World champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier did nothing to harm their chances of becoming the first American pairs team to win the prestigious Grand Prix Final, turning in a brilliant short program Thursday in Turin, Italy.

Knierim and Frazier trailed their biggest rivals, Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara of Japan, by less than half a point heading into Friday’s free skate at Torino Palavela, where the capstone to the Grand Prix season is being held after the event’s two-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We both skated from our hearts and we skated with passion and we are very proud and happy with how we skated today,” Knierim said. “We made a big improvement from the (Grand Prix season) and we are relieved with the outcome.”

In the men’s event, world champion Shoma Uno led a Japanese sweep of the first three spots following his short program, scoring a world-leading 99.99 points to “Gravity” by John Mayer. Sota Yamamoto and Kao Miura were close behind, while American hopeful Ilia Malinin was in fifth after a series of shaky jumps.

The women’s short program and rhythm dance also take place Friday. The men’s free skate is Saturday.

The pairs competition figured to be a summit meeting between Knierim and Frazier, fresh of a successful Olympics, and the team of Miura and Kihara, who finished second to the Americans at the world championships earlier this year.

Neither of the pairs teams disappointed.

Knierim and Frazier put together their best program of the Grand Prix season, highlighted by a high-amplitude throw triple flip. They’re looking to become the first U.S. team to ever win the Grand Prix Final. Knierim closed her eyes as their scores were read, and both lit up in smiles when they heard the total of 77.65 that briefly put them in the lead.

“I was very proud how we performed,” Frazier said. “We tried to add some details and tonight it came alive.”

Miura and Kihara were last on the ice and also performed flawlessly to a mashup of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Marcus Mumford and Elvis Presley. The winners of Skate Canada and the NHK Trophy landed their side-by-side triple toe loop and a big throw triple lutz to earn 78.08 points, nearly eclipsing their own season best.

“Unbelievable,” coach Bruno Marcotte said as they exited the ice. “That was amazing.”

Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps of Canada were third with 69.34 points, putting them in podium position. They were followed by the two Italian teams of Sara Conti and Niccolo Macci and Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini, as well as the second American team of Emily Chan and Spencer Akira Howe.

“We went through some tough times together,” said Kihara, who has dealt with a series of injuries over the course of his career, “and we were able to share these feeling and we can now enjoy every competition and it’s wonderful.”

Uno, who has two silver and two bronze medals from Grand Prix Final, did what he could to position himself for gold. He landed his opening quad flip, a quad flip-triple toe loop and triple axel in his best short program this season.

Yamamoto was more than five points behind with 94.86 for his short program. Miura scored 87.07 points, while Daniel Grassl performed well for his home crowd. Malinin faltered through his program to leave him playing catch up, though his big-air quads — and the quad axel that only he has landed in competition — keep his podium chances alive.

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