For the Knierims, the Olympic journey is bigger than themselves
Married couple Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim will have the rare chance to compete four times on Olympic ice in PyeongChang.
“We’re both really excited being in the team event,” Chris told media on a recent teleconference. “Even if there was another pair team, we would still be doing both of the events. It’s a big opportunity when you go to an Olympics and you get to compete your short and long for a normal Olympics. But now, for the team event, we have the opportunity to compete two more times in front of the world.”
Alexa has a different way of looking at it, and summed it up in another interview:
“Who cares if you’re tired?! You got to compete four times at the Olympics.”
As the only U.S. pair team at the Games, the Knierims expect to participate in both the short and long programs of the team event. Within the span of a week, they’ll compete again, this time in the pairs’ event.
Their journey is as much about them as skaters as it is about the rest of their team. Chris lost his father and uncle within the past year, but has found comfort in his support system and Alexa’s family.
“It’s not been an easy year and a half or so, but I am very lucky to be able to have Alexa and all the people around me supporting me in all the hard times,” Chris said.
The pair said they wouldn’t be where they are today without their coach, Dalilah Sappenfield.
“She changed me to be the athlete I dreamed about being before I moved to her,” Alexa said. “She got a handle on my mentality and was able to use the best qualities of myself in training. Doing so, she helped me reach a lot of goals that I had wanted to.”
Alexa very nearly had to quit skating when, beginning in April 2016, she started to experience stomach issues. She spent the night before her wedding ceremony throwing up. She saw 10 doctors and wasn’t diagnosed until August. She had rapidly lost weight. She underwent a total of three surgeries, the last of which was in November. She was able to do minimal exercise at that point, but many pairs’ skating elements were out of the question – if Chris touched her stomach the wrong way, her wound might open. She now has a scar running down the length of her abdomen.
They missed the 2017 national championships, but petitioned for a spot on the Four Continents and world championships teams.
Most significantly was the Four Continents Championships, where they placed sixth overall. The event was in PyeongChang, South Korea, in the same venue where Olympic competition will be held.
“[Sappenfield] became like a second mother to me when I was sick because I am away from home,” Alexa said. “I’m in Colorado. My family’s in Illinois. Chris’s mom’s in Arizona. I didn’t have the family support that I needed when I was sick, going through all this turmoil and illness.
“Dalilah really stepped up and took me on like a daughter. She did not care about skating any more. She just wanted me to be healthy again. When you go through such a traumatic experience and they’re in the room with you the whole time, you create a bond that is unbreakable. Our journey goes so much further than the skating journey could take us.”
Of course, the love goes both ways.
Before the Knierims’ June 2016 wedding, Chris “proposed” the idea of officiating their wedding to Sappenfield with a cake that read “will you marry us?” printed on it. Sappenfield’s son was the “flower girl.”
Sappenfield was especially proud of the Knierims on their flight to PyeongChang, tweeting, “So cool when your athletes are given a welcome announcement by the pilot “wishing our USA Olympians the best of luck”. The whole plane was cheering! Proud coach”
It will be Sappenfield’s first time at the Olympics as well. Her “Sappen-squad,” or the athletes that she trains, have been close to making the team before, but never made it. The Knierims are her first.
“I’ve seen all of her teams throughout the years, and she’s had multiple national champions,” said Chris, who has been with Sappenfield for 13 years. “She’s been an Olympic coach at that level for a long time. She’s a great coach but she’s a better person. It’s something special to be able to take her to her first Olympics because we’ve been together so long. It’s an honor to finally get her to where she should’ve been a long time ago.”
The Knierims were excited to note during their media teleconference that – either after the Olympics or the world championships in March – Sappenfield said she would accompany the pair to get the Olympic rings tattooed.
“I don’t know if there are other coaches who have gone with their skaters to go get the rings done,” Alexa mused. “Maybe we’ll be the first team. It’s hard for us to put into words how truly special Dalilah is to us. It’s not just our dream, but it’s also her dream. When there’s tough days, we think about that.”