Ice Network

Knierims decide to (quad) twist again in San Jose

Ouriashev helps navigate Denney, Frazier through jump troubles
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Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim have resumed training the quad twist, and they are ready to break it out at the 2018 U.S. Championships. -Getty Images

The Tuesday after Thanksgiving was a routine practice day at the Colorado Springs World Arena, but there was a lesson on Dalilah Sappenfield's calendar that had been months in the planning: After a year and change, Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim would try their signature move, the quadruple twist.

The couple, married since June 2016, had not practiced the risky element since April 2016, when Alexa was struck by a serious abdominal illness that required several surgeries and cost the team much of last season. Chris, too, was a bit battered, and when the skaters returned to competition late last season, the twist was temporarily off the table. They didn't try it the week before, when they placed fifth at Skate America in Lake Placid.

"We learned we shouldn't do it so much year round," said Sappenfield, who teamed the skaters in April 2012. "It hurt Chris, and I don't know if it had anything to do with Alexa's sickness, but we learned it was too much. It's so hard on the bodies. We knew we had to start it fresh in December, to have it for the rest of the season."

So here they were, starting almost from scratch, so they thought, with an element that could help them clinch not only their second U.S. title but also the sole U.S. pairs spot at the Olympic Games in February.

"There were jitters," Sappenfield said. "Everyone was nervous, Alexa more so than Chris."

"I was the one who suggested we bring it back," Alexa said. "I know my team didn't want to pressure me or force me to push past my comfort zone after the surgeries. We know the mentality we need to execute it safely; that was even more import than the technique and timing behind it."

And then the 6'2" Knierim lifted and tossed his 5'2" wife more than five feet over his head. She rotated four times, came out with arms overhead, and he set her down.

"It was beautiful. The snap was there," Sappenfield recalled, her relief still evident almost a month later.

"It was like we never stopped," Alexa said.

The next few tries, while not as strong, were still encouraging. Over the past three weeks, the element has gotten stronger and safer, although the pair only practices it about every other day. In San Jose, it will be one of the first moves in the couple's free skate to selections from Ghost the Musical. (Pairs cannot include quad twists in short programs.)

"The way they do it, very often people think it's a triple twist because she rotates so fast," Sappenfield said. "It's a plus GOE for them."

The Knierims are favored to recapture the U.S. title they won in 2016. They are also considered by far the strongest contenders for PyeongChang, especially since U.S. Figure Skating has broadened its selection criteria to consider recent international performances.

"It's positive they're using our body of work rather than one competition," Chris said. "Honestly, your body of work is what makes you a good team. Sometimes you might have a bad day, and another team has an amazing skate. We are in a good place with the criteria set out by USFS, and we're going in confidently and not making nationals more than it is."

With the quad twist back in, the skaters turned their attention to their jumps, long a relative weakness for the couple, who were unable to land clean side-by-side triples in Lake Placid. There, Chris revealed he had been limited by a patella injury, for which he is receiving physical therapy four or five times a week.

"I've really pushed myself these last two weeks to make sure I do everything possible, and I'm feeling very confident in my jumps," Chris said.

In San Jose, the couple plans side-by-side triple salchows in their short program, and triple toe-double toe combinations and triple salchows in their free skate.

"We're not watering anything down for this event," Chris said. "We're not backing off."

Defending champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, who train in Chicago under Rockne Brubaker and Stefania Berton, also had disappointing jumps at Skate America, where they placed seventh. To improve consistency, they work twice a week with noted technical coach Alex Ouriashev, who trained two-time U.S. champion Gracie Gold in the early part of her career.

"They landed some wonderful triple toes last week, and the triple salchows were better," Ouriashev said. "Last week, the side-by-side salchows were 75-80 percent consistent; a couple of months ago they were 15 percent."

Ouriashev thinks Denney's serious knee injury in April 2015 -- which required surgery and months of physical therapy, and cost the team the 2015-16 season -- negatively impacted her confidence in her jumps. The skater herself has admitted as much in interviews.

"[Brandon] has two nice triples and a double axel, (which is) good enough to be a competitive senior pair skater," Ouriashev said. "After [Haven's] injury, she was more afraid to get injured again. ... Now, she's getting better."

The Knierims may be heavily favored for PyeongChang, but two world spots are up for grabs here in San Jose. Denney and Frazier, reigning U.S. silver medalists Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran, and returning bronze medalists Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc have earned comparable scores in international competition this season.

2016 U.S. champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea withdrew from their Grand Prix events, as Kayne was still recovering from right knee surgery in February 2017. They returned to competition at Golden Spin of Zagreb in December, when they won a bronze medal.

"Our elements didn't go well in Zagreb, but we were encouraged by our program component scores," O'Shea said. "We got great feedback on our programs and were glad to get them out in competition before San Jose. Training is going much, much better, and we're feeling a lot more confident coming in here."