Lynn Rutherford

Freelance sportswriter covering Olympic sports.
AP

With new outlook and new coaching team, Knierims look ahead

Leave a comment

Two-time U.S. champions Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, who placed fourth at Skate Canada in Kelowna, British Columbia last week, know the U.S. pairs’ scene is growing more competitive with each event this season, and they’re OK with it.

After four podium finishes at the U.S. Championships, including two U.S. titles and five trips to the World Championships, the couple placed seventh in the U.S. last season. At the start of 2019-20, for the first time in years, “the Knierims” were not top on everyone’s list.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

“We found out after the first U.S. title we won (2015), that is was a lot of pressure to come back and try and win again,” Knierim said. “It doesn’t really matter what we did last competition, or last year, or four years ago. We’re kind of fresh every year now, not worrying about the past.”

After seven years of partnership, highlighted by a team bronze medal at the PyeongChang Olympics, the couple – married since June 2016 – could have retired to enjoy domestic life. Instead, they spent the off-season regrouping, starting with Knierim’s surgery in February to repair a torn wrist tendon.

“We had this really cool flip into our short program lift, and it put strain on his wrist to push me up for the press,” Scimeca Knierim said. “Over time, he damaged it. But we just kept doing it anyway, because it was cool.”

Her husband added what might be a motto for all pair skaters.

“If it’s cool, you gotta keep doing it, even if it hurts,” he said.

After many years in Colorado Springs, Colorado, followed by far shorter stints in Chicago and Obertsdorf, Germany, the skaters completed their move to Southern California, where they began training with Jenni Meno and Todd Sand last November. An earlier coaching arrangement with German Olympic pair champion Aliona Savchenko ended after just a few months.

“There were assumptions of what maybe happened there, but it’s all very positive for us,” Scimeca Knierim said. “We’re on very good terms. We don’t talk every day, but Aliona is supportive and so is her husband Liam (Cross). He texts us a lot.”

As married athletes, Meno and Sand – who won three U.S. pairs titles and three world medals – have a lot in common with their students. The two couples clicked right away.

“I think Jenni and I are very similar in the sense that we are pretty aggressive and assertive on the day-to-day,” Scimeca Knierim said. “She helps listen to me when I have thoughts or emotions, and helps me kind of organize them. Whereas I feel like Todd and Chris are very similar in more of a lowkey energy on the day-to-day.”

“They’ve been through what we have,” Knierim said of their coaches. “They were married and competing and going through all of it. They can understand where we’re coming from, I think better than anyone has.”

The Knierims plan to compete through the 2022 Olympics. Meno and Sand  support that vision.

“It’s very obvious to me they love skating, they love competing,” Sand said. “They feel, and I feel, they have a lot left to give skating, and I’ve really seen that now that we’ve been with them not quite a year yet. Their commitment level to what they do is really impressive.”

The couple opened the season with a silver medal at Nebelhorn Trophy, where excellent lifts showed Knierim’s wrist fully healed. As often happens, though, errors on triple jumps cost them points. To improve that relative weakness, they added Rafael Arutunian to their Irvine coaching team.

Schedules permitting, Scimeca Knierim said, “We work with Rafael privately two days week, and we take his class two days week. That’s been a huge asset training (in Irvine).”

“They’ve made a commitment to working with Rafael on their jumping,” Sand said. “That’s a process as well, but they’re really committed to it. I’m committed to it. It’s something you have to get into your bodies. It’s about putting old habits away and making new habits.”

In Kelowna, the couple landed side-by-side triple Salchows in their free skate, but small errors on triple throws and on their side-by-side combination spins in the short program cost them a medal.

“We’re very disappointed in our spins. They’ve been very good and are something we’ve improved on since last season,” Scimeca Knierim said after the short. “The positive is that it was a great skate. Last year we would have been ecstatic if we skated like this.”

Knierim thinks the free skate in Kelowna was an improvement over Nebelhorn.

“No falls. I fell on the jump at Nebelhorn. All the elements were good,” he said.

