Jessica Calalang

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.

Can U.S. pair Calalang and Johnson repeat their shining moment?

Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson
AP
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Recent results would dissuade anyone from getting carried away over what seems a breakthrough performance by a U.S. pair.

Such performances have happened off-and-on in the past few decades, but not since 2011 has a U.S. pair finished in the top six at the World Championships. And not since 1996 has a U.S. pair won a world medal in a non-Olympic year. (Post-Olympic fields at worlds generally are watered down by the absence of the new Olympic medalists.) And not since 2002 has a U.S. pair won a world medal in any year. And only once (2015) since 2007 has a U.S. pair made it to the Grand Prix Final.

Even with those historical caveats, there is reason to be hopeful about Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson.

Their free skate at nationals was error-free (rare for a top U.S. pair), and it included difficult elements executed well: throw triple Lutz, two sets of triple jumps (one in combination with a double). The only (minor) ding from the judges was a triple twist given a Level 3 instead of a Level 4.

Their skating had suppleness, flow, speed and a bit of the spectacular in a final lift that covered two-thirds of the outer edge of the rink. They have eschewed intricate choreography to emphasize security on elements, a wise choice at this point in a partnership in only its second season. They have improved substantially in a year.

The California-based Calalang and Johnson, both 24, began this season hoping to get invitations to two Challenger Series (B level) events and wound up with two Grand Prix (A level) events, beating the 2019 U.S. champs, Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, in one and muddling through the other.

They then had two flawed skates while beating a desultory field to win December’s Challenger Series event in Warsaw and a flawed short program at nationals. Nothing else they had done this season foreshadowed that sparkling free skate in Greensboro, N.C.

“This was our second year together,” Calalang said. “We weren’t skating perfect at every competition, but we were training really hard, day in and day out. It all paid off to have that moment. No one can take that moment away from us.”

Their challenge at the Four Continents Championships this week in Seoul, South Korea, is to prove that free skate wasn’t a one-off.

“We have to prove ourselves still.”

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Rehashing the momentous free skate in an interview the day after was as entertaining as watching them perform it, given their narration of the often-amusing by-play between them during the four minutes of skating and of what they felt waiting for their scores. Here is an edited transcript:

Have you had time to digest everything that has happened?

Calalang: We’re speechless. Every time we get asked, we’re like, “Did that just really happen?”

At the end, what were you thinking and feeling? And how did you keep it together?

Calalang: Well, actually, from the beginning, we did the twist and we were like, “That was a pretty good twist.”

You’re actually thinking that as you go through it?

Johnson: Oh, yeah.

Calalang: I’m making faces at this one [she nods at Johnson]. He tends to get excited, and then things start to change a little bit, and I just wanted him to be calm.

So, continue the narration.

Calalang: So, then we did the toes (side-by-side triple toe loops in combination with double toes). Obviously, we were very focused on just doing our own jump. I heard the reaction of the crowd, and I was like, “I think he did it. I think we both did it.” But we still had another triple (Salchow) right afterwards… I don’t think I was smiling at all for the first minute.

Johnson: I always like to look around at people whenever I’m skating. I remember going out of the toe into the Sal and looking at the judges and going, “Nope… okay… hold on… I’ve got to do it.”

Calalang: So, then we did the Sals. I can see that he landed. I was facing opposite but I was like (she makes a slack-jawed expression). And I turned around and thought, “Now, gotta be calm.”

Johnson: Then going into the lift she’s like, “Calm, Calm.” (I thought), “Okay, okay, I’ve got this.”

Calalang: So, we do the lift, we do the death spiral, and that’s where we have our slow, breather part.

Johnson: We both look at each other like… (takes deep breath).

Calalang: Easy, easy. We did the throw Sal. Great. Go into the lift. Great. Then we have our choreo sequence, and he’s pulling me around a lot. That’s when we realize we only have three or four elements left. Todd and Jenni (coaches Todd Sand and Jenni Meno, three-time pairs world medalists) heard me talking to him, telling him to be calm, easy, gentle. I go into the throw Lutz and it’s like, “Easy.” And then do the throw Lutz. And then, “Okay. Just two more things left.”

Johnson: The last lift, people started standing, everyone was freaking out, it was amazing. And then I went, “I still have a pairs spin left. Hold on. Refocus.”

Calalang: You don’t want to leave any points on the table. We really had to hone in and make sure we got that level four pairs spin. And then in the spin, I was like, “Did you do (land) the jumps?” I just wanted to double check.”

Johnson: (I said), “Did you do them?”

Calalang: We were like, “Yeaaaaaaaaah.” That was what was happening in our program.

It sounds like a full-on conversation.

Johnson: We talk to each other all the time. It’s a lot of one-word stuff. A lot of facial expressions as well, so when she makes a face, I know what that means.

So when you’re finally done, and you don’t have to focus on being calm or gentle, in your ending pose, what was that moment for you?

Calalang: We were like, “We just did that. Oh, my god.”

Johnson: Speechless, excited relief.

You (Calalang) said, “Oh, my god!” about five times when you saw the scores.

Calalang: 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.” Then it’s 140. Oh, my god, I’ve never dreamed of getting this score. I didn’t think it was possible.

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The score, 146.01, is the highest by a U.S. pair in the two seasons of the judging system’s latest incarnation, which has opened the way to higher scores. A better comparison is that it was 26 points higher than their free skate score at nationals in 2019.

For all that, though, they finished second overall, 2.58 points behind Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim, who won their third title. The Knierims also are competing at Four Continents, in which the pairs competition begins with the short program Thursday afternoon at 2:15 (12:15 a.m. ET).

The Four Continents pairs field is strong. It has three teams who competed in the Grand Prix Final, including the top two finishers: Chinese pairs Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, the reigning world champions, and Peng Cheng and Jin Yang, fourth at worlds last year.

Where Calalang and Johnson finish is less important than whether they can show consistent, high-level skating.

“We have to prove ourselves still,” Calalang said.

She and Johnson have had a shining moment.

The question now, as it usually is for U.S. pairs, is whether it will be just one shining moment.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: 2020 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships TV, stream schedule

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.

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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.