Thursday, June 13, 2013

Interview with Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim

In the course of one season, Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, who teamed up in April, 2012, have gone from a brand-new team to one of the top U.S. pairs teams. They began their season with a win at their first international competition together, the 2012 Cup of Nice, and then proceeded to win Midwestern Sectionals. Shortly after, thanks to their win at Cup of Nice, after a few withdrawals, they were given a spot at the 2012 NHK Trophy, where they turned a lot of heads, placing 4th. After NHK, they made a rare decision to change their program in the middle of the season, which they debuted at the 2013 Nationals, where they placed 2nd. Despite an injury to Alexa at the 2013 Four Continents Championships, after their training mates Caydee Denney and John Couglin withdrew from the 2013 World Championships due to a previous injury to John that had not healed in time, Alexa and Chris were given the second U.S. pairs spot at Worlds, an opportunity which they fully seized, skating their best ever, and earned personal bests which placed them in the top 10 (they placed 9th) at their first Worlds ever.
Skating fans, journalists, bloggers, etc, have taken note of this new team's talent, potential, and on-ice chemistry (they are also an off-ice couple), as well as their tremendous twist and throws. I, along with many others, am excitedly looking forward to what this fabulous team delivers next season, and to whether they nab one of two spots available for U.S. pairs teams at the Olympics.
I had the opportunity to interview Alexa and Chris, and I spoke to them about this past season, how they felt about all the success they achieved, the upcoming season, as well as a couple fun facts at the end, including the correct pronunciation of both of their last names! Enjoy!


(Note: the purple text in the answers was written by Alexa, and the blue was written by Chris)

Q: Now, you teamed up a little over a year ago – can you talk a little bit about how you found each other, how you decided to try out with each other, how you decided you wanted to pursue the partnership, and how and why you decided to train in Colorado Springs instead of Connecticut?
We found each other through our current coach Dalilah Sappenfield. I decided I wanted to leave Connecticut for personal reasons. When you have a gut feeling it is sometimes hard to ignore. I had a gut instinct that I didn't belong in CT and that there was something greater out there for me. I called Dalilah and planned to move out to CO sometime in April. I had a possible tryout planned with a Polish boy, but that was it. All I knew was that I wanted Dalilah to be my coach.
I was skating with my former partner Andrea with Dalilah and she wanted to move and train in California. I did not want to leave the World Arena and my coaches, my family, school, and my job so I made the choice to stay back. I had already heard Alexa was coming out to Colorado Springs to have some tryouts and skate here with Dalilah. Around the same week that Andrea left me, Dalilah said that Alexa was coming out so I could tryout with her and go from there. Dalilah told me to trust her and that she would not point me in the wrong direction. Alexa came earlier then planned and we scheduled the tryout. We decided to skate together because it felt right. Dalilah pointed out our long lines and I was intrigued with the immediate chemistry.

Q: You were both obviously trained by different coaches when you first began skating, which means you were both taught slightly different techniques and styles – what were some of the challenges in adapting to each other’s techniques, and how long did it take until you felt like you had melded together as a pair, both technique and general skating-wise?
I grew up with a Russian style of teaching during my singles career. When I moved to CT to train with Vadim Naumov, who was also Russian, my technique was VERY different than Dalilah's. The hardest element I had to adjust to was twist. It almost felt like a different element with the changes she made. I think our general skating meshed quickly. I also think that Chris has a always had a solid lifting technique, so it was quite easy for him to adapt to me.
Both of us came from different coaches and there is a difficulty in that with technique. Normally when two skaters each come from different camps you adjust. You kind of take pieces of both and mesh them together and it takes some time. We used more of her throw technique and my lift and twist. Meshing did not take long we had all are elements in a couple months and were off competing.

