Challenger Series

U.S. pairs reflect on U.S. Classic performances; look ahead to rest of season

By Claire Cloutier, special to Figure Skaters Online
Photos by Leah Adams, Chelsea Liu (Instagram) and


The four U.S. pairs teams competing at U.S. International Figure Skating Classic did well in terms of placement, finishing 2-3-4-6. However, despite these results, few of the U.S. pairs were fully satisfied with their performances. Most of the teams hope this competition will serve as a stepping stone to stronger performances later in the season.


Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim won the silver medal in Salt Lake City. The team debuted their new “Paint It Black” SP at the event. The program was interesting but a bit tentative technically. The Knierims earned 61.32, well off their personal-best score, but took the experience in stride.


“We just wanted to get the programs out, so we could get feedback on them. To make sure they’re where we want them to be for the Grand Prix [events],” Chris Knierim explained. “What we came to this competition to do was get the programs out, regardless of where we were in training, to get opinions.”


Scimeca Knierim added: “I think that the [short] program is going to grow in the component area. I think it felt a little … dry. And that’s a good place to start. Because if we didn’t come here and feel it in a competition setting, we wouldn’t know where to grow for our Grand Prixs. I think being out there today, and seeing what felt strong and weak, is a really great starting point for moving forward. I know we left a lot of level points out there. [But] I think we’re in a good place. We know that it’s September, so we are not trying to be in peak form here.”


The couple said they’re satisfied with their conditioning level at this stage. “I’m probably the healthiest I’ve [ever] been,” said Scimeca Knierim. “I had to rebuild my body [after gastrointestinal surgeries last year]. When I competed at the World Championships, I didn’t have quite the muscle mass and reflexes that I need to feel confident. I got the job done, but I just knew I wasn’t physically strong enough. In the summer, I spent a lot of time on the ice, just jumping, just to get my body back to that athletic point.”


The Knierims reprised last season’s “Ghost” LP in the free skate. They opened the program with an excellent triple twist and throw triple Salchow (both elements received all +2s/+3s). Problems followed on the side-by-side triple Salchow, but they recovered well and finished the program strongly. The Knierims earned 124.76, almost matching their free skate score from Four Continents last year (124.81). They won the free skate over Moore-Towers/Marinaro and finished 2nd overall.


“We’re really happy with the score,” said Knierim afterward. “We’re especially happy that we won the component mark. Because that’s where we’re going: We’re trying to raise the component mark of our skating. When we hit the elements, I think we can keep up with most of the world. But the components is where most of the U.S. teams lack, compared to China and Germany and Russia. So it’s nice that we can keep the nice component mark, even with mistakes. I think our program can score really well if it’s done clean.”


The couple said that they planned to do double toe loops in their side-by-side jump sequence in the long program. However, the singled side-by-side triple Salchow was an unexpected error.


Scimeca Knierim said: “I’m not much of a popper, into a single jump. Usually, it’s an awkward fall instead. But for me, subconsciously, I think there was a little pressure because the first throw Salchow was so good, that I wanted to really keep the program going. And I think I lost my focus a little bit. But it’s all right. I’m feeling very motivated, with the score. With not having [side-by-side triple] jumps in the program—one intentional, and one not—and the mistake on the second throw …. If I really sell it, I think this program can be our highest-scoring program when we skate it clean. So yes, I think it’s a great start. No regrets in coming [to Salt Lake]. Although we did feel a little unprepared, to be honest.”


“We have 7 weeks or so until we go to NHK Trophy,” said Knierim. “There’s so much time to work on the little stuff, and our jumps.”


Many were surprised to see the Knierims skating to “Ghost” again, after previously announcing a new Chaplin-themed long program, choreographed by Christopher Dean. Scimeca Knierim said that they changed programs the day after Champs Camp.


“It wasn’t that they did not like the Chaplin program,” Knierim explained. “But they knew we would get farther with this program this season, than [with] the Chaplin program. The Chaplin program, we actually really liked. It brought us out of our shell a little bit. And it was really hard. It took us a long time to get the choreography, and it still wasn’t great when we did it at Champs Camp. But they talked to us about feeling like we would get further with the Ghost program this season than [with] the Chaplin program.”


“Then we spent a week creating a new Ghost program,” Scimeca Knierim said. “And we felt that it didn’t portray the storyline as well as the original one. So, after spending a week and some change learning that program, we said, ‘Hey, this is not good enough for us. Let’s use pieces of it and go back to last year’s program.’ And then we were like, ‘Well, we’re leaving in 3 days. Are we going to remember the program?” She laughed.


