By Maggie Hendricks | Jan. 22, 2019, 12:45 p.m. (ET)

Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim compete at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 14, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. 

 

Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim will return to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships this week as the reigning pairs champions after a tumultuous season.

The husband-wife duo, who finished in 15th place at both the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 and the world championships last year, have moved around the world as they made multiple coaching changes in 2018.

“It’s been a crazy season for us, on and off the ice, but we knew going into this season that this was going to be a building year for us to make the big change and get everything lined up for the next three years,” Knierim said.

The pair split from longtime coach Dalilah Sappenfield at the end of the 2018 season, and opted to work with five-time German Olympian Aljona Savchenko, who took on coaching after winning an elusive Olympic gold medal in PyeongChang. Scimeca-Knierim and Knierim also changed their training locations to Oberstdorf, Germany, and Chicago. 

At Skate America in October, the pair announced another change: they were no longer working with Savchenko. Skaters usually only change coaches at the end of the season, and they rarely compete without coaches at an event. The pair finished in fourth at Skate America as they looked for a new coach. 

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“It’s quite simple. It just didn’t work out,” Scimeca-Knierim said on a conference call with reporters earlier this month. “Chris and I knew when we decided to part ways that there would be no regrets leaving there because we took everything we could. We felt like if we had stayed, there would be more of a downward slope. We felt like we needed to save ourselves, which is why we switched so quickly.”

After checking in with mentors, they reached out to Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, who are married and also competed in two Olympics together as pair for Team USA. Since Scimeca-Knierim and Knierim have been married since 2016, Meno and Sand understand their unique dynamic. 

“They understand the difference between going up to the rink and seeing your partner for four hours a day, and then separating, versus seeing your partner 24/7,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “They respect that, and feel out where the energy between Chris and I is on a daily basis, and can cater to thinking about it in a more personal matter versus get it done. They’re more sensitive to the idea that we’re together all the time. We care a little bit more about how the other person is feeling in that moment.”

But it’s more than that. In all the years with Sappenfield, and then with Savchenko, the pair had just one person to turn to after skating. The amount of trust and effort needed in pairs figure skating is considerable. When tempers fray, they say having two different people to turn to has helped.

“After an element, if we need to dissect or break something down, or if maybe there’s some tension or emotion building, I can take my two cents and talk to Jennie, and Chris can take a lap with Todd, and they kinda give us insight and opinions on what to do,” Scimeca-Knierim said. 

Skating through adversity isn’t new for them. In 2016, Scimeca-Knierim dealt with a life-threatening gastrointestinal illness, but they were able to return to skating in time for the 2017 world championships. The next season, Knierim injured his knee during the run-up to the grand prix events, but they were able to not just qualify for the Olympics, but also help the U.S. win a bronze medal in the team event. 

“It’s been a crazy season with a lot of changes, but there was no moment of panic. Through each decision we’ve had to make, there was never panic,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “There was accepting of each season as it came. I think we built on that from past experiences, and having the knowledge you can’t control everything. Life is going to twist and turn. It’s made us tougher. Gave us a tougher skin. The things we faced were so minimal compared to the things we’ve conquered in the past.”

Now, they are focusing on nationals. They won national championships in 2015 and 2018, and despite the upheaval of this season, are looking to grow to prepare for the 2022 Olympics. 

“This year, it’s a building year for the next three,” Knierim said. “We’re not taking too much into how we competed because of everything we’ve been doing, everything we’ve been changing. We know if we go out and we skate a great performance, we’re going to place well. We’re going to do well.”

After the season, they’re looking forward to settling down and finding a home for them and their extended family: two half St. Bernard/half Bernese Mountain Dogs, Cami and Diesel, who weigh a combined 230 pounds, and two cats, Scarlet and Muffy. 

“Hopefully within the next month or two, we’ll be able to get our own place in California, and be with our pets!” Knierim said.  

Maggie Hendricks is based in Chicago and has covered Olympic sports for more than 10 years for USA Today and Yahoo Sports. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.