Christopher Knierim

Alexa Scimeca Knierim, Christopher Knierim hold on for third U.S. pairs’ title

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Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim moved three times after they skated at the Olympics. They changed coaches twice. They finished seventh at last season’s national championships. They lost a sponsor. He had to sell his collection of cars, including that beloved Camaro.

“So now I have a motorcycle, and Alexa has her car, and that’s about it,” Knierim said. “It was sad.”

It must have felt worth it Saturday night.

The Knierims held on to win their third U.S. pairs’ title, edging training partners Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson by 2.58 points. They are the first U.S. pair to win three national titles since 2002 and are headed back to the world championships in March.

The U.S. Championships conclude Sunday with the men’s free skate in Greensboro, N.C., live on NBC Sports.

NATIONALS: TV/Live Stream Schedule | Full Results

The Knierims’ victory, saved after he fell on a side-by-side triple toe loop in Saturday’s free skate, came after a tumultuous two years.

After placing 15th at the Olympics and worlds in 2018, they left longtime coach Dalilah Sappenfield — who officiated their 2016 wedding — to train under 2018 Olympic champion Aljona Savchenko. They moved from Colorado Springs to Chicago, then to join Savchenko in Germany. They left Savchenko weeks later in fall 2018, saying if they had stayed, it would have “been more of a downward slope in some terms of things than others.”

Then came a move to Southern California to be coached by three-time U.S. champions Jenni Meno and Todd Sand. The Knierims shared a rink with Calalang and Johnson, who were paired together by Meno and Sand in 2018. They had to make lifestyle changes to accommodate cost of living, including coaching younger skaters more than they ever had in Colorado.

“We had some things that we had to get rid of, but it made us stronger,” said Scimeca Knierim, who came to nationals with her husband ranked second this season among Americans. “The only thing you need at the end of the day is love, and that’s what we have. So I don’t really care that we had to give up a lot of things.”

Calalang and Johnson never finished better than fifth in seven combined nationals appearances, either together or with previous partners. They ranked fifth among American pairs in the fall international season, their second together.

Their leading free skate nearly erased a 9.5-point deficit from the short program, where the Knierims were first and Calalang and Johnson were fourth. Now they look poised to join the Knierims as the second and final pair on the world championships team.

“The amount of audience support that I felt at the very end of that program was overwhelming,” Johnson said. “It was the most amazing thing I’ve felt on the ice.”

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, the 2016 U.S. champions, had minor errors on throw landings Saturday. Those were enough to be passed by Calalang and Johnson and drop from second after the short to bronze.

Defending champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc fell from third after the short to fourth after several jumping errors. Cain-Gribble and LeDuc were the sole U.S. pair at last year’s worlds and made the top 10 (ninth) to earn back a second U.S. pairs’ spot at this year’s worlds.

Another set of past champions, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, suffered a fall on throws in both programs. They ended up fifth.

The U.S. last won a world medal in pairs in 2002. China, Russia and Canada have higher-ranked team this season.

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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.

‘At last,’ Knierims bring total package to lead pairs’ short program

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – The title of their romantic music said it all for Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim: At Last.

After a 2018-19 season of upheaval, with moves from Colorado Springs to Germany, Chicago and, finally, Southern California – “We were couch-hopping before nationals,” Scimeca-Knierim said – the two-time U.S. champions (2015, 2018) had a settled training situation. Full teaching schedules providing a financial cushion. A renowned technical specialist, Rafael Arutunian, to address their longtime nemeses, side-by-side triple jumps.

And, on Thursday at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, they had something that eluded them the first half of this season, as well as all of last season: a short program with seven clean elements, at last.

“I’m actually extremely emotional,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “I was excited after the program, I was excited when I got my scores, but then I started to cry a little bit and now I feel like it’s coming up again and I’m going to cry.”

“No one sees how much work we put in, how much struggles we have on the day-to-day,” Knierim said.