Q: You had a fabulous debut season as a pair – you won your first international competition together (where you beat the pair who at the time, were the reigning European bronze medalists), placed 4th at your first Grand Prix event, placed 2nd at Nationals (and after a withdrawal by your training mates, you were given the second spot on the World team), and placed 9th at your first World Championships (and the first Worlds for either of you). How would you rate the season? What you had hoped for, more than you expected, far more than you expected, or beyond your wildest dreams?
For us the season was beyond our wildest dreams. You never know how quickly a team will click or how long it could take. We both shared the same goals and dreams so the desire and discipline was present everyday on the ice. We did not think we would be as succsessful as we were in our first season together so we enjoyed to process. After placing second at Nationals we were thrilled to go to Worlds because we earned it.

The season went past anything we could have imagined! Especially being our first season and neither of  us ever having competed in a Grand Prix or Worlds. The season was a blessing and we are both very grateful. We earned our spot at worlds and hope next year we won't have to hear that any team made it because another team withdrew. 

Q: Were you surprised to win the Cup of Nice, or did you go in believing that you had a chance at winning?
I was extremely surpised by the win. I think that's when I opened my eyes to the possibilities. I hadn't won anything since my singles career, so that moment was really uplifitng for myself
We were very pleased to have won. Going into it as our first international competition together, we were hoping to just skate well not knowing how the international scene would take to us.

Q: You were given the NHK Trophy after a couple of withdrawals. Were you shocked to receive a GP assignment in your first season? What were your expectations and goals for NHK?
We were informed that because of our win at Coupe de Nice we were first on the alternate list for the GP series, but we did not think anyone would withdraw from the GP. We were at Midwestern Sectionals when we got the news so we were celebrating before our long program!
We wanted one from the beginning of the season and through withdrawals we got one. So it all worked out and we took the opportunity and ran with it. Our goals were to skate well and represent the USA as best we could.

Q: Between NHK and Nationals, you changed your free skate to Life is Beautiful. What were the factors in deciding to change your free skate – was there something specific you disliked about your Last of the Mohicans free skate, did you decide that the program wasn’t for you, were you looking for something different, or were there other reasons? How did you decide on Life is Beautiful for your new free skate?
We really grew as a team and the Mohicans was something we put together without knowing what suited us best. We felt like we outgrew the program rather fast and no longer enjoyed skating to it. We felt that if we wanted to compete with the higher level teams, we needed to step it up. We chose the music before NHK and were just waiting to get back and start over. 

Q: Were there any challenges in having to choreograph, learn, and get comfortable with a new free skate in such a short amount of time before Nationals, and if so, what were they? How did you overcome those challenges to perform your stellar free skate at Nationals, which earned you the silver medal?
The new program came together quickly and was easier to skate through compared to the Mohicans. We were also very excited about the program and it was very motivating for us. Dalilah coreographed it and she knew what would be most ideal for patterns and entrances. If anything, there was more ease in the Life is Beautiful program.

Q: Before you went to Worlds, you traveled to Japan for the 2013 Four Continents Championships, but ultimately ended up withdrawing before the competition began, due to a foot injury to Alexa. How did you make the decision to withdraw? Alexa, were you unable to skate, and/or were you worried that you would further injure the foot if you skated? Were Worlds also in the back of your mind when you withdrew from 4CC (i.e., did you want to still have a chance to go, if Caydee and John withdrew)?
I decided to withdraw when I couldn't stand on my foot any longer. Jumps and throws were out of the question. The morning I withdrew from the event I wasn't able to spin on my foot without a ton of pain. I thought the lifts would be pain free, but the takeoffs were enough to cause me to cry a bit. I wasn't sure what was happening, but I was nervous that something was seriously wrong. I've always pushed through pain, but I just wasn't strong enough this time. I was sad because I felt like I'd let down Chris, as well as all of the USA. I wasn't thinking about Worlds at that point because I believe in fate and I knew if it was meant to be it would happen.

Q: How long did it take the rehab the foot, how did it affect your training as you went into Worlds, and did you still feel the injury as you competed at Worlds?
Therapy for my foot took a lot of time and patience. I was fortnate to see Melinda Couch in CO before Worlds and have her be the therapist traveling with us. She is the reason I could compete at Worlds and I am forever grateful for that. I still had pain during worlds but it was manageable.

