GREENSBORO, N.C. — Alexa Knierim and Chris Knierim changed coaches twice and moved to Irvine, California, in the hopes of producing better results on the ice.
The husband-and-wife pairs figure skating duo made tough decisions along the way. Chris, an avid car collector, was forced to sell his cars, including a prized Chevy Camaro. To make matters worse, a sponsor unexpectedly dropped the Knierims after they finished a career-low seventh at the 2019 national championships.
After all the difficulties over the past few years, the Knierims felt a sense of redemption Saturday night inside the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. Leading the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, after Thursday’s short program, the couple finished strong after an early stumble in their free skate and won their third national championship in six years.
“Redemption always feels good. It was hard last year to come so low, but we worked really, really hard and we have work to do still,” Alexa said. “But we’re just elated to be able to regain our title again. That’s three, and I hope this continues to push us forward and compete better.”
The Knierims built a nearly 7-point lead Thursday evening. They put together another strong performance two days later.
They moved in sync to “Drop of Fragrance” composed by Maxim Rodriguez and “Experience” by Ludovico Einaudi. With a free skate score of 139.09 points, they finished with a total of 216.15 — which was enough to edge their training partners Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson at 213.57. Calalang and Johnson had an astounding result, jumping from fifth in their debut season in 2019 to second this year.
The other three previous U.S. champions in the field followed: 2016 champs Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea, second after the short, were third with a 204.07 total, 2019 champions Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc were fourth with 197.12, and 2017 winners Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier scored 186.25 total for fifth.
“We’re excited. Last year it was crazy,” Chris said. “(We) came into nationals and got the worst placements, points, everything that we’d ever gotten. And to be able to come back through everything there and be able to come here and skate pretty decent … and pull out the win is really special because we’ve had lots of ups and downs this year. So it’s a blessing to be able to be up on top of the podium again.”
The Knierims are the first pair to win three national championships since Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman captured three in a row from 2000-02.
Alexa and Chris seem like an unlikely comeback story. They earned a bronze medal as part of the U.S. team at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, and they won a national title the last time Greensboro hosted the U.S. championships in 2015.
However, the couple had to do some soul searching in recent years, especially after a season full of turmoil and disappointments in 2019. Even this year’s title had a bit of drama.
As the last pair to skate Saturday night, the Knierims got off to a promising start, but Chris soon lost his balance and fell on the ice. He quickly got to his feet, and the couple recovered and finished strong.
“After anyone makes a mistake, especially when you’re in an environment like that, you forget about it,” Chris said of his fall. “I didn’t remember that that happened going through the elements, especially towards the end of the program, until I finished. Then I was like, aw, dang it. But you know, it happens.
“It’s not the first time it’s happened. I’ve done it before, and (I) just keep improving and moving on to the next one.”
Once the Knierims’ score was announced, confirming their latest national title, Alexa pumped her hands in excitement. She hugged Chris and waved to the crowd.
“Greensboro is great. We should come back next year and the year after that,” Chris joked after he was reminded that this was the second time the Knierims have won a national championship in the city.
But Saturday seemed to be more about validation. Alexa told NBC Sports in the fall that “many people probably have kind of written us off because we’re an old married couple.” The old married couple — Chris is 32, Alexa 28 — had a reason to celebrate Saturday.
“We’re just fighting for our dreams like anybody else, and yet nobody sees what happens behind the scenes,” Alexa said. “And that’s why we react the way that we do and that’s why all the kids out there react to a great performance as they do because we put so much into it that is unseen. You live for these moments, and (we’re) very excited to reclaim our title. Three’s a charm.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.