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With new outlook and new coaching team, Knierims look ahead

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Two-time U.S. champions Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, who placed fourth at Skate Canada in Kelowna, British Columbia last week, know the U.S. pairs’ scene is growing more competitive with each event this season, and they’re OK with it.

After four podium finishes at the U.S. Championships, including two U.S. titles and five trips to the World Championships, the couple placed seventh in the U.S. last season. At the start of 2019-20, for the first time in years, “the Knierims” were not top on everyone’s list.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

“We found out after the first U.S. title we won (2015), that is was a lot of pressure to come back and try and win again,” Knierim said. “It doesn’t really matter what we did last competition, or last year, or four years ago. We’re kind of fresh every year now, not worrying about the past.”

After seven years of partnership, highlighted by a team bronze medal at the PyeongChang Olympics, the couple – married since June 2016 – could have retired to enjoy domestic life. Instead, they spent the off-season regrouping, starting with Knierim’s surgery in February to repair a torn wrist tendon.

“We had this really cool flip into our short program lift, and it put strain on his wrist to push me up for the press,” Scimeca Knierim said. “Over time, he damaged it. But we just kept doing it anyway, because it was cool.”

Her husband added what might be a motto for all pair skaters.

“If it’s cool, you gotta keep doing it, even if it hurts,” he said.

After many years in Colorado Springs, Colorado, followed by far shorter stints in Chicago and Obertsdorf, Germany, the skaters completed their move to Southern California, where they began training with Jenni Meno and Todd Sand last November. An earlier coaching arrangement with German Olympic pair champion Aliona Savchenko ended after just a few months.

“There were assumptions of what maybe happened there, but it’s all very positive for us,” Scimeca Knierim said. “We’re on very good terms. We don’t talk every day, but Aliona is supportive and so is her husband Liam (Cross). He texts us a lot.”

As married athletes, Meno and Sand – who won three U.S. pairs titles and three world medals – have a lot in common with their students. The two couples clicked right away.

“I think Jenni and I are very similar in the sense that we are pretty aggressive and assertive on the day-to-day,” Scimeca Knierim said. “She helps listen to me when I have thoughts or emotions, and helps me kind of organize them. Whereas I feel like Todd and Chris are very similar in more of a lowkey energy on the day-to-day.”

“They’ve been through what we have,” Knierim said of their coaches. “They were married and competing and going through all of it. They can understand where we’re coming from, I think better than anyone has.”

The Knierims plan to compete through the 2022 Olympics. Meno and Sand  support that vision.

“It’s very obvious to me they love skating, they love competing,” Sand said. “They feel, and I feel, they have a lot left to give skating, and I’ve really seen that now that we’ve been with them not quite a year yet. Their commitment level to what they do is really impressive.”

The couple opened the season with a silver medal at Nebelhorn Trophy, where excellent lifts showed Knierim’s wrist fully healed. As often happens, though, errors on triple jumps cost them points. To improve that relative weakness, they added Rafael Arutunian to their Irvine coaching team.

Schedules permitting, Scimeca Knierim said, “We work with Rafael privately two days week, and we take his class two days week. That’s been a huge asset training (in Irvine).”

“They’ve made a commitment to working with Rafael on their jumping,” Sand said. “That’s a process as well, but they’re really committed to it. I’m committed to it. It’s something you have to get into your bodies. It’s about putting old habits away and making new habits.”

In Kelowna, the couple landed side-by-side triple Salchows in their free skate, but small errors on triple throws and on their side-by-side combination spins in the short program cost them a medal.

“We’re very disappointed in our spins. They’ve been very good and are something we’ve improved on since last season,” Scimeca Knierim said after the short. “The positive is that it was a great skate. Last year we would have been ecstatic if we skated like this.”

Knierim thinks the free skate in Kelowna was an improvement over Nebelhorn.

“No falls. I fell on the jump at Nebelhorn. All the elements were good,” he said.

Other experts are on hand in Irvine. The skaters occasionally work with five-time world pairs champion Robin Szolkowy, as well as two-time Olympic pairs champion Katia Gordeeva.

“Katia often talks to me off the ice and kind of gives me encouragement or advice if she sees that I’m struggling a bit mentally,” Scimeca Knierim said. “She’s been there and she knows how hard it is to stay optimistic and positive all the time …. She’s very warm and loving and she kind of gives me the confidence and inspiration that maybe I need sometimes. Her belief in us goes deep with me.”

Then there’s Nina Mozer, coach of Russia’s 2014 Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, who consults with several top U.S. pairs including U.S. champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, and the Knierims’ training partners, Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson.

