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Alexa Scimeca Knierim grateful to return from life-threatening condition

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It is the morning of pairs figure skater Alexa Scimeca Knierim’s wedding, and she has to push back her hair and makeup appointment.

Scimeca Knierim has been awake since 1 a.m., vomiting.

“There was no way to describe or call what I was going through when I was getting sick,” she recalls. “We just kept calling them episodes.”

For several months last spring and summer, Scimeca Knierim had episodes of vomiting, typically lasting 10 to 12 hours, every few days, suffering from a rare condition she refers to as “a series of binding internal issues.”

She first felt ill last April, completely out of the blue for a young, world-class athlete who had never before had surgery or serious sickness. It took at least 10 doctors and many emergency-room visits before she was correctly diagnosed.

Scimeca Knierim wed her pairs partner Christopher Knierim on June 26 — he looked at her that day and couldn’t tell she had been up all night with an episode.

In August, she finally met a doctor who found what was wrong with her.

“If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I would have been able to survive or find out the problem, honestly,” Scimeca Knierim said. “I was informed that, had we not found the cause, and I kept dealing with this issue, it would have been fatal.”

She underwent three abdominal surgeries — two in August, the last on Nov. 1 following complications.

The Knierims’ figure skating career became an afterthought in this time. In January 2015, they won the national title. In December 2015, they became the first U.S. pair to compete at the exclusive Grand Prix Final in eight years.

Six months later, Knierim was holding Scimeca Knierim’s hair back as she vomited into a toilet.

“It is hard to watch your wife go through so much pain every single day, but I try to stay as positive with her as possible and try to keep my feelings out of it,” Knierim said. “There was thoughts of, are we going to be able to keep skating this season, next season, things like that, but I tried to stay with her as positive as possible and keep my feelings at bay.”

Nearly 11 months after those first pains, the Knierims will skate next week at the world championships in Helsinki, Finland.

They enter the event as the top U.S. pairs team this season.

The Knierims made their return at the Four Continents Championships at the 2018 Olympic venue in South Korea last month, successfully petitioning for a spot after missing the U.S. Championships in January.

They proved they deserved that spot. The Knierims tallied the second-highest score by a U.S. pair in international competition under a 12-year-old judging system, surpassed only by their score at the same event a year ago.

After their short program, Knierim, who is 6 feet, 2 inches, held Scimeca Knierim, who is 5-foot-2, for 12 seconds, until well after the audience applause faded. He whispered into her ear.

“For the very first time in our careers, separately and together, it literally was just us,” she said. “It was like we were in a dream, really. We were simply living.”

They skated over to their coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, who officiated their wedding, visited just about every doctor with them and sat in the surgery waiting room with Knierim.

“The toughest part [for Scimeca Knierim] was not physical, but mental,” Sappenfield wrote in an email while coaching at the world junior championships in Taiwan last week. “Between the uncertainty surrounding treatment and the self-doubt growing within Alexa, the mental — and with that, the emotional — toll was substantial. To her credit though, Alexa has unbelievable faith and spiritual strength, along with a loving, supportive husband in Chris. She might have been dealing with an illness, but she certainly never faced it alone. From my standpoint, I became less a coach and more a counselor. … you coach the athlete, but you care for the person.”

Scimeca Knierim noted that it wasn’t just Sappenfield, but also the Knierims’ parents and even fellow skaters visiting the hospital with balloons and stuffed animals, who helped her in those seven months.

“The pain was so severe and significant that sleeping was out of the question,” she said. “I would stay up some nights crying from the pain. I couldn’t fall asleep because the pain would just wake me up. Any time I would have pain, I couldn’t consume anything. Not water or food. I was becoming malnourished and sleep-deprived and weak.”

Scimeca Knierim lost 20 pounds, an extraordinary amount of weight for a woman in her sport. Amid everything, her spiritual faith was there every second of every day.

“When my body was at my weakest,” she said, “my faith was at its strongest.”

Scimeca Knierim has a physical reminder of the experience. A scar several inches long, but shrinking every day, runs through her belly button.

“At the very beginning, when I had just gotten out of surgery and it was like bloody, and I had all the wraps on it, I was thinking, I’ll never look good in a two-piece swimsuit, or if I wear a crop top, everyone will stare at me,” Scimeca Knierim said. “But once it healed, it closed up, and I started to get on my feet again, it is something that I’m truly proud of, and I do love it. I’m kind of sad because it’s healing so well, pretty soon you might not be able to see it.

“It’s like a gold medal to me, for my stomach.”

She has posted Instagram photos with the scar exposed, and even video of a drain being pulled out of her stomach.

“My mom told me I needed to put a caption on it to warn people that it was going to be gory and to look away so they don’t have to suffer watching it,” Scimeca Knierim said. “I told my mom, I suffered for eight months. I think the world can suffer for 10 seconds. She laughed at me and told me I’m nuts.”

The Knierims returned to full practice in January. They aren’t shy about their goal for next week — to be the first U.S. pair to finish in the top six at worlds since 2011.

Scimeca Knierim says she is 100 percent now, hasn’t felt sick since October and that her physical therapist believes she’s capable of becoming stronger than before.

“It’s kind of a blessing, I think, because, now we don’t really take our training and our lives for granted,” Scimeca Knierim said. “We’re just excited for the future and grateful that the worst is behind us.”

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Nick Goepper opens Olympic qualifying on podium; contenders crash out

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BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — U.S. Olympic men’s ski slopestyle qualifying is underway with Sochi bronze medalist Nick Goepper delivering the first blow.

