Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim pose after winning the pairs championship at the 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 6, 2018 in San Jose, Calif.
SAN JOSE, Calif. – Married pairs skaters Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim have had quite enough twists and turns in their careers, thank you very much. But they figured you can never have enough twists in a free skate.
The Knierims reintroduced their quad twist lift, a move they hadn’t done in competition for a year and a half, at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. It was the highest-scoring element of the competition at 9.43 points and helped them overcome mistakes on their side-by-side jumps to win their second national title and first since 2015.
“It’s a big deal because there’s less than a handful of teams that do it,” said Chris.
Based on their victory and body of work the past two seasons, the Knierims are all but assured of the lone pairs berth on Team USA at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. A selection committee will meet Saturday night ahead of the announcement Sunday morning.
The Knierims scored 206.60 points to defeat Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, the 2016 national champions, who have come on strong late in the season after Kayne’s knee injury to finish with 200.80 points.
The bronze medalists are 34-year-old Deanna Stellato-Dudek, who returned to skating in the 2016-17 season after a 16-year retirement, and 2014 Olympian Nathan Bartholomay at 197.65. Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc (187.14) edged defending national champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier (186.32) for fourth.
The Knierims had hoped to go to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, but Chris broke his leg in the lead-up to the Games and they weren’t in top form when they finished fourth at that year’s U.S. nationals. Only two teams went to the Games.
Then Alexa came down with life-threatening gastrointestinal problems and had to undergo three abdominal surgeries. They were forced to withdraw from the 2017 U.S. nationals, although they were placed on the world team where they finished 10th.
This season, Chris was hampered by an injured patella.
Finally injury free, the Knierims ran into problems in Saturday’s free skate after starting auspiciously with impressive height on their quad twist lift. But on their side-by-side triple salchows, Alexa fell and Chris stepped out. They were supposed to follow it with a triple toeloop/double toeloop combination, but Alexa did a double/double and Chris performed a triple/single.
Alexa looked unhappy when they finished their free skate to selections from “Ghost, The Musical.”
“After the music ended, I was a little bummed that I didn’t have that feeling when you know you’ve nailed that program and you feel so alive inside and you just want to celebrate,” she said. “We lost so many points on the jumps, I was concerned whether we would win or not. I came here really wanting to make the Olympic team, obviously, but to say I didn’t care if we were champions or not was a lie. It was very important for me to win again.”
Although Alexa had her doubts in that moment taking her bows at center ice, their throws, lifts and spins made up for the jumps.
“It wasn’t our best skate,” Chris said. “We do have a lot of strong elements which I think helped us stay up in the points, but we still need to improve and we still need to get better for future competitions.”
That’s especially important since the Knierims are the U.S. standard-bearers in pairs. They have been the top U.S. finishers in every international competition they have entered the past three years and are expected to be the American entrant at the Olympic Games and 2018 world championships.
Alexa said she is well aware of what she calls “the stigma of American pairs.” An American team hasn’t won an Olympic medal since Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard in 1998 or a world medal since Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman in 2002.
“I don’t think people are going to change their minds unless we get a medal again,” Alexa said.
She noted that U.S. pairs have been sixth or seventh three times in the last decade, including the Knierims’ own seventh-place finish in 2015, but “that didn’t change anybody’s minds about us. We’ll just all focus on ourselves and hopefully the world will change their opinion of us.”
Kayne said that the criticism can be hard to deal with.
“There is a dark raincloud over U.S. pairs,” she said, “and if you get up every day and say, ‘Today’s going to be a bad day,’ you’re going to get a bad day.
“If you put a U.S. pair on the ice (people think), ‘They’re from the U.S. – U.S. pairs can’t do anything, they’re inconsistent, whatever.’ It’s going to take a while of consistent teams who stay together. We’re staying together now. You have U.S. teams that have been together for years. For people to get that out of their head, we have to prove ourselves, but also I feel sometimes it would be great if people would stop counting us out before we even perform.”
O’Shea added that if American teams are counted out before they step on the ice, “there’s a lot of pressure on you to be consistent…now! So we deal with that pressure, and do the best we can with it. The teams you have coming up and continuing to grow are the ones that are going to get there for you.”
Teams from China, Germany, Russia and Canada have dominated recent Olympic and world podiums.
“I get so excited when I see performances like that,” Alexa Knierim said. “Even though we’re competing against them and sitting next to them in the locker room and trying to get at their level, I still am kind of young in the sense that that’s where I hope we can be someday. I don’t find it like a threat or anything. I find it motivating.”
Chris Knierim said U.S. pairs still have “a long way to go. The world is moving forward and we need to make sure that we’re keeping up. A lot of the big teams do big tricks, such as quads.”
He said a bigger issue is the second mark, for artistry. “I feel there are U.S. teams that can keep up technically,” he said. “It’s the second mark that brings us down. There’s lots to do and we’re all never-ending working on everything.”
Stellato-Dudek and Bartholomay went for a throw quad salchow in their free skate, but Stellato-Dudek fell on the landing. “It wasn’t quite there for us,” said Bartholomay. “We felt like we had a really gutsy performance.”
Stellato-Dudek compared the strategy for American pairs to getting ahead in business.
“I ran a business in Chicago and I had 13 competitors in the high-rise that I worked in,” she said. “The only way I was able to compete with them was to offer something that no one else is offering. The U.S. needs something that makes them stand out. That’s what they’re looking for. Otherwise you’re going to get lost because these other pairs are doing the same thing that you’re doing.”
Alexa said she used to be affected by the negative image of American pairs. But she noted that the top three teams at nationals have something in common.
Both Knierims and Kayne came back from illness or injuries, while Stellato-Dudek came back “from a lifetime away,” Alexa said.
“The reason is because we love it and that is our sole motivation to skate,” she said. “We keep pushing ourselves to get better, so that’s how we don’t really care any more about this stigma about American pairs.
“We just are all trying to do our best each day and it’s sad that a lot of people don’t really give us the support we deserve, but it’s not going to stop us.”