Commentary

Which pairs teams will go to Sochi?

Updated: January 11, 2014, 10:07 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

John Coughlin, Caydee DenneyJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesCaydee Denney and John Coughlin moved up to third after receiving the highest score in Saturday's pairs free skate, but must wait until Sunday to find out if they'll take one of two Sochi spots.

BOSTON -- The top U.S. ice dancing teams made the Olympic selection committee's task straightforward. The pairs created some intrigue.

In what has become a routine coronation, Meryl Davis and Charlie White collected their sixth consecutive national title Saturday. But the crowd at TD Garden clearly appreciated the excellence on display, rising to applaud their precision, athleticism and elegance in interpreting Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade."

Two-time world champions and 2010 Olympic silver medalists Davis and White are aiming to unseat rink-mates Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada for gold. Although the formal announcement of the U.S. team isn't until midday Sunday, White was rightfully secure enough to spin forward to Sochi, saying he and Davis have told U.S. skating officials they are committed to competing in the new team event, which means they would skate two additional competitive programs there.

"For us, having another opportunity to compete at the Olympics is amazing in and of itself, and America is certainly poised to be in the hunt for a medal,'' he said.

The next two teams consolidated their positions from the short dance. Madison Chock and Evan Bates executed a flowing, powerful free skate to music from "Les Miserables," while siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani delivered an adrenalized performance to a Michael Jackson medley. The last note had barely faded when Alex Shibutani fell to his knees and then on all fours in celebratory relief.

Text messages telling those two teams they are Sochi-bound are likely typed and ready to be sent Sunday morning. Both Chock and Bates (who was a 2010 Olympian with former partner Emily Samuelson) and the Shibutanis have extensive international experience.

The picture on the pairs side, where the U.S. only has two Olympic slots, is a little murkier. There's just a fraction of a point between the second- and third-place teams, but the determination might be made on the larger gap in their résumés.

Boston-based Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir repeated as national champions, retaining the lead they built in the short program even though they paid a price when Castelli fell on landing their high-risk, high-reward throw quadruple Salchow. "Marissa told me before we went out, 'We don't have to be perfect, we just have to skate our hearts out and be aggressive and emotional and sell our program,'" Shnapir said, which they did.

Caydee Denney and John Coughlin compensated for their disappointing short by winning the free skate, but couldn't quite move past Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay, who turned in another clean, consistent performance and won the silver medal by a whisker, 201.72 to 201.43.

Coughlin and Denney, as a pair and with previous partners, are more seasoned in international competition than Zhang and Bartholomay. They've also had the more arduous journey to this point. Coughlin's surgery for a torn hip labrum kept the duo from competing at nationals and world championships last year.

"It's emotional for us to be here, period, and to be in contention, and to skate well like that, it's icing on the cake," Coughlin said. "We were thrilled to be here no matter what, considering a year ago I had a bike pedaling my leg for me.

"After the short program, we stood there together and decided that no matter the outcome, that we wanted to be present in every moment of the program ... From where we were a year ago to where we are now, unbelievable, and this is what we wanted to do, we wanted to get back here and be at the U.S. championships on our terms, to not have our fate dictated to us by an injury."

Under U.S. Figure Skating's Olympic selection protocol, the top five finishers in each discipline at nationals are considered for the team based not only on their placement here, but also their results in events over the past year, including world championship and Grand Prix competition. Zhang and Bartholomay, who train in Florida, have been on the U.S. podium the past two years but have yet to crack the top three at a Grand Prix.

They aren't on any plane manifests for Sochi yet, but they are "on cloud nine," Bartholomay said. The 24-year-old from the Philadelphia area had a scare when his mother fainted in the stands during the short program competition due to what he said was a combination of dehydration and anxiety, but she's fine now and he was able to joke about not trying not to knock her out again.

"We know second isn't locked in," he said. "We felt like we didn't leave anything on the table and skated as hard and as passionate as we could.

"I can't believe we scored [a personal-best] 201 points. We wrung out every little point, every tenth of a point."

If the uncertainty does trouble him Saturday night when he goes to bed, Bartholomay will use his favorite sleep aid -- playing television episodes on a phone turned upside down so there's sound and no light. He said the faint white noise of the dialogue from "Arrested Development" or "The Office" papers over his nerves, enables him to focus on breathing and helps him drift away.

But he'd welcome being awakened by a certain text.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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