Chris Knierim

Knierims call time on on-ice partnership, withdraw from world figure skating championship

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The love-and-skating story of Chris Knierim and Alexa Scimeca Knierim is turning a page.

Chris Knierim, struggling with his jumps after accumulated injuries and struggling with depression, has decided not to continue his pairs skating career, effective immediately. Training partners Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson will replace the Knierims in the world championships March 15-22 in Montreal.

Scimeca Knierim hopes to find a new partner to continue her career next season.

The Knierims started skating together in 2012 and had an eight-year run full of drama. Chris broke his leg early in their partnership. In 2014, they were engaged.

In 2016, Alexa fell ill, getting through their wedding ceremony but needing many doctors and multiple surgeries to overcome an abdominal ailment.

They miraculously rebounded to win their second U.S. championship in 2018 and compete in the Olympics, where they won bronze in the team event. They finished 15th in PyeongChang and matched that result in the world championships.

Despite their history of illness and injury, compounded by a series of coaching changes and moves, the Knierims won their third U.S. championship in January, barely ahead of Catalang and Johnson. That win qualified them for another trip to the world championships, where they have four top-10 finishes highlighted by a seventh-place finish in 2015.

But a trip to the Four Continents Championship, where Chris fell in the short program and the pair withdrew from the free skate, convinced him that his career was over.

Calalang and Johnson were only 2.58 points behind the Knierims in the U.S. championships, but U.S. Figure Skating chose Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who have the highest score among U.S. pairs under the new scoring system, for the second slot on the team. Cain-Gribble and LeDuc also competed in last year’s world championships, finishing ninth.

Calalang and Johnson also competed in the Four Continents, finishing fourth with the best score (196.15) of their two-year partnership.

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.

10 takeaways from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — Here, the NBC Sports figure skating contributors reflect on the standout moments of the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Nathan Chen and Alysa Liu of course come to mind, though there were plenty of other moments to remark upon along the way. 

Women

1. Alysa Liu proved that she could do it again. She validated her insistence that there was no more pressure in successfully defending a title compared to winning her first title. 

Plus, the amusement of seeing the 4-foot-10 14-year-old needing help ascending the top step of the awards podium doesn’t get old either. Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell helped hoist her for the second year in a row. Liu next competes at world juniors, where she will take on a formidable pair of Russian “K’s”: Kamila Valieva and Ksenia Sinitsyna, both of whom outscored her on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. To win the crown, Liu may need a fully rotated quadruple Lutz, something that eluded her in Greensboro.

2. Speaking of Bell, she comes out of the championships with her already-improving confidence another notch higher after the free skate of her life and her best nationals finish ever, a silver medal. In tears before she even hit her final pose, she deservedly got an overwhelming standing ovation.

When asked how she felt about being the No. 1 senior U.S. woman, she said, “It’s a very special feeling. I haven’t had that before in my career, so that was awesome. The coolest thing about it was how into it the crowd was.” 

Now, let the calculations begin: can Bell and Tennell gain three U.S. women’s spots for next season’s world championships? To do so, the sum of their placements at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships cannot be greater than 13 (for example, sixth and seventh).

3. Rounding out the memorable moments of the women’s event were the returns of Olympians Karen Chen and Gracie Gold. Chen, the 2017 national champion, missed the entirety of last season with a right foot stress fracture, and now is a freshman at Cornell. She finished fourth, and gained an assignment at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships early next month. With her competitive juices flowing again, Chen told reporters she was considering taking a gap year from college.

Two-time U.S. champion Gold, of course, triumphed simply by qualifying for her first national championships since 2017 after time away from the sport for treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. After a mediocre short program, Gold did a respectable free skate, and the crowd gave her a standing ovation, an emotional reward that left her with grateful tears. It moved Gold, who finished 12th, to vow she would continue her comeback for at least another season.

Men

4. Nathan Chen’s fourth straight U.S. title puts him in the company of five men since World War II, all of whom won Olympic gold medals, with Brian Boitano (85-88) the most recent. Chen, a Yale sophomore, was the first to do it in the IJS and quadruple jump eras (he went six-for-six in quads in the two programs), and the fourth came after a case of the flu bad enough he could practice only intermittently the first two weeks of January. “I don’t know anybody who could recover and do what he did after that sickness,” coach Rafael Arutunian said of Chen.

5. Tomoki Hiwatashi’s continued improvement: two clean programs with three clean quads for the bronze medal. His showmanship, including Russian split jumps, are to die for. Last season, Hiwatashi finished a surprise fourth at nationals but had disappointing 10th and fifth places in his debut competitions on the senior Grand Prix debut. The 2019 world junior champion has put himself into the mix for a 2022 Olympic team spot — if he can improve his consistency. 

