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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.”

MORE: Watch Knierims compete in PyeongChang

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.

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“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.

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“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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Great Britain gets first win at men’s ice hockey worlds in 57 years

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Lord Stanley would be proud. Great Britain’s men’s ice hockey team pulled off its biggest win in more than a half-century on Monday.

Great Britain beat France 4-3 in overtime at the world championship in Slovakia, in its last game of the tournament, to avoid relegation and remain in the top division of worlds in 2020 with the likes of the U.S., Canada and Russia.

France, whose streak of 12 straight top-level world championship appearances ends, had led 3-0 in the second period.

“We just don’t know when we are beaten,” golden-goal scorer Ben Davies said, according to Ice Hockey U.K. “This just underlines what GB is all about.”

It marked the Brits’ first win at a top-level worlds or Olympics since 1962. Great Britain last qualified for an Olympics in 1948. Its only top-level world championship appearance since 1962 was in 1994, when it lost all five games by a combined 44-7.

At these worlds, Great Britain was outscored 38-5 in its first six games, all losses. It came into the 16-nation event as the lowest-ranked team at No. 22 in the world.

“No one knows anything about U.K. hockey, and the first couple of days here people were laughing at us,” defenseman Ben O’Connor said, according to The New York Times, which reported that fans dressed as Queen Elizabeth II, Mary Poppins, Beefeaters, cricket bats and the Olympic ski jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards to the Brits’ 6-3 loss to the U.S. last Wednesday.

(h/t @OlympicStatman)

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Caster Semenya enters Pre Classic in new event after testosterone ruling

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Caster Semenya is entered in the Pre Classic on June 30 to run the women’s 3000m, an event that does not fall under the IAAF’s new testosterone limits.

It’s the first announced meet for Semenya since the new IAAF rule capping testosterone in women’s events between the 400m and the mile went into effect. The Court of Arbitration for Sport denied her appeal and upheld the rule on May 1.

Semenya, the two-time Olympic 800m champion, has raced almost exclusively the 400m, 800m and 1500m up until this season.

She won an 800m on May 3 in the last top-level meet before the testosterone cap went into effect for those distances.

At that May 3 meet in Doha, Semenya reportedly said “hell no” when asked if she would take testosterone-suppressing measures to stay eligible for the 400m, 800m or 1500m at the world championships this fall.

Semenya also said she would keep competing but would not race the 5000m, the shortest flat event on the Olympic program that she could move up to without a testosterone cap, according to those same reports.

The flat 3000m is not on the Olympic program (though the 3000m steeplechase is).

South Africa’s track and field federation has indicated it will appeal the CAS ruling.

“I keep training. I keep running,” Semenya said May 3. “Doesn’t matter if something comes in front of me, like I said. I always find a way.”

The Pre Classic women’s 3000m also includes distance titans Almaz Ayana (Olympic 10,000m champion who last raced in 2017), Hellen Obiri (world 5000m champion), Genzebe Dibaba (1500m world-record holder) and Sifan Hassan (world bronze medalist at 1500m and 5000m).

The Pre Classic will be held at Stanford, Calif., this year due to construction at Oregon’s Hayward Field ahead of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials.

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