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GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Chris Knierim and Alexa Scimeca Knierim delivered a strong short program here for the United States in pairs figure skating, enough to advance to the free skate. The skaters are married to each other. Wednesday, the first day of competition, was Valentine’s Day.
Afterward, Chris presented Alexa with a red card in the shape of a heart that read, “Will you be mine?”
Could this get any sappier?
“We were talking,” Chris said, ” ‘How are we ever going to top this Valentine’s Day?’ ”
“So, next year, Chris, what have you got up your sleeve?” Alexa joked back.
Meet America’s Couple: beautiful, talented and so trusting in each other that part of their routine requires Chris to throw Alexa high in the air, where she rotates four times, before he catches her and eases her back to the ice. All while on skates. In part because of that, she notes that when back home, she doesn’t worry about him forgetting to grab milk at the store.
Chris, 30, and Alexa, 26, are the first married couple to compete for the United States in pairs skating at the Olympics since 1988. On Wednesday, they delivered a 65.55 score in the short program to rank 14th. Their first interaction came in 2010, when both were competing at a sectional event in Wichita, Kansas. Alexa was an individual skater then. Chris was teamed up, platonically, with Carolyn-Ann Alba. After one day at sectionals, Chris decided to change out of his shirt in the lobby of the rink. Alexa happened to spot him.
“I thought he was pretty hot,” she said. “But that’s as far as it went. I didn’t know his name and I didn’t know anything about him other than seeing him.”
Two years later, each was seeking a pairs partner. Skating coach Dalilah Sappenfield thought they might make a good team. Chris, originally from California, was working (as an auto mechanic) and training in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Alexa, who hails from the Chicago suburb of Addison, Illinois, had been living in Connecticut.
She flew out to meet a potential partner. He was waiting at the airport.
“I picked her up in my Camaro,” Chris said.
“He opened the door for me, which is rare these days,” Alexa said. “He put my bags in the trunk. It was cute.”
Alexa was new in town so they spent a lot of time together, not just training but with Chris introducing her to groups of friends and trying to help her adjust. Feelings grew. Early on he took her fishing.
“Tell what I got you for your first birthday in Colorado,” Chris said.
“I was in Colorado for three months,” Alexa said. “He bought me a pink fishing pole. I still use it.”
Ladies, when a guy buys you a pink fishing pole, his intentions are clear.
There was no official first date. Things sort of just happened.
“He went for a first kiss,” Alexa said.
“She kissed me back,” Chris said.
This, they acknowledge, was a moment fraught with danger. Chris wasn’t just making a move on someone he knew or even worked with. That can be risky on its own. In this case, the two of them were the entire team. If that kiss gets rebuffed or awkward, the entire operation can come unglued. Each had Olympic aspirations.
“That’s the thing,” Chris said. “There is a fine line between going for those feelings or not, because it can turn out bad. Some teams have broken up because they have broken up in their relationship. I obviously never dated my partner so it was a new avenue for me.”
“The feelings were strong,” Chris said. “So, I went for it. And here we are.”
They were engaged in 2014 and married in 2016. The relationship looks perfect. Championship performances, smiling photogenic faces and light-hearted personalities that play off each other. If they aren’t both on the next season of “Dancing with the Stars” something is wrong.
The road to get here was rocky, though.
There have been family deaths, injuries and setbacks. Chris broke a tibia during the 2013-14 season and they wound up alternates for the Sochi Olympics. They responded with a national title in 2015, but in 2016, Alexa suffered from a rare gastrointestinal condition that caused hours of vomiting and proved life-threatening. She required multiple surgeries and dropped to just 80 pounds on her 5-foot-2 frame.
Skating wasn’t a priority anymore. Living was. If there was ever a test for a young couple, this was it. Alexa’s illness affected Chris’ career and Olympic dreams, too, which were in doubt as she recovered. They leaned on their shared faith.
“Chris was a rock,” Alexa said.
She slowly got better. They began skating together in the simplest of ways, Chris holding Alexa’s hand as they calmly shuffled around the ice for 10 minutes before she was too exhausted to continue. Each day brought a little more strength. They returned to competition in 2017.
In January, they won another national title. On Monday, they took Olympic bronze in team skate.
“Nobody truly knows, other than he and I, how deep it’s been in terms of the sorrow and pain,” Alexa said. “When I was holding my medal [Monday], he said, ‘All of that pain, all of the episodes were worth it.’ ”
Now comes the chance to deliver the performance of their lives in the free skate. They aren’t favorites to medal, and at this point they’re skating for each other more than anything. Their free skate Thursday features a version of “Unchained Melody,” which was played for the first dance at their wedding.
“You can see the relationship while we are skating,” Chris said. “That is our biggest asset compared to elements or skating skills or anything else. It’s natural. It’s not forced.”
The Olympics. Valentine’s Day. Jewelry (a bronze medal) already secured. America’s Couple is having quite a week. They know they are lucky.
For all the hopeless romantics out there with slightly less grandiose plans for Valentine’s Day, don’t hate them. You, too, can be just like them (other than the world-class-athletes part).
“Don’t force it,” Chris said. “It’s going to happen when it happens. You can never really prepare for true love.”
“And stay true to yourself,” Alexa said. “I think a lot of people alter themselves to try to be a certain person. I was my quirky self from the start.”
“Yeah,” Chris said. “She was.”
“And maybe if I wasn’t, he wouldn’t have liked me,” Alexa said.
Love conquers all. It might even win you an Olympic medal.
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