Other experts are on hand in Irvine. The skaters occasionally work with five-time world pairs champion Robin Szolkowy, as well as two-time Olympic pairs champion Katia Gordeeva.

“Katia often talks to me off the ice and kind of gives me encouragement or advice if she sees that I’m struggling a bit mentally,” Scimeca Knierim said. “She’s been there and she knows how hard it is to stay optimistic and positive all the time …. She’s very warm and loving and she kind of gives me the confidence and inspiration that maybe I need sometimes. Her belief in us goes deep with me.”

Then there’s Nina Mozer, coach of Russia’s 2014 Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, who consults with several top U.S. pairs including U.S. champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, and the Knierims’ training partners, Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson.

“She’s been very helpful, it’s been interesting to gain her insight,” Sand said. “We have a lot of the same ideas, and then we have some ideas – I don’t want to say  completely different, but maybe she has a different way of going about it. I found that very refreshing. I like the way she works. She’s been extremely helpful in periodizing our skaters a little differently.”

It all adds up to, if not a clean slate, then a new outlook, and a determination to make the final years of their career count.

“I think that this year, we’ve worked really hard with Rafael (on jumps) and I think that’s going to come out through the year,” Knierim said. “It’s exciting to know we can improve. We’re skating because we love to skate. We have just a few more years before we’re moving on from this part of our life.”

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE SKATE CANADA: As top stars step away, Canada asks ‘who next?’ in figure skating

At Skate America, what happened in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas

Leave a comment

LAS VEGAS — As always in Sin City, there were highs, along with a few lows. Final thoughts from Skate America …

Reign of the A’s: The start of the Grand Prix series marked the debut of the trio some fans call the “3As” — Alexandra Trusova, Anna Shcherbakova and Alena Kostornaia, the Russian teens who among them won seven Junior Grand Prix events last season. Trusova also captured the world junior crown. (There are other young Russian “As,” but we’ll stick with these three for now.)

What’s chilling for their competitors, and any coach not named Eteri Tutberidze, is that the three skaters have a chance of duplicating the feat this season in the senior ranks: win every Grand Prix plus the world crown, with a raft of Challenger Series events thrown in for good measure.

At Skate America, Shcherbakova, 15, brushed off a fourth-place short program by landing two quadruple Lutzes in her free skate, one in combination.

The 33.45 points earned for the jumps contributed mightily to her 92.2-point technical score, more than compensating for two under-rotation deductions later in the program. Despite holding a 7.5-point lead after the short, and earning higher program component scores for a nearly-clean free skate, silver medalist Bradie Tennell couldn’t begin to fend off the young Russian.

Tennell’s challenge continues: The 2018 U.S. champion faces Trusova at Skate Canada this weekend. Trusova broke the free-skate record (163.78 points) at a Challenger event in Slovakia last month, hitting three quads. Needless to say, she won.

In Vegas, Shcherbakova acknowledged internal competition at Tutberidze’s Moscow training rink.

“Of course, we practice together and see what (the) other girls are jumping,” she said. “Every day we want to improve more and more, because we see the other girls do more quads.”

Tennell took positives from Vegas, including a personal-best short program (75.10). But at the final press conference, she couldn’t hide a bit of frustration to this reporter’s admittedly leading question about how difficult it was to mute the quad talk.

“When you hear something over and over, it’s kind of like reprimanding a child. They just start tune it out,” Tennell said. “Everybody is so quad-crazy. … For me, it’s just better to tune out all of the buzz and focus on what I can do well.”

MORE: Tennell’s personality breaks through at Skate America

Skaters, check your protocols: Not only did the 21-year-old Tennell have quads to contend with, but a scoring error by the technical panel shaved several points off of her free skate. The error had no impact on the Skate America standings, but points earned during Grand Prix events are used to break ties to decide who competes at the Grand Prix Final.

Tennell opened her free skate with her most difficult element, a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination. She executed the same combination in the second half of her program, but the panel identified it as a triple-double.