Their tender yet powerful short, opening with a soaring triple twist and clean side-by-side triple toe loops, with a strong throw triple Lutz in its second half, earned 77.06 points. They take a near seven-point lead into Saturday’s free skate.

“It was a dream that was attainable to skate the way we did today, but it always seems something gets in the way,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “I’ve just been wanting for this moment to happen, because it’s been a little bit of time for Chris and I to have a skate that makes you feel, like, alive. I’m just so happy.”

Their moment of triumph nearly died aborning when Knierim tripped on a connecting step early in the routine, but the skater recovered in time to set up for the triple twist.

“I thought it was a little funny in the moment,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “I was like, ‘Here we go again, it’s always something that gets in the way,’ and then it didn’t go that way.”

Too often, what has “gotten in the way” are the skaters’ triple jumps. The couple credits the tough-talking but caring Arutunian, who began work with them last May, with re-working their technique and rebuilding their confidence.

“You know Raf, he’s going to tell you if you’re horrible, and he does sometimes,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “But knowing he believes in us, he was the only person I needed to hear it from besides myself. I think that’s what helped me get my confidence in my jumps.”

“We take his morning stroking classes a couple times a week, with Michal Brezina and Nathan (Chen) there sometimes and Mariah (Bell), all his high-level kids,” Knierim said. “When we started, it was eye-opening how far behind we were. It was a little embarrassing being in the class and being so terrible at everything. Now I think it’s played into our skating a little bit. There are a lot of exercises we do day-to-day to help our jumps.”

Todd Sand, who coaches the pair with his wife, Jenni Meno, in Irvine, California, called Thursday’s short program “a validation” of the couple’s training plan.

“Last year was a challenge for them, it was hard, they were just trying to survive, I think,” Sand said. “Chris had wrist surgery (last February). It took a while to get going, but now they are doing great. They’ve been working really hard with Raf, and he’s been wonderful, but these changes take time, and the same thing with some pair things, too.”

Sand revealed it will take additional grit for his team to get through their free skate on Saturday.

“They had a setback the last few weeks, Chris hurt his shoulder pretty seriously, so he wasn’t lifting for a while,” he said. “It’s only been healthy the last week or so, and it still gives him little issues. They have a lot of foundation from early in the year and I think they are relying on that. If they just trust themselves, they will be fine.”

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea sit second with 70.35 points after a near-clean program. Their only notable error was an under-rotation on their triple Salchows (VIDEO).

The couple, who won the U.S. title in 2016, debuted a new short set to Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” after their coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, determined their previous routine (set to “Sweet Dreams”) wasn’t showing them to best advantage.

“Over the international season, we never felt the short program scored the way we thought it should,” O’Shea said. “It wasn’t coming across to other people. Dalilah and Tarah came up with the idea for ‘Claire de Lune’ and I think it’s amazing.”

“I get really nervous at competitions,” Kayne said. “The music comes on and I feel comfortable … It puts me in the right headspace to skate.”

The skaters kept their “Sweet Dreams” step sequence designed by Charlie White, and worked with Sappenfield to put the new routine together in three days.

“I said, ‘We’re going to go to Zagreb for Golden Spin, and if you skate clean and don’t score 70 or above, we’re going to have to scrap it,’” Sappenfield said. “And they scored about 66 points, so it went. I wanted Tarah to shine in the short, and I felt in the other one, Danny overshadowed her.”

Defending champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, third with 68.86 points, lost ground when their death spiral was invalidated by the technical panel, costing them about four or five points (VIDEO).

Coach Peter Cain, who also works as an ISU pair’s technical specialist, explained that the technical panel determined LeDuc lifted his blade’s toe pick off of the ice during the element.

“From the video that I saw, you can see the pick move back, but it never leaves the ice,” Cain said. “The blade doesn’t completely go down… It is what it is. They decided not to go with the skater and take it away. It puts us a little bit in a hole; we would have been right behind Alexa and Chris, which would have been really good. Now we have some work to do to get back up.”