6. Except for that pesky quad, Jason Brown put it all together at nationals for the first time since 2014. If he can execute all the elements as brilliantly as he did in Greensboro, a clean quad might put him in bronze medal contention at the 2020 World Championships, given the consistent inconsistency of all the top men after Chen and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu.

7. In the past month, Vincent Zhou turned his life inside out, taking a leave from Brown University to focus on skating after completing the first semester of his freshman year and switching coaches to Lee Barkell and Lori Nichol in Toronto. Despite that upheaval and little intense training, the reigning world bronze medalist and 2019 U.S. silver medalist had two solid performances to finish fourth, strategically limiting his quads to one in each program. Although Zhou had skipped the Grand Prix season, his choice as a world team member over Hiwatashi was totally justified under the selection criteria in use.

Ice dance

8. Madison Chock and Evan Bates made ice dance — and figure skating — history when they became the first U.S. skater, couple or pair team to go five years between national titles since the 1920s. They topped two duos they train with, Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, to win their first title since 2015, also won in Greensboro. Their widely acclaimed slithering “Snake Charmer” free dance likely sets them up to glide to the world championship podium, but another showdown with Hubbell and Donohue awaits at Four Continents.

Pairs

9. Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson had a breakthrough moment in the pairs’ event with one of the most memorable free skates in the last 20 years. Calalang’s joyous disbelief was palpable when she and Johnson got their score (146.01, the highest ever at nationals) for a program that had the crowd out of its seats before it even ended

“In my head, I’m like, ‘We got 119 at Skate Canada. We got 120-something at Warsaw.’ So, I was like, ‘Okay, we did both jumps… maybe 130,” she said, recalling her mental play-by-play. “Then it’s 140. Ohmigod, I’ve never dreamed of getting this score. I didn’t think it was possible.” 

Added Johnson: “No one can take that moment away from us.” 

Especially poignant words as Calalang and Johnson were passed over in favor of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc for the world championships teams. Calalang and Johnson are slated to participate at Four Continents, where they can continue to build a body of work that will impress U.S. Figure Skating’s International Selection Committee next time around.

10. Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim won their third U.S. pair title in Greensboro, joining such company as John Zimmerman and Kyoko Ina, Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, and Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard. The couple skated a clean and memorable short program to “At Last,” including side-by-side triple toe loops. In the free skate, though, Knierim fell on his triple toe and the skaters doubled their planned triple Salchows. Despite their superior triple twist and lifts, in order to crack the top five in the world, Scimeca Knierim and Knierim need to get consistent on their jumps, and the California-based skaters are working with Arutunian to do so.

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U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS: Full Results | Women’s | Ice dance | Pairs | Men’s | Worlds roster

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.

U.S. figure skating roster for world championships

Nathan Chen
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U.S. Figure Skating announced its world championship team at the end of the U.S. Championships.

The team — three men, two women, two pairs and three ice dance couples — was chosen by committee and, as usual, went closely in line with results from nationals.

Save two exceptions: the third men’s spot went not to bronze medalist Tomoki Hiwatashi, but fourth-place finisher Vincent Zhou, the 2019 World bronze medalist; the second pair will not be silver medalists Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, but instead fourth-place finishers Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc.

The committee decides the team considering results not only from nationals but also other recent competitions. Zhou and Cain-Gribble and LeDuc have more international experience and past nationals success.

Nathan Chen leads the charge as he attempts to win a third consecutive world title, coming off his fourth straight nationals victory. This sets up a duel with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan.

Two-time women’s national champion, Alysa Liu, remains too young at 14 to compete on the senior international level. Her post-season assignments will be determined after the 2020 U.S. World Junior Team Camp, though it is widely expected she will make her world junior championship debut.

The world championships are set for March 16-22 in Montreal. The Four Continents Championships will run Feb. 3-9 in Seoul. Events will be televised and live streamed for NBC Sports Gold Figure Skating pass subscribers.

World Championships
Nathan Chen
Jason Brown
Vincent Zhou

Mariah Bell
Bradie Tennell

Alexa Knierim/Chris Knierim
Ashley Cain-Gribble/Timothy LeDuc

Madison Chock/Evan Bates
Madison Hubbell/Zach Donohue
Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker

Four Continents Championships
Jason Brown
Tomoki Hiwatashi
Camden Pulkinen

Karen Chen
Amber Glenn
Bradie Tennell

Alexa Knierim/Chris Knierim
Jessica Calalang/Brian Johnson
Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea

Madison Chock/Evan Bates
Madison Hubbell/Zach Donohue
Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker

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NATIONALS: Full Results | Women’s | Ice dance | Pairs | Men’s 

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.