Per ISU rules, an appeal is not permitted except in the case of an incorrect mathematical calculation; wrong identification of an element does not qualify. The rules do allow for a correction to be made, however, when an element misidentification is brought to the referee’s attention prior to the award ceremony. A spokesman for U.S. Figure Skating said that the organization did go to the ISU prior to the award ceremony, and was only told that an appeal was not permitted. No correction was made and Tennell’s score stood.

An ISU technical specialist, who consented to be interviewed about procedures, explained.

“Technical specialists call (identify) elements, which data entry operators enter into the judging system,” the technical specialist said. “At the end of the program, the data entry operator reads the list of elements, and the technical controller and assistant technical controller review the list for accuracy. Somehow, the error escaped notice.”

“Things like this should not happen,” Denise Myers, Tennell’s coach, relayed via text. “This is only the second time in my career (an error like this) happened.”

“I will say, every time something unusual happens, the ISU reviews the procedure and asks, ‘How can we prevent it from happening again?’” the technical specialist said. “This time, it was caught too late. If it had been caught before the ceremony started, it could have been changed … but human beings are not machines.”

No rest for U.S. ice dancers: Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue defended their Skate America title, the 11th straight time a U.S. couple won the event. With Donohue suffering a severe bout of bronchitis, the couple showed a well-earned sight of relief.

Still, the world bronze medalists narrowly lost the free dance to Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia, fourth in the world last season.

“There were good things and not-so-good things,” Hubbell said after the free dance to country-rock music from “A Star Is Born,” later adding, “It felt like there was a lot of energy missing. … It wasn’t the kind of performance we know we can give in that program.”

Antibiotics are on the menu for Donohue; he and Hubbell compete at Skate Canada in Kelowna, B.C., this week.

There, they will not face a world top-five dance couple. But the free dance result at their home Grand Prix shows the tough competition among the handful ranked below Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France. The two-time U.S. champions will want to make a statement in Kelowna.

“I hope to have two healthy lungs for Skate Canada,” Donohue said.

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue give U.S. ice dance 11 straight Skate America titles

A high for Denney and Frazier: Still just 23 and 26, respectively, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have had a roller-coaster career, marked by coaching changes and Denney’s severe knee injury that forced them to sit out the entire 2015-16 season.

Judging by their free skate, the roller coaster is on the ascent. Spectacular lifts and clean triple Salchows gave the U.S. silver medalists the second-highest technical score of the day, and a career-high 125.36 points. Their bronze is their third Skate America medal.

“Man, I told Haven a week ago that sometimes there’s been more stress than there needs to be to compete,” an emotional Frazier said. “I just want to enjoy it again. … I haven’t felt like this in a long time. We know there is a lot of pressure on these jumps, we want to hit them more than anything, and this was the first baby step in rebuilding our foundation.”

“I like to think outside of the box, I come up with some crazy things sometimes,” the skaters’ coach, John Zimmerman, said of the lifts, including a thrilling variation of “fly high, say bye” at the end of the routine. “They both have a lot of courage.”

Chen hip-hops on: In his teleconference prior to Skate America, Nathan Chen told reporters “three quads are a given” in his free skate. He was as good as his word, hitting Salchow, flip and toe to “Rocket Man.”

He also performed a hip-hop sequence so entertaining that coach Rafael Arutunian said, “you cannot feel he has blades on. He manipulates his feet like he is in shoes.” He won by 44 points over Jason Brown, who debuted a stirring free to “Schindler’s List.”

Not much else to say, except that Chen’s top competition in Vegas – Jin Boyang of China – looked way out of sorts, falling twice in his free on usually reliable quads.

After a strong short, bronze medalist Dmitri Aliev of Russia was sloppy in his free, making jump mistakes and not performing his choreography up to his capabilities. Their inconsistency shows why Brown – always armed with well-trained choreography, ready to wring out every possible point in steps and spins – is able to use his skating skills and showmanship to stay near the top, despite not performing quads.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the scoring issue related to Tennell’s free skate. It wasn’t that U.S. Figure Skating did not file an appeal, it’s that one was not permitted under the circumstances. 

