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Scimeca and Knierim: Romance has been a benefit

U.S. pair says off-ice relationship has helped their on-ice communication
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Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim say that their romantic relationship has helped them succeed on the ice. -Getty Images

Ask Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim about their intentions to skate together in the future, and the U.S. pair is quick to commit to the next four years. But their off-ice relationship? That, they say, will last a lifetime.

In early April, the 26-year-old Knierim proposed to his skating partner and girlfriend, Scimeca, 22, marking a milestone in their lives that caused the figure skating community to collectively sigh with a reaction of, "Yeah, we thought that would happen soon."

"We just know we want to be together. That's enough for us right now," Scimeca told icenetwork in a phone interview last week. "We don't have a date set, so we're just taking things day by day. We hope to stay healthy enough to compete for the next four years, so we'll see how things pan out."

The duo finished second at the U.S. championships in 2013 and fourth this past year. They are one of the only present-day American pairs or dance teams that are in a committed relationship and are open about it. Is getting romantically involved with a partner the right thing to do when the Olympics are on your to-do list?

There are differing opinions on that topic.

"We didn't make an effort to make sure everyone knew that we were dating," Knierim said of the Colorado Springs-based team, which is coached by Dalilah Sappenfield. "We don't feel like we need to hide anything. If you're dating, you're dating. It gets a little awkward if you're trying to hide it from everyone -- people are going to figure it out. It's more helpful to be open about it because then you don't have to go around anything."

Scimeca and Knierim teamed up in the spring of 2012 and began dating soon thereafter with the quiet encouragement of Sappenfield.

Perhaps the best example of a lovebird pair that Scimeca and Knierim can take after is Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, the three-time U.S. champions who competed in the 1994 and 1998 Olympics. In 1998, they won silver at the world championships.

"The Todd and Jenni story was about the relationship off the ice," said Meno, who now has two kids with Sand and makes up half of the husband-wife coaching team based in the Los Angeles area. "It can make their relationship different and special."

There are also the challenges of communication and separating skating from an off-ice romance, two aspects of which Scimeca and Knierim are keenly aware.

"For me, Chris knows that if I'm getting upset on the ice, he works around it. If he tries to confront it, I'll just argue with him," Scimeca explained. "Depending on the conflict on the ice, we know who the person is who has to put their pride aside. Off the ice, we might approach it a little differently."

"We didn't expect to date one another," Knierim added. "Alexa and I really have gotten to know what works together and what doesn't. You're working hard; you're fatigued. Your demeanor isn't going to be the same as off the ice when you're just hanging out. It helps because you get to know the person inside and out."

Rockne Brubaker, a pairs skater who has twice been to the world championships, cautions that crossing personal and professional relationships can be dangerous.

"I've never had a romantic relationship with my skating partner, but sometimes a team goes down that route and it can be distracting for them," said Brubaker, who finished second at the U.S. championships in 2012 with partner Mary Beth Marley. "It's about setting boundaries. Your relationship off the ice directly affects how you're able to work with one another. It's all about communication."

Todd Sand, who proposed to Meno the day of the short program at the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994, said he and Jenni worked hard at that communication.

"Once we started dating, we really tried to separate our on and off-ice relationship," he said. "We tried to keep our personal life off the ice. At the same time, the closeness really works for you, too. We wanted to do this."

Though it was never fully acknowledged, Olympic pairs champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov were believed to be romantically involved during their gold-medal season, a kind of dynamic that shone through in their passionate programs.

"What was most helpful after we didn't make the team for Sochi -- it was super hard to swallow it at first -- was that we knew we had each other to lean on," said Scimeca, who says that the team's next big goal is to become national champions. "I don't know how that would have been if we hadn't have been dating. Neither of us was blaming the other person."

The first three months of their partnership were awkward at times, Scimeca said, as they learned to get to know each other both on the ice and off of it. Sappenfield never discouraged them from dating, instead snapping photos of them sitting close at competitions and texting them to Alexa and Chris, a sort of I know what you're up to nudge.

"There were times when we weren't familiar with what made each other tick and what could help or hurt the training process," Scimeca remembered. "After we figured out the equation to our relationship, things got really easy for us. There weren't any hidden agendas. We learned quicker than most teams because there was a softer side. Because we were dating, our communication was a lot stronger on the ice."

"I think that when a team is involved with a personal relationship, emotions can control what is going on with the team," said Brubaker, who is engaged to Italian pairs skater Stefania Berton. "As a pair skater, you want to have a friendship. But this is a job. You have to set that other stuff aside. Sometimes when two people are romantically involved, it's harder to look at it that way. It can affect how you train and the decisions you make."

"Normally, I don't recommend that teammates date," Sappenfield said over email. "Most of the time, it doesn't work out. However, when it does work out, it can be a positive dynamic for the partnership. Alexa and Chris know how to help each other and are extremely genuine. I think the fact that they are comfortable and very honest with each other truly helps them grow as a team."

But what might drive the pair apart?

"Alexa's driving! I cannot stand it," Knierim joked, Scimeca laughing in response. "Luckily, our trip to the rink is just two miles long every day."

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