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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.

MORE: Video from PyeongChang competition

“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.

MORE: Everything to know about figure skating

“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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Alina Zagitova wins Rostelecom Cup; Gracie Gold withdraws

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Olympic champion Alina Zagitova dominated the Rostelecom Cup, while Gracie Gold withdrew before Saturday’s free skate at her first competition in 22 months, citing emotional stress.

Zagitova skated a flawed free, but still totaled 222.95 points and prevailed by 24.94 over countrywoman Sofia Samodurova. Zagitova qualified for December’s Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual international competition, which takes the top six skaters from the fall Grand Prix Series.

Gold, coming back from treatment for anxiety, depression and an eating disorder, was in last place of 10 skaters after struggling with jumps in Friday’s short program.

Gold, a Sochi Olympian and two-time U.S. champion, later tweeted that she withdrew because competing in the free skate would be damaging to her mental health and confidence.

“It was a difficult decision to make, but ultimately I need to put my mental health first and focus on the big picture,” was tweeted from Gold’s account. “Looking forward, I need to keep improving both my physical and mental condition. I thought checking into treatment last fall was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but skating my short program last night might have topped it. I do not want to undo the tremendous progress I’ve made in these last few months.”

The Grand Prix season continues next week with Nathan Chen headlining Internationaux de France, the last event before the Grand Prix Final.

ROSTELECOM CUP: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Zagitova, 16, is undefeated in three events this season and owns the world’s top overall score (238.43) by a whopping 14.12 points. However, Japanese 16-year-old Rika Kihira has the highest total on the Grand Prix of 224.31.

Zagitova struggled Saturday with the difficult triple Lutz-triple loop combination and doubled a flip at the end of her free skate.

Her primary rival last season, countrywoman Yevgenia Medvedeva, has finished second or third in her four competitions in the last year and likely must reach the podium next week in France for a chance at the Grand Prix Final and her first matchup with Zagitova since PyeongChang.

It’s likely that no U.S. woman makes the Grand Prix Final for a third straight year, after never previously going back-to-back years without a qualifier. U.S. champion Bradie Tennell likely must win in France to reach the Final.

Earlier Saturday, double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu won the men’s event, hours after twisting his right ankle in a hard practice fall. Hanyu hopped on a crutch backstage and said he is uncertain for the Grand Prix Final and Japanese Nationals later in December. More here on Hanyu’s day.

Russian favorites Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin won the pairs’ and ice dance titles, respectively, qualifying for the Grand Prix Final.

Tarasova and Morozov, two-time world medalists, posted 220.25 points, moving up to No. 2 in the world behind French Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, who were not in the Rostelecom field. None of the Olympic pairs’ medalists are competing this fall. Earlier Saturday, Tarasova received five stitches after cutting her chin in a practice crash into the boards.

In dance, Stepanova and Bukin tallied 199.43, keeping them close to U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue in the world rankings. Those two couples face off for the first time this season at the Grand Prix Final.

The top returning couple this season, French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, competes next week at the top international level for the first time since winning a third world title in March. They are not eligible for the Grand Prix Final after withdrawing from last week’s NHK Trophy due to Cizeron’s back injury.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season…NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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MORE: Ashley Wagner on her competitive future, coaching

Yuzuru Hanyu wins Rostelecom Cup, hops on crutch to press conference

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Yuzuru Hanyu won Rostelecom Cup by nearly 30 points, then hopped on a crutch backstage.

The double Olympic champion twisted his right ankle in a hard practice fall Saturday morning, then several hours later had the highest-scoring free skate with three quadruple jumps.

Hanyu said he is uncertain for the Grand Prix Final in three weeks — and a showdown with Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno and, likely, world champion Nathan Chen according to The Associated Press.

“It really hurts,” Hanyu said, according to Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “This injury made me change my program, and sadly I couldn’t perform the way I wanted. I could have done better.”

ROSTELECOM CUP: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Hanyu apologized to a TV camera following his free skate, after falling and popping an Axel on his last two jumps.

Last November, Hanyu damaged right ankle ligaments in a practice fall, forcing him off the ice for more than a month. He said this injury is not as bad. Still, coach Brian Orser said “it was a big question” whether Hanyu would withdraw before the free skate, according to Olympic Channel.

Hanyu endured, taking out the quadruple loop that he fell on in practice but still adding 10 points to his lead from Friday’s short program. For the first time in nine seasons, Hanyu won his two Grand Prix Series qualifying events, cruising into December’s exclusive, six-skater Grand Prix Final.

Georgian Morisi Kvitelashvili took second, followed by Japanese Kazuki Tomono.

Two other men who came to Moscow with Grand Prix Final hopes — Russian Mikhail Kolyada and Canadian Keegan Messing — struggled in Friday’s short program and could not get onto the podium, placing fourth and fifth. They won’t be at the Final, assuming Chen finishes in the top six at next week’s event in France.

Rostelecom Cup continues later Saturday with the free programs for ice dance, pairs and women, streaming live on NBC Sports Gold.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season…NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Ashley Wagner on her future, role as coach