MORE: Jason Brown on concussions, delayed start to season

MORE: Karen Chen balances Skate America with Cornell

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Karen Chen wants to make the most of her ‘comeback year’

Getty
Leave a comment

LAS VEGAS — A few weeks before Skate America, Karen Chen texted her longtime coach, Tammy Gambill, that she wasn’t getting too much sleep.

“Welcome to college,” Gambill texted back.

It’s not that Gambill was unsympathetic.  She’s just seen it all before.

“That’s just part of the process I think they all have to go through,” Gambill said.

By the time Chen arrived in Las Vegas, she was battling not just sleep deprivation, but a cold. Again, Gambill wasn’t surprised.

“I think this is the first time Karen has been sick since going to college,” she said. “It was going to be inevitable at some point.”

Chen, 20, has a lot going on this fall. She’s immersed in her classes at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she’s majoring in human development. She’s training every morning, on her own, at a rink that’s a 10- to 15-minute drive from campus. And she’s making an admittedly stressful return to competition, after missing last season due to a stress fracture in her right foot.

So much so, that when she took the ice at the Orleans Arena on Friday, her legs felt shaky.

“It was a little scary, not going to lie,” she told reporters after her short program. “It was definitely something new to me. But regardless, I know this is what I want to do. I love competing. I just want to feel comfortable out there again.”

Chen performed a solid program, earning 66.03 points for sixth place. She didn’t hit a triple Lutz, triple toe, the combination that helped her win the U.S. title in 2017, substituting a triple-double. But she felt her competitive juices flow. (In Saturday’s free skate, she appeared fatigued and fell three times to finish eighth overall.)

“It was definitely a step in the right direction,” she said after the short.

That’s how Chen is constructing her school-and-skating balancing act: step by step.

“At first, it was just getting used to the new environment,” she said. “After that, I kind of got into a routine. Although I’m definitely busy all the time and it’s a lot of work, I love it. I’m making great new friends. I’m getting through my classes.”

Chen left for Ithaca straight from U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp, held in Irvine, California in late August. The departure was bittersweet.

“It was hard for me to leave,” she said. “Not necessarily to leave the whole skating world, but to leave Tammy and my training mates and go off by myself.”

It was also challenging logistically. Officials at Champs Camp recommended some changes to her free skate, choreographed by Ilona Melnichenko to “Illumination” by Secret Garden. Chen made the tweaks, but with her first competition, a Challenger Series’ event in Canada, scheduled for Sept. 12-14, she didn’t have much time to, in her words, let the changes “marinate in my body.”

Back at Cornell, organizing her class schedule took precedence.

“I definitely had to figure it out,” Chen said. “At first, I was thinking, ‘I can definitely do five classes, it’s no big deal.’ Then I was talking to my friends taking five classes, and they’re like, ‘It’s really hard.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s really hard, and I also have to skate.’”

So Chen pared down to four, still a full-time course load. Three – Infancy and Childhood, Adulthood and Aging, and Psychology of Gender – are in her major. She’s also taking the required freshman writing seminar.

“Definitely the professors that I have, have been very, very helpful,” Chen said. “I’ve told them ahead of time, ‘This is my competition schedule, this is when I’m going to be out.’ Thankfully, it doesn’t conflict with any of my prelims or any exams.”

Communication lines are also open to U.S. Figure Skating, for help with things like locating physical therapists in the Ithaca area. And Gambill is just a text, or a video, away.

“I get some little blurbs of video,” Gambill said. “It’s hard for her to send me full tapes of things, because there is really no one at the rink to help her. She’ll set (the recorder) it on the wall.”

Chen is making it work. Cornell’s academic schedule allowed her to return to Colorado Springs to train in high altitude with Gambill for five days, which helped. The coach has said she may visit Ithaca for occasional tune-ups with her student.

“This is my comeback year and I want to make it count,” Chen said. “At the same time, I know that I’m throwing a lot of things out there. It’s been tough balancing, but I do really enjoy everything and I think I made the right decision.”

MORE ON: Bradie Tennell | Nathan Chen | Jason Brown

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!