Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim’s Blessing in Disguise

By Lynn Rutherford

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Talk to Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim about this Olympic season, and it’s impossible not to flashback to last year, to days when Scimeca Knierim was so ill with a gastrointestinal condition she lost 20 pounds off her slight 5’2″ frame and rarely slept more than a few hours a night.

To a time when overwhelming nausea threatened to darken the brightest day of Alexa’s life, her wedding to Chris on June 26, 2016. (Luckily, it didn’t.)

“I think last year’s experience was the best thing that could happen to us, because I’m just so excited for this year, because we missed out on so much,” Alexa said. “I feel like if we had a normal season last year, we would be very stressed about making the Olympic team. But now, we’re just living on the ice.”

You hesitate to mouth the words “blessing in disguise,” but sometimes, a cliché fits.

“Oh, it was a blessing,” Alexa says, quietly but firmly, while her husband nods his head. “Pressure? What’s pressure? We are both genuinely happy that we feel so good.”

“It is a blessing, because it puts everything in perspective,” Chris adds. “We hear that we’re the U.S. team everyone thinks will go (to the PyeongChang Games), but we know that can be taken away at any time, so we just keep training. And I think our training is a lot better now because of what happened.”

Life had been good for Alexa and Chris since April 2012, when Scimeca flew from her home in Chicago to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for a tryout with Knierim, who picked her up at the airport. Sparks flew between the bubbly Scimeca and wry, taciturn Knierim, both on and off the ice. Success followed: a silver medal at the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and a ninth-place Worlds debut. They announced their engagement in April 2014.

Normally, I don’t recommend that pair partners get romantically involved with each other,” Dalilah Sappenfield, who coaches the duo, said. “With my skaters, it’s only worked out one time before. But right from the start, I knew Alexa and Chris were different.  They knew how to communicate with each other, and Alexa really brought out more performance quality from Chris.”

The achievements piled up: the 2015 U.S. title, with U.S. record scores. A quadruple twist in competition. Medals at Skate America and NHK Trophy, qualifying them for the 2015 Grand Prix Final. A new U.S. international record score, set at the 2016 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, where they won silver.

But in April 2016, after placing ninth in the world, Alexa began suffering debilitating pain. Countless trips to the emergency room and a visit to the renowned Mayo Clinic followed. Finally, she was properly diagnosed with a rare gastrointestinal condition, and underwent two abdominal surgeries last August and one early last November. When she returned to the ice late last fall, it was for just 10 minutes at a time at first.

“I struggled a lot, not being sure I would ever be the athlete that I was again,” she says of that time.

The pair was cleared to perform full run-throughs the week before the 2017 U.S. Championships, but lack of training time prompted the couple to withdraw. They petitioned U.S. Figure Skating for spots on the Four Continents and World teams; as three-time World top-10 finishers, the petition was granted. Solid programs put them sixth at Four Continents and 10th at Worlds, just 4.35 points away from the top five.

Now, they’re ready for more.

Read the rest of the Knierims’ story in the November issue of SKATING.