For Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, 2016 was a long, difficult year.
Alexa suffered through a serious, undisclosed abdominal issue for several months that caused her to lose 20 pounds, required three surgeries and left her with a long, vertical scar through her navel. They also had to put on hold their successful pairs figure skating career that included a victory at the 2015 U.S. championships and second-place finishes in 2013 and 2016.
After finally returning to competitive skating in February with a sixth-place finish at the Four Continents Championships in Gangneung, South Korea, the Knierims — who were married in June — are just happy to be back on the ice. They have a fresh perspective as they prepare for the World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, Finland, March 29-April 2.
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Alexa said she and her husband are excited for the challenge to show they belong among the world’s best, but their main emotion is gratitude.
“I think after what we’ve been through, things might not feel the same as they used to when we head into a competition,” said Alexa, 25, on a conference call with reporters. “It’s not going to feel like it’s do-or-die. It’s not going to feel like if you don’t skate perfect that our world is going to end. I think our priority is to remain humbled and grateful for our experiences to come. And as cliché as it sounds, to just go out there and enjoy it. That’s pretty much what we’re going to do.”
Because of her illness, the Knierims had to withdraw from several competitions in 2016, as well as the U.S. championships this January in Kansas City, Missouri. They had to petition for a spot at Four Continents, which was granted, and their sixth-place finish was the best result by an American team.
Chris, 29, said they first returned to practice in November following the last of Alexa’s surgeries early that month. At first they believed they could be ready to skate at the national championships, but eventually decided to withdraw in January because they weren’t at the level they needed to be. Chris said they had to be patient.
“The first time she actually stepped on the ice I had to help her,” he said of their first practice session in mid-November. “We have a video of me holding her hand, skating around in circles. She could only skate for 10, 15 minutes and then she had to go home and take a nap and rest because she was so drained. So that’s kind of how it started.
“It slowly, slowly progressed. Eventually she started doing things on her own. But you know, again, we would work up from the 10 minutes, to the 20 minutes, the 30 minutes each week. Every time she got on the ice she had to go home and take a nap because she was so physically drained, because of all the muscle and weight that she had lost throughout that whole illness and the surgery.”
Even now — with Alexa feeling strong and healthy — the two have scaled back their routines. They haven’t yet attempted their quad twist, and don’t intend to bring it back this season.
In general, Alexa said they had to be mindful of her condition when she returned to the ice, which inserted a whole new element into their practices. With a long scar on the middle of her stomach and other small, laproscopic incisions, problems would arise.
“Everything we tried to do as far as pairs stuff we couldn’t, because his hands would pull on my skin and then re-open the cuts,” she said. “So that was another factor that we had to wait for, like, ‘OK, we can’t do twists until this hole is completely sealed so we don’t break the skin again.’ And just weird little things like that you don’t think about that we had to keep working around and figure out along the way.”
They admit there were times when they wondered if they’d ever be able to compete again. But they were determined to stay positive and patient. Chris said his goal was to keep himself ready — he continued to skate and work out — and to take the best care he could of his partner and new wife. He said his primary goal was to help her regain her health. Her return to skating was secondary.
“He was always there for me,” said Alexa. “We grew closer.”
Now, following a good return performance at Four Continents, they’re eager to show what they’re capable of in Helsinki this week.
“Training’s been going great,” Chris said. “We’ve had a few weeks in between Four Continents and worlds, so we’ve been working a lot and it’s nice to have that extra few weeks after the four or five weeks of training we had before Four Continents, so we’re feeling very prepared.”
Added Alexa: “Only good things to come.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.