By Karen Price | Dec. 29, 2017, 12:08 p.m. (ET)

 

Getting to the top, and then staying there, takes more than hard work. My Focus, presented by Milk Life, tells the stories of one area that 24 athletes are honing in on in their quest to stand atop the podium at the next Olympic or Paralympic Games.

Being an elite pairs figure skating team with Olympic aspirations requires strength and good health not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally.

That’s something Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim know well, having lived through their share of good and bad times the last four years. Coming into this season, their focus has been on preparing and maintaining their physical, mental and emotional well-being in order to finally make their Olympic dream a reality. 

“Athletes have a lot of pressure in an Olympic year because it’s that year where big dreams can come true and everyone wants to be perfect all the time and keep their success going so they can achieve that goal and not have any regrets,” said Scimeca Knierim, 26.

The couple, who married in 2016, suffered a setback they never imagined that same year when Scimeca Knierim was diagnosed with a rare internal issue that required three abdominal surgeries, the last coming in November 2016. They missed the 2017 national championships but then successfully petitioned to compete at the Four Nations Figure Skating Championships and the world championships to end the season on a high note. 

“As horrible as it was, we feel it’s our biggest blessing because the timing was perfect,” Scimeca Knierim said. “Missing out last year made us miss skating and training so much, so when we got back on the ice we were just so grateful to skate. It’s helped us keep pushing forward to where we needed to be.”

Now, despite a knee injury that slowed Knierim’s training and preparation during the grand prix season this fall, the duo are ensconced in rigorous 40-plus-hour weeks on and off the ice. 

Their days begin with about 2.5 hours of warm-ups, including jogging, stretching and practicing their lifts and jumps while still on the ground in order to get a feel for the timing before they put on skates. 

They also spend three days a week in the gym, Knierim for about an hour per session working primarily on strength and Scimeca Knierim for about a half-hour focusing on cardio and then another 45 minutes doing Pilates. Their on-ice workouts last about 45 minutes two to three times per day, with breaks in between followed by more warm-ups, and they have regular physical and massage therapy to help their recovery. 

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They also meet with a sports psychologist about once per week. 

“Sometimes I think it helps just talking to someone outside your normal, everyday bubble,” said Knierim, 30. “Talking about how you’re feeling that week or that day to someone who’s on the outside rather than Alexa or our coach can relieve you, in a way. And obviously there are things they can suggest to help you push forward or things you can try to see what works and what doesn’t on days you aren’t feeling 100 percent.”

One of the greatest challenges they can have as a pair, Scimeca Knierim said, is that there are days they just aren’t going to be on the same page mentally or emotionally. That’s when it’s important to be open to changing your mentality to suit your partner or lift him or her up if that’s what’s needed.

“Luckily we’re married so we know each other really well, but there are days when it’s hard to figure out what the other person needs that day,” she said. “It’ a high-intensity, stressful environment and sometimes you may not be feeling that great and would love to take the day off, but you have to push forward and put your best attitude forward.”

Four years ago, she said, they were both feeling the pressure of trying to make the Olympic team. It was overwhelming, and they didn’t have the right mindset looking at the final picture versus the day-to-day training. 

After what they went through last year, however, they’re embracing every moment of the journey. With Knierim’s knee getting better with rest immediately after the grand prix season, where they finished fifth at both the NHK Trophy and Skate America, his triple Salchows are almost back on autopilot, their triple toe loops are becoming more consistent and they’ve started training the quad twist in preparation for nationals, where the nation’s only Olympic pairs spot is on the line. 

“We know what’s at stake at nationals and we’re confident in our body of work leading up to this season,” Knierim said. “After the last Olympic year and we were done with nationals and didn’t make the team we sat down and had a meeting about what we needed to do to make sure we were on the team next time. We’ve been able to do that to this point and that gives us a lot of confidence. We know the Olympics are coming, and it’s not affecting our training or making us nervous like the first go-around.

“We learned a lot and matured a lot as skaters and people, so we’re just (putting our) noses to the grindstone and working and training every day. That’s all we need to do at this point.”

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.