GANGNEUNG, South Korea — A television sits inside the warm-up room here at the Gangneung Ice Arena, where the skaters stretch and prepare just before taking the ice. For reasons that aren’t clear, on Thursday morning, it was tuned to CNN International.
That’s how, moments before the biggest skate of their life, Chris Knierim and Alexa Simeca-Knierim saw the news that 17 people had been killed in a school shooting in Parkland, Florida. It is the fifth school shooting resulting in injury in America this year, according to the Washington Post.
Another tragedy. Another senseless, senseless tragedy. Another.
The Knierims gasped at the stunning footage inside the high school. They choked up and then tried to perform their free skate here, the culmination of an Olympics that saw them win bronze in the team event.
They didn’t perform well, a number of stumbles and mistimed spins, but when it was over, they hardly cared.
Like nearly every other American, their thoughts were with the victims, their families, the community in Broward County and our United States of America that deals with these massacres on some kind of constant loop.
“We are so privileged and lucky to be doing what we are doing and it is so sad that 17 people died from the United States,” Alexa said after, through a cracked voice as tears streamed down her face. “I told Chris, ‘The world is so much bigger than us.’ ”
The news, they said, didn’t affect their performance. They blocked it out despite the heavy heart and the shock of the moment. This, they wanted to make clear, was not about them. It was about the victims. It was about the country they were here to represent.
The team was never expected to contend for a medal. Once they had secured one in the team competition, their pairs competition was something of a bonus, a chance to have fun as the first married American pairs team since 1988.
Then came Parkland, Florida. Then came that CNN broadcast.
It’s why Alexa couldn’t stop crying. She knows Americans are crowded around televisions watching the horrors from Florida, and if a couple minutes of primetime skating could provide even the smallest measure of distraction, relief or joy, then she wanted to do what she could.
“To finish with a more than disappointing skate with a heavy heart for those that were lost today, I’m just overwhelmed,” Alexa said. “I think I kind of put pressure on myself today because I wanted to honor those who were lost and skate well for them and have somewhat of a happy moment for our country.
“I wanted to lift the spirits of those who are probably mourning.”
They probably still did for some. The Knierims are about emotion and beauty, not technical skill or medal contention. None of that felt like much in this moment. Even the Olympics felt painfully small and meaningless in the face of real life back home.
It’s a sentiment that likely extends across Team USA.
“Even though we are here in PyeongChang, our hearts are with them,” Alexa said when asked what message she would send home. “Even though we are living in a different world with Olympic hype, we are hurting, too.”
She dabbed her eyes after saying that. It did little good. More tears were coming. Here and in the States.
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