By Michelle Kennedy, special to Figure Skaters Online
Photos by Getty Images
Only one year ago, Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim were preparing to compete at the World Championships. They had captured the silver medal at the U.S. Championships and were considered one of the top U.S. pair teams. The team was unable to deliver the performances that they had hoped for, but still finished in ninth place at the World Championships, ranking them within the top ten pair skaters in the world.
It wasn’t until the spring that a shadow began to fall over the team. Scimeca Knierim developed a stomach illness that kept them off the ice for days on end. They would skate for 2-3 days but then she would get sick all over again. It took them months to figure out the correct diagnosis and finally Scimeca Knierim underwent three abdominal surgeries, two in August and one on November 1. Being a pair skater, Scimeca Knierim was already slender, but she lost an additional 20 pounds and became very weak. It was a difficult time for the pair team who were married on June 26.
“There was a point where she was going through this and we were on and off the ice where I thought about if we were going to be able to skate this season or ever again,” Knierim said during a U.S. Figure Skating media call. “I kept those feelings inside of me as much as possible because I was just focused on her health…There’s just a point where you put the skating aside and you focus on your wife’s health.”
Following the surgery, the recovery road was long and hard and filled with unexpected roadblocks. Scimeca Knierim returned to the ice in the middle of November, but had to hold onto Knierim to even skate in circles around the ice. She could only skate for 10 minutes at a time to start and even then would have to retreat home for a nap because it was so incredibly draining on her body.
“When we kept withdrawing from everything, I really didn’t think that this year was going to happen,” Scimeca Knierim admitted. “More than anything I just didn’t think I would be the athlete that I was again after my surgery. So I struggled a lot with not even considering if we would be back this season, but if I would ever be the athlete that I was again.”
Once Scimeca Knierim was ready to start training, there were more obstacles awaiting her. She had a large incision on her abdomen along with laparoscopic holes that were still healing and often when Knierim put his hand on her stomach for a pairs element, it would re-injure the incision. Scimeca Knierim was also prone to developing scar tissue, so her heart rate had to be monitored while she was skating. To make matters more complicated, she discovered that when you have severe abdominal surgery it interrupts your nervous system and affects your muscle memory, so she had to relearn how to skate all over again. In the midst of it all, this team and newly married couple grew closer and stronger in ways that they didn’t expect.
“I certainly lost a lot of confidence during the journey, but I grew confidence in a different area. In a nutshell, I may have lost a lot of faith in myself, but I grew with my faith in God,” Scimeca Knierim said. “I have some insecurities now that I didn’t have before, but I’m able to work on it and move forward because I’ve shifted my focus and my attention to my faith instead of myself.”
Scimeca Knierim and Knierim were finally cleared to perform full run throughs of their programs the week before the U.S. Championships. Though they thought they still might be able to skate well at Nationals, they knew that the training and pressure would put a lot of stress on them, so they once again withdrew from competition. They petitioned to be on the World team and they were assigned to Four Continents and their petition for the World team was granted.
They had no idea what to expect at the Four Continents Championships, but they came out with the best score of all of the U.S. teams and finished in sixth place. Though it was not a perfect performance, they were happy to simply just be back on the ice and competing again.
“We are incredibly grateful to be at the World Championships,” Scimeca Knierim said. “I think that after what we have been through things might not feel the way that they used to when we head to a competition. It’s not going to feel like it’s do or die. It’s not going to feel like if we don’t skate perfect that our world’s going to end. Our priority is to remain humble and grateful for our experiences and as cliche as it sounds just to go out there and enjoy it…Our grit and hunger is there, but there’s also a sense of just happiness to be there.”
Scimeca Knierim and Knierim were known for their dynamic quad twist, but have opted against it for now.
“We had so much to work on to get back to 100% that there was no need to put pressure on doing the quad twist for this season,” Knierim said. “We don’t have to have it in order to score well or in order to place well. So we decided against it for health reasons, because it’s not worth it.”
Revealing that her competitive edge has not been altered, Scimeca Knierim was quick to add that if the point value was higher that she may have taken the risk of trying it again this season.
This newly married couple and talented pair team may carry some fresh scars, but their story of determination, faith and love for one another is a true inspiration. They will be competing at the World Championships once again this year, but they are not the same team that we saw perform last year. This team has turned their adversity into something beautiful and regardless of where they place next week, that beauty will not be taken from them.
“There was never ever a moment where there was tension and we pushed each other away since the beginning,” Scimeca Knierim said. “That is 100% because of Chris. He was always there for me no matter what I was going through emotionally…I’m sure he was frustrated beyond belief at times and scared, but he didn’t show that and we just grew closer and closer…It’s such a great blessing because we can brush things off and move forward and not really get so hung up on a bad day.”