“Only training the program for such a short time—a week and a half—is one reason why we don’t feel super-prepared,” added Knierim. “It was more me than her. When we were practicing this [past] week, it’s not like muscle memory. I really have to walk through the program off the ice a lot, to make sure that I remember it. Because usually, at the end of the season, I’m like–cut and start over. I don’t remember what we did. She’s so good at remembering what we’ve done in the past.”


The couple said that, although they really like their new Chaplin program, they feel a strong connection to the Ghost LP. “It has such a special meaning,” said Scimeca Knierim. “Which is a huge reason why we would like to use this program at the Olympics, if we’re on the team. In the movie, he dies and becomes a ghost, and their love is still real and it’s there. For us, the storyline is, I was sick last year and he was taking care of me, and it’s our love for one another, and just the understanding that he’s there for me.


“You know, I’ve skated many characters in programs,” Scimeca Knierim continued. “For instance, our short [program] this year, I really have to put on a persona and a character to make it come alive. And this is our third time skating to “Ghost” in competition, and every time the music starts, I’m just so free. I’m just me, with my husband. And I let the program develop. If we’re on the Olympic team, we want the most special program to be the one we skate.”


“It’s funny, the short [program] is so uncomfortable right now,” Knierim noted. “Because it’s new. And it’s sort of like what happened with our Metallica program, when we first got it. It was tough to get into it–into character. But with this Ghost program, it’s so easy to get into the program, even when we first did it at Four Continents. And to get into just skating with Alexa and not worrying about what’s going on. It’s really nice, actually. This is probably the easiest program we’ve ever had. Because I don’t think about how long the program is, or how many elements I have to do. We just go. And it’s really nice.”


The team plans to keep the Chaplin long program for next year. “So you’ll see it, eventually,” Knierim said. “Because we like it so much, we didn’t want to just get rid of it and never do it again. We’ll do it next year, and it’ll bring us out of our shell. Probably me more than her,” he laughed.


Figure Skaters Online asked if they’d already made the decision to continue on after the Olympic season.


“One year at a time,” said Scimeca Knierim, smiling.


“Another four years … I’ll be 34,” Knierim said. “So we’ll see how it goes. You never know. But we know that skating can be taken away in an instant. So we’re just going to take it year by year, and not make any huge … Four years is a long time.”


Young American team Chelsea Liu and Brian Johnson won the bronze medal in Salt Lake City, surprising nearly everyone. This was only their third competition as seniors. Last year, the pair competed mostly on the junior international circuit.


Despite their lack of experience, Liu and Johnson put out a lively and clean performance of their “Still Got the Blues” short program to place a surprising 2nd in that segment. Liu/Johnson then had a few mistakes in their new Spartacus long program, but skated cleanly enough to hold on for 3rd LP/overall.


Liu and Johnson had previously won a Challenger Series medal at Warsaw Cup last year, but this medal came against a much deeper field of competitors.


“We feel a lot better about this one,” said Johnson.


The team was mostly pleased with their performances at Salt Lake City. “The short program, I thought, went amazing. Really good,” Johnson commented. “Long program, there were a few little things. But still, a really good program. We have some stuff we can work on, that we hope we can get better.”


Figure Skaters Online asked Liu and Johnson what they see as their biggest challenge in stepping up to the senior level.


Liu responded: “I think the main thing is that, since we were junior for quite a while, we have to show that we are senior material, performance-wise. We want to show that we’re mature and varied enough to be with the best.”


“We have most of the elements. We definitely have the pairs stuff,” said Johnson. “We really need the expression and the togetherness. Everything that makes the program really nice to watch.”


Rohene Ward choreographed Liu/Johnson’s new Spartacus LP. “We went to Colorado to work with him for a couple days. And he’s worked with us in California as well,” explained Liu. “He just really polished us, and tried to bring out a new side of us and maturity that we had never done before.”


“He challenged us with our moves,” Johnson added. “He really tried to put in stuff we hadn’t done already. To give us that extra little bump to senior.”


Liu and Johnson’s goals for their first senior season are simple: “We’re just looking to have fun and skate and show what we can do and what we’re capable of,” said Liu.


Finishing right behind Liu/Johnson, in fourth place, were reigning U.S champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier. It was a somewhat odd competition for Denney and Frazier. Their new John Legend short program started off well, but, after Denney fell on the side-by-side jump, the team then had a fluke issue with their pairs combination spin and received no credit for the element. As a result, they started the long program in 7th place. Then, Frazier’s skate lace broke halfway through the free skate.


