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.”
“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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