A day for comeback kids pairs at U.S. Figure Skating championships

It was an afternoon for four comeback kids in the pairs competition at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships to shine.

Except one of those kids -- who had returned to pairs after time away from the sport -- is 33, another 27, another 26 and the youngest, 21.

And that made their comeback skates Thursday at the Sprint Center in Kansas City even more striking. Especially since both couples involved -- Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, and Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Nathan Bartholomay -- began their partnerships less than eight months ago.

The oldest of the group, Stellato-Dudek, had never skated pairs until then.

"Certain things in pairs don't relate at all to singles skating," Stellato-Dudek said. "It was like you were a really good pitcher and retired for 16 years and came back as a first baseman."

She had, in fact, been away from skating for 16 years after her singles career ended in 2001.

Cain, 21, who dropped pairs after 2012 to concentrate on singles, and LeDuc, 26, a show skater on cruise ships the past two years, won the short program with 69.33 points for a program that included impressive side-by-side triple loop jumps.

Stellato-Dudek and Bartholomay -- a 2014 Olympian who was out of competition last season -- were third at 65.04. They stand a whisker behind favored Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, who achieved 65.39 points, with Denney putting a hand down on the throw triple loop landing and stepping out of her landing on a side-by-side triple salchow.

Denney and Frazier are also making a more traditional kind of comeback: They missed last season after she underwent knee surgery.

Defending champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea stumbled into fifth place with 61.80 points after receiving negative grades on three of seven elements, the lowest coming on their throw triple flip, on which Kayne took a hard fall.

Cain began the season trying to compete in both singles and pairs, which she had done until age 16. Her decision to drop singles in September fit into what LeDuc described as a plan to "triage" their training.

"Because we're a new team, we have to triage everything so we don't push ourselves too hard," LeDuc said. "There is this much work and this much time, so we're trying to focus on the things that need to be done right now."

After she did both singles and pairs with LeDuc at a low-level event in New York last September, she realized it was too much.

"Because I did it for such a long part of my life, I thought I could do it again, but my body is no longer 16 years old," Cain said. "There was a lot of fatigue, and I was really burned out."

Why pairs over singles?

"His beard," Cain said, laughing. "Timothy brings out strengths in me and in my confidence. In singles, I was a little tentative in my jumping."

After two years of skating with his sister in Willy Bietak productions for Royal Caribbean cruise line, LeDuc decided he wanted to compete again. He was searching for a partner when Mitch Moyer, U.S. Figure Skating's high performance director, suggested Cain.

"Everything happened so fast," Cain said. "Our tryout was Thursday, we teamed up Monday, and Timothy moved to Dallas (where they are coached by her parents) that week."

The Stellato-Dudek partnership with Bartholomay was more accidental.

After winning the U.S. junior title and world junior silver crown in 2000, Stellato-Dudek competed part of the next season before injuries ended her singles career. She went on to work for 12 years as an aesthetician for a Chicago plastic surgeon and married Michael Dudek, a consultant, three years ago.

Last March, she dragged out her old skates and boots to take a spin on a suburban Chicago rink.

"I always thought about skating when I was off," she said. "I would hear music on the radio and think about skating to it. I was getting these skating vibes from all over the place. It was like the universe was trying to tell me something."

She then brought her vintage skates along on a trip to visit her old Chicago-area coach, Cindy Watson Caprel, at the Ellenton, Florida, rink where Watson Caprel now works.

Bartholomay, who had trained there with his Olympic partner, Felicia Zhang, also was working at the Florida rink and casting about for a way to come back after splitting with his post-Olympic partner, Gretchen Donlan, after one season.

Once again, Moyer played matchmaker.

"We had been looking at partner options on YouTube, and the week Deanna came down, Mitch Moyer was there, and he said, 'Why don't you try out?''' Bartholomay said. "As soon as our coaches saw us together, they said, 'You look compatible.'''

Still, a partner who hadn't skated for 16 years? And U.S. championships sixth months later?

"I've dreamt about this moment," Stellato-Dudek said.

But making it come true?

"I'd say surreal is a good word to use," the thirtysomething comeback kid said.

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)