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, winners of two bronze medals on the fall Grand Prix circuit, had a disappointing program, including a fall on their throw triple loop. The 2017 U.S. champions sit sixth with 61.33 points (VIDEO).

MORE: Gracie Gold rebuilds herself to return to nationals

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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Bradie Tennell leads U.S. Figure Skating Champs; Gracie Gold struggles in return

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Bradie Tennell once again topped the U.S. Figure Skating Championships short program, one day after not being able to bend one of her arms. Can she hold on to dethrone 14-year-old Alysa Liu in Friday’s free skate?

Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion, skated clean for the highest women’s short score in nationals history (78.96 points). Later, the defending champion Liu turned out of her triple Axel landing and tallied 75.40 for second place.

Last year, Liu overcame a short-program deficit to Tennell to become the youngest U.S. champion in history.

Gracie Gold, at her first nationals in three years after overcoming mental-health struggles, erred on her jumps and is in 13th place of 18 skaters.

NATIONALS: TV/Live Stream Schedule | Full Results

Tennell hit a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination en route to the lead. A bit surprising, given she told her coaches before her skate that her legs were shaking and that she couldn’t bend one of her arms Wednesday morning.

Tennell revealed that she hit her elbow on a wall on a bad fall, causing”swelling up and down” for the last few months. It was particularly painful and swollen this week. Turns out she had a hematoma that got infected.

“Let’s just say I’m very thankful that my mom is a nurse who has worked in the ER for 25 years,” she said.

Liu, the only active U.S. woman to land a triple Axel or a quadruple jump, overcame a 2.71-point deficit last year to win by 3.92, landing a pair of triple Axels in the free. She has since added a quad Lutz, which isn’t allowed in short programs.

“I feel like I was OK with nerves,” Liu said. “I did make a few mistakes, and it’s OK, because I can learn from them and obviously move on from this so that I don’t get too caught up.”

Mariah Bell is in third place despite falling on a step sequence after hitting all her jumps. Tennell and Bell are favored to make up the team for March’s world championships, given Liu is too young for senior international competition.

Karen Chen, the 2017 U.S. champion and Olympian, is in fifth place after doubling the back end of her combination. Chen, a Cornell pre-med student, missed all of last season due to a stress fracture in her right foot.

Gold two-footed her opening jump and popped a planned triple loop. The two-time U.S. champion was competing at nationals for the first time since 2017. In between, she received treatment for an eating disorder, anxiety and depression and said she harbored suicidal thoughts, according to The New York Times.

“So scared,” she said Thursday night in the kiss-and-cry before her score of 54.51 came up. Gold had reportedly been hitting triple-triple combinations in practice.

“It wasn’t that good, both in the skating and in the results. Just hard,” she said, adding that she was at “a 3 out of 10” from where she wants to be. “There’s no way to train for whatever you describe this situation I’m currently in.

“Emotionally, I felt all the love from almost anyone I’ve run into in the crowd. Practice felt like I never missed a beat. I felt kind of competitive with the other top girls, but with, like, 20 percent of the training. It was just a lot of emotions. I think that was the hard part.”

Earlier in pairs, PyeongChang Olympians Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim took a 6.71-point lead with a 77.06-point short program.

The Knierims put down their first clean program with zero negative grades of execution since the 2016 Four Continents Championships. It came after a tumultuous post-Olympic year that included two coaching changes and a seventh-place finish at nationals.

Scimeca Knierim ended the performance to “At Last” by Beyoncé by roaring and kicking the ice.

“Those feelings that I let out at the end of the program have been festering inside me for a very long time,” she said, noting their improvements on jumps under Rafael Arutunian, whose best-known pupil is Nathan Chen. The Knierims are trying to become the first pair to win three U.S. titles since 2002.

Two other past U.S. champions — Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea and Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc — are in second and third. They’re all bidding for two spots at worlds, where a U.S. pair last earned a medal in 2002.

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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.