“The whole thing snapped,” Frazier said afterward. “It happened in the pairs spin. And I kind of panicked in my head. I was like, ‘Do I need to stop?’ We still had a choreo set, a throw [triple] Salchow, death spiral, side-by-side spin, 2 lifts [to do]. I just thought to myself: ‘You know, I’ve got to power through it, unless I’m wobbling too much. I think it can hold.’ And once we got through the throw, I just said: ‘Be safe on the lifts.’”


Frazier said it was the first time he’d ever broken a lace in competition. On the Monday prior to the event, he had noticed that the hooks/eyelets on his skates were looking worn and took them to his skate< technician for repair. Then on Wednesday after the official pairs practice in Salt Lake City, he noticed that his laces were shredded. Apparently, the new metal hooks on the skates were too sharp. Frazier went through several more sets of laces over the next couple days.


“So I’ve been a little stressed about that,” Frazier said. “And I had to ask yesterday, ‘What happens if the laces break [during the competition]?’ And they’re like, ‘Well, you’ve got 40 seconds, and you’ll get a 3-point deduction.’ So that was on my mind.”


Denney was unaware that her partner’s lace had snapped. “I actually had no idea,” she said. “And I was thinking to myself at the end of the program, ‘Hey, we’re a little slow.’ Then, when he told me at the end, I was like, ‘Ahh, that explains a lot.’”


Due to the broken lace, Frazier had to adjust his technique on the remaining elements in the program, taking the lifts at a slower pace than usual. He also had less stability and amplitude in the death spiral and side-by-side spins. Nevertheless, Frazier/Denney completed the program and pulled up to 4th in the free skate/overall with a score of 113.21.


“We’re definitely disappointed in the mistakes we made,” said Frazier.


“Not bad for a first start. A lot of room to improve, though,” commented Denney. “We’re a little bummed about the [side-by-side] jumps. Just because they have been so much more consistent in practice. A lot more consistent.”

“This week was about getting under the spotlight again,” Frazier said. “You can’t train for something like that, it’s very difficult to do at home. So it takes us the first competition to really open up. We pushed the start our season as late as possible, so we could take the time to grow. And I think a lot of the things we’ve done have paid off. Haven and I have put in loads of work with twist, our throws, entries, choreography, working with Marina a lot more. And we are proud of where we are. But we’re not satisfied until we put out the complete skates that we know we can do. Mentally, we’re trying not to overthink too many things. It’s going to be a long season, and an emotional one.”


This was Denney and Frazier’s first competition since their short program at the 2017 World Championships, which did not go well. Frazier acknowledged that it’s been a struggle to put that experience behind them.


“It hurt, emotionally and physically,” he said. “It took me a while to get over it. I didn’t sleep right for probably a month [afterward]. But Haven and I are fighters, under any circumstances. I finally one day woke up and said: ‘You know what? We’re going to keep going. We’re going to go out, we’re going to do everything we can, and never stop fighting.’”


Denney and Frazier will now focus on preparing for their two Grand Prix events. “We know what we need to do when we get back home,” said Denney.


Second-year pair Deanna Stellato and Nate Bartholomay finished in 6th place. Stellato/Bartholomay opened the competition with a fairly strong outing of their Eleanor Rigby SP. However, their U2 long program was problematic, with several jump mistakes.


“Our free skate today was a little bit messy,” Bartholomay said afterward. “There’s a lot of difficulty in our free skate, so every once in a while it starts to get a little messy. As far as training has been going, it’s been better than that. So we’re a little disappointed in how we skated today, but we’re going to move< forward from this, and we’re going to Finlandia in a couple weeks.”


“I think we went for everything today,” Stellato commented on the free skate. “And we’re going to build from that.”


Although Stellato/Bartholomay are still quite a new team, they’ve chosen to go for a lot of technical difficulty in their free skate this season: Throw quad Salchow and side-by-side triple Lutz. Figure Skaters Online asked what went into this decision.


“I really feel like Deanna drives the technicality in our programs,” Bartholomay said. “She’s really aggressive, she really is strong in her technique. And if there’s an element she says she can do, like a quad, no one’s going to tell her otherwise. I feel like, as a team, we decide with our coaches. But, Deanna really has that strength. So she really drives that a lot for us.


“With the technical elements, there’s a balance,” Bartholomay continued. “You don’t want the technical to take away from the performance, or the performance to take away from the technical. So moving forward, we’re just going to keep going with the quad, and work on the jumping and landing them together, and just trying to add a little more performance into it.”


A few days after U.S. Classic, Stellato/Bartholomay were announced as the USA pairs host pick for Skate America, which takes place Nov. 24-26, 2017.