‘At last,’ Knierims bring total package to lead pairs’ short program

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – The title of their romantic music said it all for Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim: At Last.

After a 2018-19 season of upheaval, with moves from Colorado Springs to Germany, Chicago and, finally, Southern California – “We were couch-hopping before nationals,” Scimeca-Knierim said – the two-time U.S. champions (2015, 2018) had a settled training situation. Full teaching schedules providing a financial cushion. A renowned technical specialist, Rafael Arutunian, to address their longtime nemeses, side-by-side triple jumps.

And, on Thursday at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, they had something that eluded them the first half of this season, as well as all of last season: a short program with seven clean elements, at last.

“I’m actually extremely emotional,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “I was excited after the program, I was excited when I got my scores, but then I started to cry a little bit and now I feel like it’s coming up again and I’m going to cry.”

“No one sees how much work we put in, how much struggles we have on the day-to-day,” Knierim said.

Their tender yet powerful short, opening with a soaring triple twist and clean side-by-side triple toe loops, with a strong throw triple Lutz in its second half, earned 77.06 points. They take a near seven-point lead into Saturday’s free skate.

“It was a dream that was attainable to skate the way we did today, but it always seems something gets in the way,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “I’ve just been wanting for this moment to happen, because it’s been a little bit of time for Chris and I to have a skate that makes you feel, like, alive. I’m just so happy.”

Their moment of triumph nearly died aborning when Knierim tripped on a connecting step early in the routine, but the skater recovered in time to set up for the triple twist.

“I thought it was a little funny in the moment,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “I was like, ‘Here we go again, it’s always something that gets in the way,’ and then it didn’t go that way.”

Too often, what has “gotten in the way” are the skaters’ triple jumps. The couple credits the tough-talking but caring Arutunian, who began work with them last May, with re-working their technique and rebuilding their confidence.

“You know Raf, he’s going to tell you if you’re horrible, and he does sometimes,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “But knowing he believes in us, he was the only person I needed to hear it from besides myself. I think that’s what helped me get my confidence in my jumps.”

“We take his morning stroking classes a couple times a week, with Michal Brezina and Nathan (Chen) there sometimes and Mariah (Bell), all his high-level kids,” Knierim said. “When we started, it was eye-opening how far behind we were. It was a little embarrassing being in the class and being so terrible at everything. Now I think it’s played into our skating a little bit. There are a lot of exercises we do day-to-day to help our jumps.”

Todd Sand, who coaches the pair with his wife, Jenni Meno, in Irvine, California, called Thursday’s short program “a validation” of the couple’s training plan.

“Last year was a challenge for them, it was hard, they were just trying to survive, I think,” Sand said. “Chris had wrist surgery (last February). It took a while to get going, but now they are doing great. They’ve been working really hard with Raf, and he’s been wonderful, but these changes take time, and the same thing with some pair things, too.”

Sand revealed it will take additional grit for his team to get through their free skate on Saturday.

“They had a setback the last few weeks, Chris hurt his shoulder pretty seriously, so he wasn’t lifting for a while,” he said. “It’s only been healthy the last week or so, and it still gives him little issues. They have a lot of foundation from early in the year and I think they are relying on that. If they just trust themselves, they will be fine.”

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea sit second with 70.35 points after a near-clean program. Their only notable error was an under-rotation on their triple Salchows (VIDEO).

The couple, who won the U.S. title in 2016, debuted a new short set to Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” after their coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, determined their previous routine (set to “Sweet Dreams”) wasn’t showing them to best advantage.

“Over the international season, we never felt the short program scored the way we thought it should,” O’Shea said. “It wasn’t coming across to other people. Dalilah and Tarah came up with the idea for ‘Claire de Lune’ and I think it’s amazing.”

“I get really nervous at competitions,” Kayne said. “The music comes on and I feel comfortable … It puts me in the right headspace to skate.”

The skaters kept their “Sweet Dreams” step sequence designed by Charlie White, and worked with Sappenfield to put the new routine together in three days.

“I said, ‘We’re going to go to Zagreb for Golden Spin, and if you skate clean and don’t score 70 or above, we’re going to have to scrap it,’” Sappenfield said. “And they scored about 66 points, so it went. I wanted Tarah to shine in the short, and I felt in the other one, Danny overshadowed her.”

Defending champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, third with 68.86 points, lost ground when their death spiral was invalidated by the technical panel, costing them about four or five points (VIDEO).

Coach Peter Cain, who also works as an ISU pair’s technical specialist, explained that the technical panel determined LeDuc lifted his blade’s toe pick off of the ice during the element.

“From the video that I saw, you can see the pick move back, but it never leaves the ice,” Cain said. “The blade doesn’t completely go down… It is what it is. They decided not to go with the skater and take it away. It puts us a little bit in a hole; we would have been right behind Alexa and Chris, which would have been really good. Now we have some work to do to get back up.”

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, winners of two bronze medals on the fall Grand Prix circuit, had a disappointing program, including a fall on their throw triple loop. The 2017 U.S. champions sit sixth with 61.33 points (VIDEO).

MORE: Gracie Gold rebuilds herself to return to nationals

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