GREENSBORO, N.C. – For the first time in over two years, Alexa Knierim and Chris Knierim won a short program.
The husband-and-wife duo skated lights out Thursday evening to open the senior portion of the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. They lead at the halfway mark of the pairs competition. This is the opening competition of the 2020 Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
It marks a performance the Knierims had been waiting for since Jan. 4, 2018, when they last placed first in a short program at the 2018 national championships – which helped them earn their spot on the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team. They have been seeking that success ever since, often being plagued by one or more mistakes.
“I’m actually extremely emotional. I was excited after the program, then I was excited when I got my scores, but then I started to cry a little bit and now I feel like it’s coming up again and I want to cry,” Alexa told media in the mixed zone as she choked back tears.
“No one sees how much work we put in and the struggles we have on the day to day, so –,” Chris continued.
“It was such a dream that it was attainable to skate that way today, but it always seems like something gets in the way and I’ve just been waiting for this moment to happen because it’s been a little bit of time for Chris and I to have a skate that makes you feel alive, so I’m just so happy,” Alexa went on, this time with tears streaming down her face.
The Knierims, who had won the event in 2015 and 2018, are in a battle with three other past national champions for the 2020 crown.
They scored 77.06, more than four points higher than the top short program score at the 2019 nationals, while 2016 champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea trailed with a 70.35, followed by reigning champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc’s 68.86.
2017 winners Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, who this season medaled at both of their grand prix assignments – are sitting in sixth heading into Saturday’s free skate.
The Knierims’ performance – to the Etta James classic “At Last,” performed by Beyoncé – was almost headed in the direction of last year’s, which saw them place a career-low seventh in both segments, when Chris tripped in the beginning of the program.
“It was a little funny in the moment, I briefly thought, ‘Here we go again,’ because there’s always something that happens. And then it didn’t happen that way,” Alexa said. “That was kind of weird. He was playing footsy with me.”
Not letting it faze them, they successfully skated a clean program.
Alexa told NBC Sports this fall, “We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together.’”
She’s not entirely wrong: Alexa, 28, is the oldest woman in the field and Chris, 32, the oldest man.
With little expectation or outside pressure on their shoulders this year, the old married couple – who married in 2016 after becoming a skating team in 2012 – proved outsiders wrong.
Their performance was aided by the stability the past year has brought. After switching coaches and training locations multiple times since the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 – and being without a permanent home for a year during their transitions – the Knierims have now been settled in Irvine, California, for nearly a year under the tutelage of another married couple in three-time Olympians Jenni Meno and Todd Sand.
“Now we have a routine, we have a schedule, we have regular students,” Alexa said. “We’re settled, which is very nice, considering last year we didn’t have a home.”
Rafael Arutunian is also part of their coaching team, which has made a world of a difference for their skills and their confidence.
“Raf is very blunt and honest, and I think that’s what’s so great about him for me,” Chris explained. “He’s been a huge help. We take his morning stroking classes a couple times a week with Michal Brezina, sometimes Nathan (Chen), Mariah (Bell). When we started it was eye-opening how far behind we were, it was a little embarrassing being in the class and being so terrible at everything. But now it’s played into our skating a little bit, and there’s a lot of exercises I do day to day and she does that’s helped our jumps. …
“He’s been honest with us when we started with him that this year he’s just going to see what happens and if the new technique takes over or if the old one comes back, but next year – don’t worry – he said we’ll be landing our jumps all the time.”
“I love him a lot,” Alexa added. “He’s been a great influence on me, he really believes in me. That’s I think where I got my confidence back. Todd and Jeni believe in us too, but you guys know Raf: He’s going to tell you if you’re horrible. Knowing that he believed in us is the only person I needed to hear it from besides myself, so I think that’s what’s helped me get my confidence on my jumps.”