Brian Johnson

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
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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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Jessica Calalang, Brian Johnson produce the pairs’ moment of figure skating nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – This fall season, Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson ranked fifth among American pairs but finished with silver medals at the U.S. Championships on Saturday night.

After a fifth-place nationals finish last year, their goal was just to be on the podium in Greensboro.

In their second year together, Calalang and Johnson won the free skate with 146.01 points for a total score of 213.57. It was good enough for second place, as the eventual winners, Alexa Knierim and Chris Knierim, held a 10-point lead over their training partners from the short program.

“While Brian and Chris are working on cars, Jess and I are having lattes petting cats,” Alexa said in a press conference. “We have a great dynamic and I couldn’t be prouder of them for the way they skated. I watched them backstage just because I genuinely care for them.”

Calalang and Johnson vaulted to second from fourth place after short, when Johnson fell on the side-by-side triple Salchows.

In the free skate, however, they received positive grades of execution on every element. The crowd inside the Greensboro Coliseum was on their feet before the music (“You are the Reason” by Calum Scott and Leona Lewis) even finished.

“I don’t think either of us have had that kind of performance at a U.S. Championships,” Calalang said.

“I definitely haven’t,” Johnson added. “The amount of audience support that I felt at the very end of that program was overwhelming. It was the most amazing thing I’ve felt on the ice. I don’t have words to describe it.”

Now, they could join the Knierims at the world championships in March. The U.S. has two berths to worlds, up from one last year. U.S. Figure Skating chooses the teams, not necessarily (but usually) following nationals standings.

Calalang and Johnson have no world championships experience, either together or with former partners, although they have had plenty of experience this season.

They kicked it off with a sixth-place finish at a lower-level event, followed by their Grand Prix debut at Skate America. They finished just off the podium in fourth. The following week, they were sixth at Skate Canada. They handily won the Warsaw Cup, another lower-level event this fall.

“Repetition always helps,” Johnson said. “The more experience you can get, hopefully the better you’re gonna be doing. It was great doing the Grand Prixes because we had an amazing audience at Skate America and Skate Canada. The whole place was sold-out. I think that really resembles here as well with everybody loving what you’re doing and the whole support base.”

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NATIONALS: TV/Live Stream Schedule | Full Results

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.