It’s the days leading up to the 2017 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in February and Alexa Scimeca Knierim was frustrated: She couldn’t land her triple Salchow jump alongside partner and husband Chris Knierim.
Practice after practice, jump after jump, fall after fall. But the thing is, actually, Scimeca Knierim was lucky to be there at all. She and Chris hadn’t competed in 10 months, all due to a mysterious illness that left her bed-ridden, bewildered and asking at times, “Am I ever going to skate again?”
“Worrying about how I’m going to perform at a competition, that kind of stuff seems a lot smaller on the scale of perspective,” Scimeca Knierim said months later, at the Team USA Media Summit in September. It was an epiphany she had at Four Continents in the same arena that will be used for this February’s upcoming Olympics, just outside PyeongChang, South Korea.
“I started to get upset about (the falls at Four Continents) and I really thought about it, letting my mind wander, and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?! Are you going to cry over a jump?’”
Scimeca Knierim had done a lot of crying in the 10 months prior. After she and Chris had finished a respectable ninth place at the world championships in Boston in the spring of 2016, Alexa fell terribly ill – and no one could figure out why.
She had what she and Chris called vomiting episodes, crawling into their bathroom in Colorado and staying there for hours, the trip back and forth to their bed her only activity for the day. The illness pushed back their start to the 2016-17 season as she had two surgeries in late August to fix binding issues around her abdomen, but when complications cropped up from those initial operations, they withdrew from the grand prix season and scheduled another surgery, this time in November of last year.
From April up through November of 2016 there was little to no practice for Alexa, who – in the midst of it all – had wed Chris in a late-June ceremony that year, the two having skated together for over four years, a partnership that clicked on and off the ice almost immediately.
But after that Boston worlds, what was meant to be a second-half push in the Olympic cycle for the 2015 U.S. pairs figure skating champion team instead turned into a day-to-day what-do-we-do-next? They met with a series of doctors, most of whom were confounded by her symptoms. Alexa would stay home all day – sad, frustrated and sick. More over, she was terrified for her health and her future less so as a skater and more as a person: Already slight-built, she shrunk to under 90 pounds. On days that he could leave her side, Chris would skate singles at their training rink in Colorado Springs and try to keep himself in the best shape he possibly could were they able to eventually make a return.
The problem and the worry, however, was not him. It was her.
“Looking back, I think the hardest part for me was believing that I was ever going to be the athlete that I had been before,” a candid Alexa explained. “I wasn’t prepared for the struggle of the journey to get back to where I am now. No one warned me or told that it was going to be the way that it was, so I wasn’t expecting it. I think that was my darkest place. I didn’t feel worthy.”
“It was toughest because it wasn’t like a broken bone where you have six to eight weeks and you do physical therapy and soon you’ll be good to go,” Chris added. “No one knew what was going on, so it was like, once someone figures it out, how long will it take for her to get back to where she was? Can she get back there? How will she feel?”
Initially scheduled for four to five international competitions last fall, the Knierims pulled out of all of them. Then came the U.S. championships last January, which they withdrew from last minute having not been back on the ice for long enough to feel fully prepared to compete. They petitioned for spots at both Four Continents and the world championships, citing their past successes, and were granted them. They had a long way back – triple Salchows included – to feel like themselves again, though.
“I reminded her, ‘Do you remember where you were three months ago?’” coach Dalilah Sappenfield told TeamUSA.org at Four Continents. “We never thought we would have the opportunity to skate again. It put it all into perspective. It was a really traumatic time and the fact that she was able to get out there and get back to an elite level of skating is really remarkable.”
Alexa was lost between laughter and breaking into tears when they finished that short program in PyeongChang, skating to “Come What May” from “Moulin Rouge!” The first lyric sang out goes, “Suddenly the world seems such a perfect place.”
Seconds later, Scimeca Knierim landed her triple Salchow alongside her husband and partner. Their embrace at center ice at the conclusion of the program was a cathartic release of what they had been through – a real-world athlete’s hell – the past year.
“Alexa was at the point where skating wasn’t even a thought,” Sappenfield, who served as the couple’s wedding officiant, said. “It was about her life and her health. Skating is a blessing. It’s something she was given back to do again. Now they enjoy their skating in a different way. Four Continents and worlds were emotional for us because she didn’t know if she was going to do this again. That was a happy time for us. It’s a blessing to be back.”
The team has kept that “Moulin Rouge!” short program this season and are skating to music from the “Ghost” for their free skate. Three weeks ago at the NHK Trophy grand prix stop in Japan they finished fifth, and this coming weekend they’ll be looking for another top-five finish at Skate America in Lake Placid, New York, which gets underway on Friday. Then the focus turns to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January, set for the first weekend of the year in San Jose, California.
And while the struggles have been epic and the unbridled joy pure for the pair to be back out and competing, there is no doubt they still have one singular goal: Represent Team USA at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Only one U.S. pairs team will go.
Those few months of torture have actually taught them so much.
“Being sick last year, all we could do was take one day at a time,” Alexa said. “Being an Olympic year, it’s so easy for athletes to jump ahead to February. But I find it so natural and easy for Chris and I to stay in the week that we’re in. It’s an exciting year, but we’re just living life moment to moment.”
“We’re all very competitive,” Sappenfield added about that singular spot in South Korea. “What we appreciate is that we don’t sweat the small stuff. (Alexa is) probably the best she’s ever been in her physique. She had lost so much muscle mass and awareness of her body that she had to re-learn how to make everything work. … We’re still pushing to be competitive.”
And not worrying about a few triple Salchow falls. Or falls of any matter, really. Scimeca Knierim has pulled herself back up again and again. On a sheet of ice? Sure. Can do.
“My whole outlook changed,” she said, almost laughing. “I was grateful to have the chance to fall instead of stressing out over falling or not. Was a fall as big of a deal as a drain getting pulled out of me? No, not at all. I was grateful.”
And the U.S. figure skating scene is grateful to have her – and them – back, too.