Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier after first lap together: ‘Yeah, it’s going to work’

ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating - Skate America
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Since teaming up last spring, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier have jammed their coaches’ notebooks with to-do lists and goals, most of which they have achieved in fine style.

Successful tryout? Check. After their long-term previous partnerships ended following the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and 2020 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, Frazier flew from his home in Florida to Great Park Ice & FivePoint Arena in Irvine, California, to see if Alexa would be a good match.

“Our tryout got cut short, because of the [COVID-19] lockdowns,” Frazier, 28, said. “But we didn’t need the whole normal, traditional tryout to make the decision. I mean, we grabbed each other’s hand on the ice and did a lap of crossovers. And I just was like, ‘Yeah, it’s going to work.’”

Big pair elements? Check. At Skate America, held at Las Vegas’ Orleans Arena in October, Knierim and Frazier showed off Level 4 lifts, a big triple twist and solid throws. They won gold by more than seven points over their Great Park Ice training partners Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson.

“At this point, we’ve spent the summer learning our elements together, and most of the fall cleaning them up,” Knierim, 29, said. “Now when we get on the session, we do programs from the very beginning of the session.”

Matching mindsets? Check. Knierim won three U.S. pair titles (2015, 2018, 2020) and a 2018 Olympic team event bronze medal with her husband, Chris, who is now helping to coach her and her new partner. Frazier and his former partner, Haven Denney, competed together as seniors at seven senior U.S. Championships, winning the crown in 2017. Yet neither skater is remotely satisfied.

“I think the reason that they have jelled so quickly is because of the motivation they both have to be back on top, and to be better than they ever were before,” said Todd Sand, who coaches the pair with his wife, Jenni Meno, and Christine Binder. “They come in every day and they’re motivated. They communicate very well with each other. They’re like, ‘Okay, what’s the plan today?’”

So, what improvements are left on the agenda, waiting to be unleashed at the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, held at Las Vegas’ Orleans Arena this week?

Improved unison, for one. More polished pair elements, for another. And those intangibles that often make the difference between a gold-medal pair and runner-up status: performance quality, confidence – that elusive on-ice “connection.”

“[At Skate America] we lost certain levels (technical base value points) that we know we can get,” Frazier said. “On the death spiral and pair spin, for sure, and the twist. And on top of it all, our skating skills, our performance, our connection. Those are the big things that we really tried to zone in on and increase.”

No major changes were made to either of their programs, the skaters said, except for a new pair spin and a few music and choreographic tweaks. The focus has been on matching their arm positions, extending their crossovers, better synchronizing their side-by-side triple jumps.

“It’s about taking the programs to another level, with speed and power,” Knierim said. “With that being said, we feel very prepared for nationals because of the work we’ve put in. Two days after Skate America, we got back into the rink and [trained] as if we had another Grand Prix right away. And it’s been tough and daunting sometimes, but yet we seem to rise to the occasion and thrive off of the challenges that we’re given for the training day.”

“One thing we’ve heard from Skate America that we really wanted to work on, is trying to jump closer [together] and more in sync,” Frazier said. “And then line extensions, matching the details – things like that go a long way.”

For those crucial details, they turn back to their plan, created with the help of Nina Mozer and written in coach Meno’s notebook.

For several years, Mozer – the coach of Russia’s 2014 Olympic pairs champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, and other top Russian duos – has worked as a consultant with U.S. Figure Skating, advising U.S. pair coaches.

“We do two Zoom calls a week with [Mozer],” Meno said. “She’s been very helpful with us on how to train the athletes each day, to get them in the best possible condition. And they know that they’ve done everything that they possibly can, so they go into the competition (thinking) ‘Wow. You know what? We can do this because we do it every day.’ And some days we look at the plan that we made and we think, ‘Wow, this is a lot,’ and they do it.”

“We have to tip our hats to our skaters, and to our top two teams (Knierim and Frazier, and Calalang and Johnson) in particular,” Sand said. “The plan is made, and once in a while there are some adjustments, but they’ve been very receptive and bought into what we’re doing. And like Jenni said, they’re doing things that they didn’t think they would be able to do, training-wise.”

Great Park Ice is also home to Rafael Arutunian’s group, including Nathan Chen and Mariah Bell. Both Knierim and Frazier turn to Arutunian, a renowned technical wizard, to strengthen their triple jumps. At Skate America, they landed both toe loop and salchow jumps, a feat they seek to repeat this week.

“Rafael, from the day Brandon and I first teamed up, definitely stepped in and wanted to help,” Knierim said. “He has created a good foundation and relationship with Brandon, comfortable enough where if Brandon is feeling he has something off, he can go to Raf at any time on any session and ask him to look at it, and Rafael will help.”

Knierim works with Arutunian’s team on a regular basis, as permitted under the rink’s COVID safety guidelines.