Goepper finished second at Dew Tour Breckenridge, taking the early edge in Olympic qualifying.

With a victory at any of the remaining selection events, Goepper would be looking good for one of up to four spots on the team for PyeongChang.

“I was really hoping to ski my best today, and I think I skied 98 percent,” Goepper said. “The Olympic selection podium is a bonus and eases the pressure a little bit for the next couple, but the pressure wasn’t really there. I’m just thinking of these as individual events [instead of Olympic qualifiers].”

Alex Hall (fifth place) and Sochi silver medalist Gus Kenworthy (sixth place) also got their Olympic qualifying attempts off to a decent start, but in order to be automatically nominated to the Olympic team, skiers need a minimum of two top-three finishes among five selection events.

Goepper was the only U.S. skier able to crack the podium in Breckenridge.

Sweden’s Henrik Harlaut (first place) and Norway’s Oystein Braaten (third place) played the role of spoiler for the rest of the U.S. team. Harlaut and Braaten are both considered medal contenders for PyeongChang.

Crashes took their toll on several U.S. Olympic hopefuls.

McRae Williams, the reigning world champion, was forced to drop out after crashing on his first run. Colby Stevenson and 2014 Olympian Bobby Brown also did not finish the contest after taking spills of their own.

The contest also missed the reigning Olympic gold medalist. Joss Christensen sat out the event as he rehabs from a torn ACL but plans to return in January for the final four selection events.

On the women’s side, Maggie Voisin remains on track for a nomination to the U.S. Olympic team.

She finished fourth, best among Americans, in the Olympic qualifier at Breckenridge on the strength of a run that featured three 900s.

Voisin won the first qualifier for women’s slopestyle, which was held last season.

She still needs one more top-three finish at any of the three remaining selection events to be eligible for an automatic nomination, but she has consistently been the top performer among the U.S. women.

With two-time X Games gold medalist Kelly Sildaru sidelined with a knee injury this season, the field looks wide open for PyeongChang.

Voisin, then 15, was slated to make her Olympic debut in Sochi as the youngest American in any sport but was injured just days before the competition.

As long as she stays healthy, she will be a medal contender in PyeongChang, as will Norway’s Johanne Killi and France’s Tess Ledeux.

Killi narrowly edged out Ledeux, who recently turned 16, for the victory in Breckenridge. Sarah Hoefflin of Switzerland rounded out the podium.

Four U.S. selection events remain for the men, and three events remain for the women. Olympic qualifying resumes in January with a series of contests in Aspen, Colo., and Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

U.S. Olympic Qualifying Standings
Ski Slopestyle 
(women through two of five events; men through one of five)
1. Maggie Voisin — 150*
2. Devin Logan — 82
3. Darian Stevens — 81
4. Taylor Lundquist — 52
5. Nadia Gonzales — 28

1. Nick Goepper — 80*
2. Alex Hall — 45
3. Gus Kenworthy — 40
4. Bobby Brown — 32
5. Cody LaPlante — 29

**Has automatic qualifying minimum of two top-three results.
*Has one top-three result.

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Maame Biney, J.R. Celski join U.S. Olympic short track team

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Maame Biney will become the second African-born athlete to compete for the U.S. at the Winter Olympics and the first black woman on a speed skating team.

J.R. Celski, a three-time medalist, is going to a third Winter Games.

Biney, Celski and Aaron Tran qualified in short track at the Olympic Trials in Kearns, Utah, after the 500m on Saturday.

The team is now at five skaters — John-Henry Krueger and Lana Gehring qualified on the first night Friday.

Three more skaters will qualify Sunday after 1000m races — two men and one woman.

One of Katherine Reutter-Adamek and Jessica Kooreman, the top U.S. women at the last two Olympics, is guaranteed to miss the PyeongChang team.

Neither could keep up with the 17-year-old Biney, who moved to the D.C. area from Ghana with her father at age 5, on Saturday.

Biney swept the 500m finals, taking leads from the start and holding off more experienced women. She actually fell — while celebrating after crossing the finish line in the last race.

Afterward, NBC Sports’ Andrea Joyce told Biney that eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno believes Biney doesn’t know how good she is.

“People have been telling me that forever, and I think right now I’m kind of seeing it, but I feel like I have a long ways to go, but thanks Apolo,” said Biney, who won a junior world championships bronze medal last season.

Celski did not win the men’s 500m, where he is the world-record holder. Krueger did, with Tran in second.

But the fact that Krueger finished in the top two in Friday’s 1500m and the 500m means that Celski gets on the team via his second-place finish in the 1500m.

Celski won two bronze medals at the 2010 Olympics and another relay silver in Sochi.

He took a full season off after Sochi — undergoing hip surgery — and overcame further knee and back injuries the last two years to return to the World Cup podium this season.

Celski is the only American to earn an individual World Cup medal this season (a bronze) in 24 total races.

Celski won’t be able to race the 500m in PyeongChang if Thomas Hong makes the Olympic team on Sunday.

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U.S. Olympic Short Track Trials

Day Time (ET) Events Network
Friday 6:45-8 p.m. 1500m rounds STREAM LINK
8:30-10 p.m. 1500m finals NBCSN | STREAM LINK
Saturday 12-1:45 p.m. 500m rounds STREAM LINK
2:30-4 p.m. 500m finals NBC | STREAM LINK
Sunday 10:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m. 1000m rounds STREAM LINK
1-3 p.m. 1000m finals NBC | STREAM LINK