GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Not a year and a half before Alexa Scimeca-Knierim slid onto the ice at Gangneung Ice Arena on Wednesday, she was wasting away. Pound by pound, week by week, one half of the best American pairs figure skating team withered to somewhere around 80 pounds. The question of whether she would skate was pre-empted by that of whether she would live to see these Pyeongchang Games.
So when she and her husband, Chris Knierim, stood at skating attention near the Olympic Rings at center ice Wednesday morning — Valentine’s Day — they didn’t care about the medals. Knierim cut out a red construction paper heart with “Will you [still] be mine” written on it, and he stashed it away to give her after their skate, no matter what happened. He put an American flag sticker on it, too.
The Knierims are not expected to medal here. American pairs teams never are these days — they haven’t won an Olympic medal since 1988. But in some cases, the medals just don’t matter much at all. In this case, on Valentine’s Day a world away from home and 15 months after Alexa battled through a gastrointestinal problem that threatened her life, what mattered was a love story.
“I think what a lot of people have a hard time grasping is this journey is really between Chris and I,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “It’s not about our score. It’s not about the other teams being better than us. It’s deeper than that.”
The Knierims helped the United States to a bronze medal in the team competition earlier this week. If there had been pressure, they said, it left them when they did their part there. Wednesday, they could skate together, consumed by a program soaked with meaning, set — deliberately — to “Come What May” from “Moulin Rouge.” Suddenly the world seems such a perfect place. Suddenly it moves with such a perfect grace.
“[We] said to each other before we skated, enjoy everything out there — even the mistakes,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “Let’s be proud of the mistakes. We’re here, and that’s an accomplishment.”
When Scimeca-Knierim, 26, first got sick in the spring of 2016, no one could figure out what was wrong. She was plagued by vomiting and stomach trouble all of that summer, which included the duo’s wedding, before finally being diagnosed with a gastrointestinal condition in August. She had two abdominal surgeries, tried to resume training and couldn’t do it. By the time she had a third surgery in November of that year — about 15 months before these Games — she and her husband had no idea what skating would look like when she returned.
The stories of those first days back explain their gratitude. They talk about the times Chris had to hold Alexa’s hands to guide her around the ice when she couldn’t make it alone, about cutting training sessions short because she couldn’t last — about struggles to stand, let alone skate. By then, the games were a year away. By then, Wednesday’s skate — in which Knierim threw his wife high into the air and watched her spin safely to the ice, or sent her twirling into the air before catching her and setting her back down — seemed unthinkable.
“It’s just a blessing for us to even be at this position, so we’re soaking it all in,” Knierim said. “We’re skating for ourselves. Not for anyone else.”
Until Scimeca-Knierim’s illness, the Knierims had posted the highest pairs score in the history of Americans competing internationally. They had honed the vaunted quad twist — one of the most difficult, and therefore highest-scoring, elements in any pairs program.
They did not do one in their short program, which included a triple twist — one Scimeca-Knierim over-rotated, an unusual problem considering many skaters are more prone to under-rotate a challenging move like that.
The Knierims, of course, are not alone in overcoming trials of various degrees to get here. The favorites, for example, are German pair Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot. Savchenko has gone through three partners, two nationalities and five Olympic Games in pursuit of a gold medal — and now, at 32, is finally getting her chance.
She and Massot are fourth after their short program, and they will chase their medal in the free skate Thursday. Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, the North Korean pair who turned in a clean, crowd-pleasing skate, will enter the free skate in 11th place. Wenjing Sui and Cong Han of China will enter the free skate in the lead. Canada’s Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are in third.
The Knierims were the lone American representatives in the field, and they likely could have placed higher than their 14th position after the short program had they skated like they did in the team competition. The best U.S. pairs finish of the last 20 years came in 1998, when Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman finished fourth overall.
The Knierims will not approach that fourth-place finish. They will need a surpassing performance Thursday to finish in the top 10. But after all it took to get here, the Knierims will be celebrating Thursday, no matter what happens — come what may.