Road to Omaha: Scimeca, Knierim taking it slow

New pair off to solid start; Denney, Coughlin on road to London?

Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim have been skating together for only eight months.
Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim have been skating together for only eight months. (Getty Images)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(01/17/2013) - When Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim competed at their first full competition, at Skate Detroit last July, their soaring triple twist, strong throws and triple Salchows marked them as a new pair on the rise.

Five months later, they've built on that early promise, winning their international debut at the Cup of Nice (defeating reigning European bronze medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov in the process) and posting solid fourth-place skates at the NHK Trophy in Japan in November.

Along the way, they earned scores that would qualify them to enter the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships, one of three U.S. pairs -- the others being 2012 U.S. champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin and NHK bronze medalists Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir -- to do so. Now, with training partners Denney and Coughlin temporarily sidelined by Coughlin's hip injury, they've become one of the favorites at next week's 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Omaha.

But Dalilah Sappenfield, who coaches the pair in Colorado Springs with Larry Ibarra, says whoa, not so fast.

"We're still talking about a team that is eight months old," the coach said in a telephone interview last week. "We're in it for the long haul. We're trying to not put a lot of pressure on them; certainly, they put enough pressure on themselves. We just want to focus on enjoying our first trip to nationals together and just try to compete what they trained."

Knierim, 25, began his pairs career in 2006 and has skated with several partners, winning the 2009 U.S. junior silver medal with Brynn Carman and most recently teaming with Andrea Poapst to place seventh at the 2012 U.S. Championships, where the 21-year-old Scimeca and her former partner, Ivan Dimitrov, placed 10th. After her partnership with Dimitrov ended, Scimeca moved from Connecticut to Colorado Springs last April to skate with Knierim.

"They've had a very fast rise this fall, with winning their first international together and doing so well at NHK, and certainly they've come together and gelled very, very quickly," Sappenfield said. "Their styles are very similar, so that's helped a lot.

"As the season goes along, the pressure grows, but for them, it's about the experience. Essentially for Alexa, this is her first year ever doing internationals; for Chris, this is only his second year. They are both still developing and building for these events. I feel like they can compete with the best of them and they are moving at a fast rate, but I try to keep everything kind of calm and relaxed as much as possible."

Sappenfield gives full marks to Scimeca for quickly adapting to the training environment at the Colorado Springs World Arena, where Sappenfield and Ibarra also coach several top U.S. junior pairs.

"There's a learning curve, and Alexa just kind of molded to what I needed," the coach said. "She has a good work ethic -- that's part of why they improved so quickly. More importantly, for her it was the environment of having other pair teams around. It takes a lot of hard work to do what we are doing, and she has stepped up to the plate."

About their triple twist, which impressed audiences and judges alike this fall, Sappenfield said, "The triple twist is based on the boy's technique to start. I've had Chris from the beginning; I've never had to tweak his technique. We've molded Alexa to his technique, and it's given them the twist they have now."

Scimeca and Knierim have shined in their short program, choreographed by Sappenfield to Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." Their free, set to the soundtrack of The Last of the Mohicans, was more challenging for the new duo, according to Sappenfield. So, after they returned from Japan, Sappenfield ditched the program in favor of a new routine, to Nicola Piovani's Life Is Beautiful soundtrack.

They debuted the program a few weeks ago, at one of the World Arena's regular Friday night exhibitions.

"As a team progresses, you don't know exactly the direction of their style, and as they got further into the season, we realized the program just did not fit them," Sappenfield said. "We wanted to change it after [Cup of Nice], but we knew we didn't have enough time, and then after France we realized we didn't have enough time because of sectionals, and then [U.S. Figure Skating] called us to do NHK, but we knew we had to do it.

"For me, they have an elegance and long line to their skating, and I wanted to kind of do something in that direction."

Even after arming her team with the new free, Sappenfield is careful to manage expectations.

"As a coach, the only thing I can do, [whether I am] putting returning champions back on the ice or new skaters on the ice, is have them focus on their skating -- that's all you can control," she said. "Our focus is really for personal best. If you skate well, you are going to leave happy."

Reporter's notebook: Followers of Coughlin's twitter feed (@JohnCoughlinUSA) saw a photo Coughlin posted earlier this week, with the skater back on the ice.

"I know the outcome I desire," Coughlin posted. "I hold fast to my dreams. I stay the course and do not quit."

Sappenfield confirmed that Denney and Coughlin hoped to compete at the 2013 World Championships in London, Ontario, March 10-17 -- about 3 1/2 months after surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip.

"He is actually three weeks ahead of plan, as far as his rehab goes. He is doing extremely, extremely well, so we are very optimistic of his chances of getting back where he was," she said.

"We have, under the rules of U.S. Figure Skating, petitioned for worlds. His doctors and physical therapists and I, we all feel he would be capable of getting ready for worlds, so we have set a plan to do so. It's pretty much up to the [international selection] committee when they vote for the selection of skaters for worlds."