Ice Network

Knierims cherish opportunity to compete in Helsinki

Newlyweds prepared for world stage; Chock, Bates set to dazzle judges
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Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, along with U.S. teammates Madison Chock and Evan Bates, hope to end their seasons on a high note at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships. -Getty Images

For newlyweds Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, worrying about placements takes a back seat. Beginning last April, Alexa struggled with a rare stomach condition that was not diagnosed until August. After three surgeries, the last on Nov. 1, she began a slow return to the ice and wasn't cleared to perform full run-throughs until the week before the U.S. championships.

"We are going to be in a competitive frame of mind for the world championships," Scimeca Knierim said. "Things may not feel the same as they used to. It's not going to be do or die. As cliché as it sounds, we're going to go out and enjoy it and be grateful for the moment."

The 2015 U.S. champions withdrew from their fall Grand Prix events as well as the U.S. championships but petitioned for a spot in Helsinki, which was granted by U.S. Figure Skating's international committee. They quickly proved the committee correct, earning 193.91 points at the Four Continents Championships, the highest U.S. pairs score of the season.

"We feel a lot more prepared heading into worlds than we were for Four Continents," Scimeca Knierim said.

One element they will not show in Helsinki: their quadruple twist.

"Because of everything Alexa went through, it wasn't in her best interest to even worry about it," Knierim said, adding, "A good Level 4 triple twist is maybe a point or point and a half (lower value), so it's not even worth it."

Reigning U.S. champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, who missed all of last season due to Denney's severe right knee injury, were disappointed with their program component scores (PCS) at Four Continents, where they placed eighth. So, they spent time with Zoueva in Canton to strengthen their Somewhere in Time free skate, including fine-tuning transitions.

They also worked extensively with jump coach Alex Ouriashev, perfecting their side-by-side double axels and triple salchows.

"We've been working with Alex throughout the year, especially since nationals," said Rockne Brubaker, who oversees the team's training in Chicago. "Dealing with the stress of competition and the performance side, having these jumps (more consistent) will just complete the package."

"They had a lot to prove this year, coming back from Haven's injury, winning their first U.S. title," he continued. "At worlds, they have to relax and let it happen, not worry about the elements but really perform the programs. That's the difference between a good team and a great team."

Two-time defending world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada are expected to be challenged by European champions Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov; European silver medalists Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot of Germany; and Four Continents champions Wenjing Sui and Cong Han of China, among others.

Chock, Bates look to deliver Level 4 steps

Charlie White, who skated alongside Madison Chock and Evan Bates for years, has words of high praise -- and caution -- for his former training partners.

"Maddie and Evan's greatest strength is their ability to attack anything they're given, any choreography, lift, movement," the Olympic champion said during a recent trip to New York's Rockefeller Center. "They, more so than any other team, skate on the edge. This season, you can see them pushing and proving themselves. Sometimes, that may lead to mistakes. There's a danger to putting yourself out there, taking risks."

The U.S. silver medalists have been dancing with that danger all season, pushing themselves to the brink in both their hip hop short dance and free dance, choreographed by Christopher Dean to David Bowie's "Under Pressure." They've had great moments -- defeating Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in the free dance at Skate Canada and winning the free dance at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships -- but have yet to claim a title.

What will it take to turn the tide?

"They need to get all of the (element) levels, execute every key point, every turn," said Igor Shpilband, who coaches the couple in Novi, Michigan. "And they need to deliver an emotional performance at the level they did at nationals, with all of the quality and speed. That is the key to success."

And that's a tall order.

"We talk about it a lot, the balance between just going for it and really investing all of your energy into the choreography, but at the same time having the calmness to execute," Bates said. "I think it's a matter of repetition and having the consistency of energy output in practice that you are going to have at the event."

After winning bronze behind Virtue and Moir, and U.S. champions Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani at the Four Continents Championships, Chock and Bates took a week's vacation in Hawaii. Upon their return, they worked with Shpilband and choreographer Rohene Ward to create a new partial step sequence for their short dance and also tweaked two of their other step sequences -- all in pursuit of Level 4's.

The focus, said Chock, was "on doing clean turns and getting more slow through our footwork to help our edges. I think we made a lot of progress."

"We're going to knock (the technical panel's) socks off in Helsinki," Bates joked. "They will be sockless after our program."

But Shpilband stressed that superb execution must be combined with speed and daring.

"Of course they need to execute every turn with clarity of perfection; the panels can be really picky sometimes," he said. "When you have a lot of speed -- which we don't want to sacrifice, that's what is good about them -- it makes it harder to do brackets and counters. The technical panel doesn't care how fast you go; they are looking for clarity of execution. But for the judges and audience, speed matters."

U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue also had a big takeaway from Four Continents: They were disappointed with their sixth-place free dance, although they placed fourth overall.

"That's three times in a row now we didn't give the free dance performance we wanted," Hubbell said.

The couple had a debriefing with their coaches, Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, to discuss ways to better pace themselves and create more contrast in the choreography. They also brought in Samuel Chouinard, who helped create their hip hop short dance, to inject fresh energy and nuance into the program, set to a medley of contemporary romance ballads including Ingrid Michaelson's rendition of "Can't Help Falling in Love."

Chouinard helped "create different movement and style, other ways to show our energy," Hubbell said. "I feel like it's going to help, because it became too much one level for the whole four minutes."