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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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Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff set Australian Open duel

Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff
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Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff will meet in the third round of a second straight Grand Slam, this time at the Australian Open on Friday.

Osaka, the defending champion and world No. 4, and Gauff, the 15-year-old American phenom, each won second-round matches in Melbourne to reach the final 32.

Osaka swept Chinese Zheng Saisai 6-2, 6-4 on a windy Wednesday afternoon. Later, Gauff followed her first-round win over Venus Williams by eliminating Romanian veteran Sorana Cirstea 4-6, 6-3, 7-5.

“I know what to expect,” Gauff said. “I’m excited.”

Osaka beat Gauff 6-3, 6-0 in the U.S. Open third round on Aug. 31. In the most memorable moment of that night, Osaka urged Gauff to share the on-court victor’s interview at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“It’s better than going into the showers and crying,” Osaka told Gauff in front of a packed crowd. “Let these people know how you feel.”

Gauff obliged after at first declining.

“I’m not the type of person who wants to cry in front of everyone,” she said later. “I didn’t want to take that moment away from [Osaka], as well.”

Gauff, ranked No. 684 at this time last year, is now No. 67. She broke through by beating Williams in the Wimbledon first round, then reaching the round of 16.

Gauff won a lower-level WTA Tour event in October and now ranks fifth in U.S. Olympic singles qualifying. The top four after the French Open qualify for the Tokyo Games, though Gauff has fewer than half the points as No. 4 Alison Riske.

“It’s been really cool to watch her grow because it’s happened so fast,” Osaka said.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

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John Isner leaning toward skipping Olympics again

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John Isner, the highest-ranked U.S. male singles tennis player, is considering skipping the Olympics for a second straight time.

“I haven’t put a ton of thought into it, but as of right now, I think I’m leaning towards not playing,” the 19th-ranked player said at the Australian Open on Tuesday. “It’s about scheduling. I know the Olympics, it’s a fantastic honor. There’s no doubt about that. … Right now, at this stage in my career, it’s not a huge priority for me. So that’s probably the main reason I won’t be going. I certainly love playing in the summer in America, and I’m going to focus on that.”

The Tokyo Games take place the same week as a lower-level ATP Tour event in Atlanta that Isner, a former University of Georgia star, has won five times.

Other notable male players already said they will pass on Tokyo, including Sam Querrey, the top American in Olympic qualifying standings.

Austrian Dominic Thiem, a two-time French Open finalist, is prioritizing an ATP event in Kitzbühel the week of the Olympics. The U.S. doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan are not planning to play the Olympics in their final season before retirement, their manager said in November.

“The Olympics is very tough on the schedule … especially with Davis Cup,” Isner said in 2016, according to USA Today. “I think the fact that they have no [ATP ranking] points [at the Olympics], to be honest, was a pretty big factor as well. Obviously the Olympics is not about the money, but no points I think hindered me a bit.”

Isner, who turns 35 on April 26, is likely giving up his last chance to play Olympic singles. In his only Olympic participation, he reached the quarterfinals of the 2012 London Games, plus lost an opening-round doubles match there with Andy Roddick.

The top four U.S. men qualify for Tokyo, assuming they are among the top 60 overall qualifiers (maximum four per country) after this spring’s French Open.

Taylor FritzReilly Opelka, Steve Johnson and Tommy Paul are the U.S. men currently in Olympic qualifying position if excluding Querrey and Isner.

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