Alexa Scimeca Knierim, Christopher Knierim hold on for third U.S. pairs’ title

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Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim moved three times after they skated at the Olympics. They changed coaches twice. They finished seventh at last season’s national championships. They lost a sponsor. He had to sell his collection of cars, including that beloved Camaro.

“So now I have a motorcycle, and Alexa has her car, and that’s about it,” Knierim said. “It was sad.”

It must have felt worth it Saturday night.

The Knierims held on to win their third U.S. pairs’ title, edging training partners Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson by 2.58 points. They are the first U.S. pair to win three national titles since 2002 and are headed back to the world championships in March.

The U.S. Championships conclude Sunday with the men’s free skate in Greensboro, N.C., live on NBC Sports.

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The Knierims’ victory, saved after he fell on a side-by-side triple toe loop in Saturday’s free skate, came after a tumultuous two years.

After placing 15th at the Olympics and worlds in 2018, they left longtime coach Dalilah Sappenfield — who officiated their 2016 wedding — to train under 2018 Olympic champion Aljona Savchenko. They moved from Colorado Springs to Chicago, then to join Savchenko in Germany. They left Savchenko weeks later in fall 2018, saying if they had stayed, it would have “been more of a downward slope in some terms of things than others.”

Then came a move to Southern California to be coached by three-time U.S. champions Jenni Meno and Todd Sand. The Knierims shared a rink with Calalang and Johnson, who were paired together by Meno and Sand in 2018. They had to make lifestyle changes to accommodate cost of living, including coaching younger skaters more than they ever had in Colorado.

“We had some things that we had to get rid of, but it made us stronger,” said Scimeca Knierim, who came to nationals with her husband ranked second this season among Americans. “The only thing you need at the end of the day is love, and that’s what we have. So I don’t really care that we had to give up a lot of things.”

Calalang and Johnson never finished better than fifth in seven combined nationals appearances, either together or with previous partners. They ranked fifth among American pairs in the fall international season, their second together.

Their leading free skate nearly erased a 9.5-point deficit from the short program, where the Knierims were first and Calalang and Johnson were fourth. Now they look poised to join the Knierims as the second and final pair on the world championships team.

“The amount of audience support that I felt at the very end of that program was overwhelming,” Johnson said. “It was the most amazing thing I’ve felt on the ice.”

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, the 2016 U.S. champions, had minor errors on throw landings Saturday. Those were enough to be passed by Calalang and Johnson and drop from second after the short to bronze.

Defending champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc fell from third after the short to fourth after several jumping errors. Cain-Gribble and LeDuc were the sole U.S. pair at last year’s worlds and made the top 10 (ninth) to earn back a second U.S. pairs’ spot at this year’s worlds.

Another set of past champions, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, suffered a fall on throws in both programs. They ended up fifth.

The U.S. last won a world medal in pairs in 2002. China, Russia and Canada have higher-ranked team this season.

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