 instead of a Level 4.
Their skating had suppleness, flow, speed and a bit of the spectacular in a final lift that covered two-thirds of the outer edge of the rink. They have eschewed intricate choreography to emphasize security on elements, a wise choice at this point in a partnership in only its second season. They have improved substantially in a year.
The California-based Calalang and Johnson, both 24, began this season hoping to get invitations to two Challenger Series (B level) events and wound up with two Grand Prix (A level) events, beating the 2019 U.S. champs, Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, in one and muddling through the other.
They then had two flawed skates while beating a desultory field to win December’s Challenger Series event in Warsaw and a flawed short program at nationals. Nothing else they had done this season foreshadowed that sparkling free skate in Greensboro, N.C.
“This was our second year together,” Calalang said. “We weren’t skating perfect at every competition, but we were training really hard, day in and day out. It all paid off to have that moment. No one can take that moment away from us.”
Their challenge at the Four Continents Championships this week in Seoul, South Korea, is to prove that free skate wasn’t a one-off.
“We have to prove ourselves still.”
Rehashing the momentous free skate in an interview the day after was as entertaining as watching them perform it, given their narration of the often-amusing by-play between them during the four minutes of skating and of what they felt waiting for their scores. Here is an edited transcript:
Have you had time to digest everything that has happened?
Calalang: We’re speechless. Every time we get asked, we’re like, “Did that just really happen?”
At the end, what were you thinking and feeling? And how did you keep it together?
Calalang: Well, actually, from the beginning, we did the twist and we were like, “That was a pretty good twist.”
You’re actually thinking that as you go through it?
Johnson: Oh, yeah.
Calalang: I’m making faces at this one [she nods at Johnson]. He tends to get excited, and then things start to change a little bit, and I just wanted him to be calm.
So, continue the narration.
Calalang: So, then we did the toes (side-by-side triple toe loops in combination with double toes). Obviously, we were very focused on just doing our own jump. I heard the reaction of the crowd, and I was like, “I think he did it. I think we both did it.” But we still had another triple (Salchow) right afterwards… I don’t think I was smiling at all for the first minute.
Johnson: I always like to look around at people whenever I’m skating. I remember going out of the toe into the Sal and looking at the judges and going, “Nope… okay… hold on… I’ve got to do it.”
Calalang: So, then we did the Sals. I can see that he landed. I was facing opposite but I was like (she makes a slack-jawed expression). And I turned around and thought, “Now, gotta be calm.”
Johnson: Then going into the lift she’s like, “Calm, Calm.” (I thought), “Okay, okay, I’ve got this.”
Calalang: So, we do the lift, we do the death spiral, and that’s where we have our slow, breather part.
Johnson: We both look at each other like… (takes deep breath).
Calalang: Easy, easy. We did the throw Sal. Great. Go into the lift. Great. Then we have our choreo sequence, and he’s pulling me around a lot. That’s when we realize we only have three or four elements left. Todd and Jenni (coaches Todd Sand and Jenni Meno, three-time pairs world medalists) heard me talking to him, telling him to be calm, easy, gentle. I go into the throw Lutz and it’s like, “Easy.” And then do the throw Lutz. And then, “Okay. Just two more things left.”
Johnson: The last lift, people started standing, everyone was freaking out, it was amazing. And then I went, “I still have a pairs spin left. Hold on. Refocus.”
Calalang: You don’t want to leave any points on the table. We really had to hone in and make sure we got that level four pairs spin. And then in the spin, I was like, “Did you do (land) the jumps?” I just wanted to double check.”
Johnson: (I said), “Did you do them?”
Calalang: We were like, “Yeaaaaaaaaah.” That was what was happening in our program.
It sounds like a full-on conversation.
Johnson: We talk to each other all the time. It’s a lot of one-word stuff. A lot of facial expressions as well, so when she makes a face, I know what that means.
So when you’re finally done, and you don’t have to focus on being calm or gentle, in your ending pose, what was that moment for you?
Calalang: We were like, “We just did that. Oh, my god.”
Johnson: Speechless, excited relief.
You (Calalang) said, “Oh, my god!” about five times when you saw the scores.
Calalang: In my head I’m like, “We got 119 at Skate Canada. We got 120-something at Warsaw.” So, I was like, “Okay, we did both jumps…maybe 130.” Then it’s 140. Oh, my god, I’ve never dreamed of getting this score. I didn’t think it was possible.
The score, 146.01, is the highest by a U.S. pair in the two seasons of the judging system’s latest incarnation, which has opened the way to higher scores. A better comparison is that it was 26 points higher than their free skate score at nationals in 2019.
For all that, though, they finished second overall, 2.58 points behind Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim, who won their third title. The Knierims also are competing at Four Continents, in which the pairs competition begins with the short program Thursday afternoon at 2:15 (12:15 a.m. ET).
The Four Continents pairs field is strong. It has three teams who competed in the Grand Prix Final, including the top two finishers: Chinese pairs Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, the reigning world champions, and Peng Cheng and Jin Yang, fourth at worlds last year.
Where Calalang and Johnson finish is less important than whether they can show consistent, high-level skating.
“We have to prove ourselves still,” Calalang said.
She and Johnson have had a shining moment.
The question now, as it usually is for U.S. pairs, is whether it will be just one shining moment.
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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