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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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MORE SKATE CANADA: As top stars step away, Canada asks ‘who next?’ in figure skating

Tour de France race of truth to decide champ; Peter Sagan’s run likely ends

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The stage is set to decide the Tour de France winner on Saturday.

After Soren Kragh Andersen of Denmark won Friday’s 19th stage of 21, where the overall leaders finished together, eyes turn to Saturday’s 22-mile individual time trial — otherwise known as the race of truth (6:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold).

A Slovenian is extremely likely to win a Tour title for the first time.

Primoz Roglic, a former world junior team champion ski jumper, has been in the yellow jersey for nearly two weeks. He leads countryman Tadej Pogacar by 57 seconds going into the last two stages. Sunday’s finisher is a ceremonial ride into Paris where the leaders are not expected to attack each other.

Miguel Angel Lopez of Colombia, who crashed directly into a road sign on the first stage, is in third, 1:27 behind Roglic. Lopez is 1:39 ahead of fourth-place Australian Richie Porte.

TOUR DE FRANCE: Standings | TV, Stream Schedule | Stage By Stage

Stage 20 Time Trial Notable Start Times
10:46 a.m. ET — Sepp Kuss (USA)
11:08 — Richie Porte (AUS)
11:10 — Miguel Angel Lopez (COL)
11:12 — Tadej Pogacar (SLO)
11:14 — Primoz Roglic (SLO)

Even with a finishing first-category climb, the time trial distance of 22 miles makes it difficult for Pogacar to make up 57 seconds on Roglic. Pogacar beat Roglic in the national time trial championship in June — by nine seconds on a 9.7-mile course.

“Tomorrow it’s all on me,” Roglic said, according to Cyclingnews.com. “The team has done an amazing job, I have the [yellow] jersey, but we have all worked for it.”

Pogacar, at 21, is bidding to become the youngest Tour de France podium finisher since 1909, according to ProCyclingStats.com. Last year, he became the youngest podium finisher in any Grand Tour since 1974 by placing third at the Vuelta a Espana won by Roglic.

“If I’m on a good day, it’s a course that suits me well,” Pogacar said of the time trial. “If someone told me I’d be in this position before the Tour. I would never have believed them.”

The Slovenians from different teams owned this Tour while defending champion Egan Bernal of Colombia and the formerly dominant Ineos Grenadiers struggled and eventually abandoned on Wednesday.

One competition that all but wrapped up Friday was for the green jersey going to the Tour’s top sprinter.

Sam Bennett is in line to become the second Irishman to win that title after Sean Kelly, who did so four times in the 1980s.

Bennett goes into the weekend with a 55-point lead over Slovakian Peter Sagan, who won the title in each of his last seven Tours that he has finished, a record total.

With a maximum 70 points available for one sprinter left, Bennett would clinch the title by finishing eighth on Sunday and picking up a handful of intermediate sprint points.

MORE: Slovenia’s president is all about the Tour de France

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2020 Tour de France standings

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2020 Tour de France standings for the yellow jersey, green jersey, white jersey and polka-dot jersey through stage 18 of 21 …

Overall (Yellow Jersey)
1. Primoz Roglic (SLO) — 83:29:41
2. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — +:57
3. Miguel Angel Lopez (COL) — +1:27
4. Richie Porte (AUS) — +3:06
5. Mikel Landa (ESP) — +3:28
6. Enric Mas (ESP) — +4:19
7. Adam Yates (GBR) — +5:55
8. Rigoberto Uran (COL) — +6:05
9. Tom Dumoulin (NED) — +7:24
10. Alejandro Valverde (ESP) — +12:12
13. Richard Carapaz (ECU) — +17:48
15. Sepp Kuss (USA) — +35:54
17. Nairo Quintana (COL) — +57:49
30. Thibaut Pinot (FRA) — +1:56:21
36. Julian Alaphilippe (FRA) — +2:11:36
DNF. Egan Bernal (COL)

Sprinters (Green Jersey)
1. Sam Bennett (IRL) — 319 points
2. Peter Sagan (SVK) — 264
3. Matteo Trentin (ITA) — 250
4. Bryan Coquard (FRA) — 173
5. Caleb Ewan (AUS) — 158

Climbers (Polka-Dot Jersey)
1. Richard Carapaz (ECU) — 74 points
2. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 72
3. Primoz Roglic (SLO) — 67
4. Marc Hirschi (SUI) — 62
5. Miguel Angel Lopez (COL) — 51

Young Rider (White Jersey)
1. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 83:30:38
2. Enric Mas (ESP) — +3:22
3. Valentin Madouas (FRA) — +1:35:35
4. Dani Martinez (COL) — +1:51:32
5. Lennard Kamna (GER) — +2:10:21

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TOUR DE FRANCE: TV, Stream Schedule | Stage By Stage | Favorites, Predictions