They had been together so little time, barely a season of true international competition when you factor in the year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and yet Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier had still accomplished so much.
So, at the end of a whirlwind 2022 season, when they missed the national championships after Frazier contracted COVID but returned for landmark performances by a U.S. pair at the Olympics and world championships, they inevitably came to a career crossroads.
Should they be satisfied with what they already had done competitively, finishing on the high of skating flawlessly to become the first U.S. team to win the pairs’ world title since 1979? Should they end on that high that followed having won an Olympic team event medal and earning sixth place in the individual event at the 2022 Winter Games, the best U.S. pairs’ finish at the Olympics since 2002?
Or should they keep competing to see how much more they could do, both in terms of tangible results and the intangible quality that makes a pair more than two individuals skating together?
When Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 29, sat down in early July to discuss those questions, after two months with Stars on Ice in Japan and the United States, their tour skating would play a significant part in the answers.
“It made sense on our timeline to move on,” Knierim said. “We had done everything we could in two years.
“Yet it felt like it could be sad or disappointing to end a really talented career together so soon. Being on tour had opened our eyes to how in synch and unified we were on the ice. So there was a little bit of curiosity, a feeling of ‘What else are we capable of?’”
They will begin to find out as the Grand Prix Series opens this week at Skate America in the Boston suburb of Norwood. As reigning world champions, they are the marquee entry in their field, a rare position for a U.S. pairs’ team.
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Knierim’s curiosity about what that stature would feel like was one of the reasons that led her to favor continuing.
“It is being able to enter the season with the title of world champion and seeing how it could carry us in confidence and poise when we take the ice,” she said.
Ironically, they had debated skipping the 2022 Worlds. They were exhausted from the tension that followed Frazier getting sick in early January, from the doping imbroglio involving Russian singles skater Kamila Valiyeva that has kept them from receiving the team event medals (silver or gold, the latter if Russia is disqualified), the long slog in a COVID-restricted Beijing environment over the three weeks between getting to China and the individual pairs’ event at the end of the figure skating schedule.
“When we came home from Beijing, we did come down hard,” Frazier said.
“That post-Olympic (letdown) feeling is a reality,” Knierim said. “But we started thinking, ‘Did we want to possibly have [a career] with just one worlds appearance?’ So we said we should do another worlds.”
It made no difference, both said, that all five pairs who had finished ahead of them at the Olympics, three Russian and two Chinese, would not be going to worlds, making Knierim and Frazier the top team in the field. The Russians were (and still are) barred by the International Skating Union because of their country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and the Chinese decided not to send any skater for unspecified reasons.
Those absences oddly increased the pressure on Knierim and Frazier.
“Does it help when there are literally less people in the field? Yes,” Knierim said. “But your stakes are higher.
“Everyone was like, ‘Oooh, there’s a big opportunity here,’ and then you’re like, ‘Well, crap, I don’t want to mess that up when everyone is expecting it.
“Before, it was always, ‘The Americans are in the bottom half. It’s all about everyone else.’ All of a sudden you go to this event and everyone is saying, ‘Well, it’s yours for the taking.'”
Anyone inclined to add an asterisk to their world title should first consider 1) you only can beat those who do compete and 2) how well they skated to win.
Knierim and Frazier had personal bests in both the short program and free skate. They did two “clean” programs, meaning no negative aggregate grades of execution on any of the 18 technical elements.
How hard is it to skate two clean pairs programs in a global championship? According to skatingscores.com, in the 22 world and Olympic events under the scoring system first used at those events in 2005, only 15 of the 66 medalists and eight of the champions have had no negative GOEs.
It was the first time Knierim and Frazier had been scored clean in their 12 events overall since partnering in May 2020. Knierim had not done it in 44 events with her previous partner, husband Chris, even though they had won three U.S. titles together before he retired in February 2020.
When Knierim saw two-time Olympian David Santee after the Olympics, he congratulated her for winning the world title “the way you did it, with two fantastic programs, being able to have your best skating with your highest achievement.”
“People can say, ‘This one wasn’t there, that one wasn’t there,'” Knierim said. “That didn’t stop the feeling of genuine gratification that we did it.’’
They have a similar feeling about being deprived of a team medal ceremony in Beijing because the results won’t be official until the Valiyeva doping case is resolved, which could take several more months. She had helped Russia get the highest score in the team event, with the USA second.
“Would it have been nice to have that Olympic moment on the podium everyone dreams of when they are 10 years old? Sure,” Frazier said. “It’s disappointing we didn’t have that feeling. But that won’t change how proud I am, and I know when the medal arrives, it will be a reminder of what we did.”
Added Knierim: “They will never be able to take away the camaraderie we shared. Whether it’s gold or silver, it will still shine. I’m at peace with it.”
Knierim already has a team bronze (with her husband) from 2018. She also has four U.S. titles (one with Frazier.) Should they decide to continue through 2026, she would be favored to make a third Olympic team, which only two other U.S. women (Kyoko Ina and Jenni Meno) have done in pairs in the last 94 years.
“We’re taking it one season at a time,” she said. “One thing we have learned from last season is you never know what will happen.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.
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