“She’s been very helpful, it’s been interesting to gain her insight,” Sand said. “We have a lot of the same ideas, and then we have some ideas – I don’t want to say  completely different, but maybe she has a different way of going about it. I found that very refreshing. I like the way she works. She’s been extremely helpful in periodizing our skaters a little differently.”

It all adds up to, if not a clean slate, then a new outlook, and a determination to make the final years of their career count.

“I think that this year, we’ve worked really hard with Rafael (on jumps) and I think that’s going to come out through the year,” Knierim said. “It’s exciting to know we can improve. We’re skating because we love to skate. We have just a few more years before we’re moving on from this part of our life.”

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating 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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‘Race and Sports in America: Conversations’ primetime special covers social justice, combating inequality

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Athletes, including Olympians, discussed social justice, locker room conversations about race and ways that sports can help combat inequality in “Race and Sports in America: Conversations,” airing Monday at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN, Olympic Channel, Golf Channel and NBC Sports Regional Networks.

NBC Sports’ Damon Hack hosted roundtables with active and retired athletes at the American Century Championship Golf Tournament in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, last week.

Panelists, including Olympians James Blake and Charles Barkley and Tokyo Olympic hopeful Stephen Curry, also reflected on personal experiences.

Barkley, an Olympic gold medalist in 1992 and 1996, said coaches recently reached out to him to speak to their teams.

“First of all, relax and breathe,” Barkley said. “This crap started 400 years ago. We can’t do nothing about that. We can’t do anything about systematic racism. What I challenge every Black person, every white person to do: What can I do today going forward?

“You have to ask yourself, I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Because if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

Blake, a retired former top-five tennis player and 2008 Olympian, was wrestled to the ground, handcuffed and arrested by a plainclothes New York City police officer in 2015 in a case of mistaken identity caught on video. The police officer’s punishment was a loss of five vacation days.

“The first thing I said when I got tackled was, I’m complying 100 percent,” Blake said. “And that shouldn’t have to be your response the first time you interact with a police officer. And because that’s the way my dad taught me is stay alive. Do whatever you can to stay alive. Sort it out later with lawyers or however you want to do it, and stay alive in that moment. The fact you have to have those rules in 2020 means maybe we have to do something drastic to change the way police interact with the African-American community and the way the community interacts with the police.”

Curry said his daughters, 7-year-old Riley and 5-year-old Ryan, asked questions about the images they recently saw. He’s not shielding them, but rather being honest about society, going back centuries.

“We have to continue to double down and double down and keep people accountable in all walks of life, all industries, all forms of leadership, the judicial system, all those type of things,” Curry said. “And hopefully for my kids’ generation, their kids, we will see change. I’m hopeful and optimistic about, but I understand how much work will need to go into that.”

The full list of athletes who participated in the “Race and Sports in America: Conversations” roundtables:

• Charles Barkley – 1992 and 1996 Olympic basketball champion
• James Blake – 10-time ATP tennis champion, 2008 Olympian
• Stephen Curry – two-time NBA MVP, two-time FIBA world champion
• Troy Mullins – World Long Drive competitor
• Anthony Lynn – Los Angeles Chargers head coach
• Jimmy Rollins – World Series champion shortstop
• Kyle Rudolph – Minnesota Vikings tight end
• Ozzie Smith – Major League Baseball Hall of Famer

Additionally, Hack was joined by Super Bowl champion running back Jerome Bettis for an extended interview that will be published on NBC Sports’ digital and podcast platforms.

MORE: Elana Meyers Taylor’s claims of racism in bobsled being investigated

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Shelby Houlihan shatters American 5000m record

Shelby Houlihan
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Shelby Houlihan chopped 10.52 seconds off her own American 5000m record, clocking 14:23.92 at a Bowerman Track Club intrasquad meet in Portland, Ore., on Friday night.

Houlihan, who was 11th in the Rio Olympic 5000m, has in this Olympic cycle improved to become one of the greatest female distance runners in U.S. history.

She first broke Shannon Rowbury‘s American record in the 5000m by 4.47 seconds in 2018. In 2019, she broke Rowbury’s American record in the 1500m by 1.3 seconds in finishing fourth at the world championships in 3:54.99.

On Friday, Houlihan and second-place Karissa Schweizer both went under the American record. Schweizer, 24 and three years younger than Houlihan, clocked 14:26.34, staying with Houlihan until the winner’s 61-second final lap.

“I knew Karissa was going to try to come up on me and take the lead. She does that every time,” Houlihan told USATF.tv. “I had decided I was not going to let that happen.”

Houlihan improved from 41st to 12th on the world’s all-time 5000m list, 12.77 seconds behind Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba‘s world record.

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