“I am working with a few of his assistants in the morning on Jenni and Todd’s ice as a private lesson, two or three times a week, because we have to watch how many people are on the ice at all times,” she said. “So in the mornings I work with either (Czech champion and former European medalist) Michal Březina or another of Raf’s assistants (Oganes Hov Mkrtchian). And then Rafael has the occasional check-in where he will come to our side and talk to Todd or Jenni, or watch videos of us. He basically gives us anything that we need, we just have to ask for it and be able to be flexible with his schedule.”

Marshaling all of these resources propels Knierim and Frazier forward technically, but living up to, or surpassing, their Skate America standard could prove daunting mentally. How to keep the pressure of increased expectations at bay?

“Of course, it’s better to have quiet minds and silence when you’re approaching an event, because you can stay focused without expectation from the outside,” Knierim said. “But at the same time, you work so hard to be your best that it’s okay if people are talking, because that just confirms that you’re on the right track to achieving your dream.”

“We’re not looking for perfection. We’re looking for progress,” Frazier said. “I think we’re both just so happy that we have the opportunity to compete during these times. We have so many things to be thankful for, that we’re just looking to go out there and do what we’ve been doing at home.”

Teri McKeever fired by Cal as women’s swimming coach after investigation

Teri McKeever

Teri McKeever, the first woman to serve as a U.S. Olympic swimming head coach, was fired by the University of California at Berkeley after an investigation into alleged verbal and emotional abuse of swimmers that she denied.

McKeever was put on paid administrative leave from her job as head women’s swimming coach in May after an Orange County Register report that 20 current or former Cal swimmers said McKeever verbally and emotionally bullied her swimmers.

Cal athletics director Jim Knowlton wrote in a letter to the Cal team and staff that a resulting independent law firm report detailed “verbally abusive conduct that is antithetical to our most important values.”

“I strongly believe this is in the best interests of our student-athletes, our swimming program and Cal Athletics as a whole,” Knowlton said of McKeever’s firing in a press release. “The report details numerous violations of university policies that prohibit race, national origin and disability discrimination.”

The Orange County Register first published what it says is the full independent report here with redactions.

“I deny and unequivocally refute all conclusions that I abused or bullied any athlete and deny any suggestion I discriminated against any athlete on the basis of race, disability or sexual orientation,” McKeever said in a statement Tuesday confirming her firing and expressing disappointment in how the investigation was conducted. “While I am disappointed in the way my CAL Career will conclude, I wish to thank and celebrate the many student-athletes and staff that made my time in Berkeley a true blessing and gift.”

McKeever’s lawyer wrote that McKeever “will be filing suit to expose the manner in which gender has affected not only the evaluation of her coaching but harmed and continues to harm both female and male athletes.”

McKeever led Cal women’s swimming and diving for nearly 30 years, winning four NCAA team titles and coaching Olympic champions including Missy FranklinNatalie Coughlin and Dana Vollmer.

In 2004, she became the first woman to be on a U.S. Olympic swim team coaching staff, as an assistant. In 2012, she became the first woman to be head coach of a U.S. Olympic swim team. She was an assistant again for the Tokyo Games.

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Diana Taurasi returns to U.S. national basketball team

Diana Taurasi

Diana Taurasi is set to return to the U.S. national basketball team next week for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics, signaling a possible bid for a record-breaking sixth Olympic appearance in 2024 at age 42.

Taurasi is on the 15-player roster for next week’s training camp in Minnesota announced Tuesday.

Brittney Griner is not on the list but is expected to return to competitive basketball later this year with her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury (also Taurasi’s longtime team, though she is currently a free agent), after being detained in Russia for 10 months in 2022.

Taurasi said as far back as the 2016 Rio Games that her Olympic career was likely over, but returned to the national team after Dawn Staley succeeded Geno Auriemma as head coach in 2017.

In Tokyo, Taurasi and longtime backcourt partner Sue Bird became the first basketball players to win five Olympic gold medals. Bird has since retired.

After beating Japan in the final, Taurasi said “see you in Paris,” smiling, as she left an NBC interview. That’s now looking less like a joke and more like a prediction.

Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve succeeded Staley as head coach last year. In early fall, she guided the U.S. to arguably the best FIBA World Cup performance ever, despite not having stalwarts Bird, Griner, Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles.

Taurasi was not in contention for the team after suffering a WNBA season-ending quad injury in the summer. Taurasi, who is 38-0 in Olympic games and started every game at the last four Olympics, wasn’t on a U.S. team for an Olympics or worlds for the first time since 2002.

Next year, Taurasi can become the oldest Olympic basketball player in history and the first to play in six Games, according to Spain’s Rudy Fernandez could also play in a sixth Olympics in 2024.

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