Q: Now at Worlds, you obviously had a tremendous competition, placing in the top 10 at your first Worlds, something not a lot of pairs teams can hold a claim to. What were your goals and expectations for Worlds? Were you aiming at a top 10 finish, and did you believe you had a shot? In terms of scoring, what were your goals? Were you hoping to earn new personal bests, gain certain levels on certain elements, break a certain point level, etc?
We earned our personal best and we were blown away by the scores! We always aim for the best, as most do, but we didn't think we would claim our personal best at worlds. It was a gratifying experience! 
For Worlds we wanted to just go out and skate our programs. We did not put any expectations on having to place in the top 10. The main focus was just to put it all out there and skate our best and we did that so it was a success no matter the placement. After we had finished and got the scores we did I was very happy to be in the top 10. Element-wise we had our set levels on everything and we obviously wanted to get the levels we were going for and we did which was the first time all year that happened.

Q: Now in the video below (your free skate from Worlds, which was fantastic), at 8:06 in the video, as you sit in the kiss and cry, Alexa can be heard saying, “I don’t think we’re going to get there,” which I assume is referring to a score level. After your free skate, what did you think you were going to score? As I mentioned on Twitter earlier, you seemed so genuinely shocked at the scores, and Alexa nearly started crying as it was announced that you were currently in first place (in addition, you again beat the reigning European bronze medalists; at this point, it was Berton and Hot├írek of Italy).
I remember saying that I felt like the program was in slow motion. Every little detail I noticed and I had asked her if it looked like we were in slow motion! Haha!  
It was a big shock getting the score we did, even though we were hoping to get a higher score than NHK (the last time we competed internationally) because we both think this program was a lot better. I mean, we beat who we beat there, titles or whatever they were coming in to Worlds with meant nothing, you know, not everyone is going to skate their best at every competition and that's what makes it a competition. 

Q: What would say was your favorite moment/competition of the season? Given your success, I’m sure there are many, but what was your number one moment/competition?
We have a special place in our hearts for Coupe de Nice because it was our first big moment, but Worlds is definitely our favorite. Worlds is a dream come true and competing there will never get old. 
Worlds was the best moment; I mean finishing your season on that high of a note is amazing. It gives you confidence for the season to come.

Q: Now, looking ahead to next season: given your top 12 finish at Worlds, you’re guaranteed 2 GP events, you have a bye to Nationals next year, and many people believe that the competition for the 2 pairs spots at the Olympics next year is a 3-team race: the two of you, Castelli/Shnapir, and Denney/Coughlin. What are your goals for next season? What do you hope to accomplish, specifically in your GP events and Nationals? More importantly, what do you believe it is going to take for you to make the Olympic team? Considering that you were not only the higher ranked US team at Worlds (you beat Castelli/Shnapir by nearly 10 points) but are also among the top 10 pairs teams in the world, do you realistically see yourself making the Olympic team, and if so, what is your plan for the next season to make that a reality? In your eyes, how do you see yourself stacking up to the other teams around the world?
We think our new programs will sit higher than last year's programs. We want to make the Olympic team and feel that it is tangible. However, a lot of hard work needs to be put into this season and we need to make great strides in our skating to be at the level of our world competitors. We are working on staying in the moment. If we focus on the Olympics in February, we won't make it through the summer. One day at a time is what we are thinking right now. 
I think Nationals is going to be more than a 3 team race, everyone brings their best and no one is guaranteed anything. You can be a two time national champion coming into Nationals and not make it so its anyone's to take. The season is early and we have plenty of work to do to reach our goals. Everyone that qualifies for Nationals in senior wants to make the team and we are no different. At the GP's that we have this season, we want to hit our personal best and skate well. Our focus this year is not elements but our component marks; that was our focus when we were picking music and choreography choices. 

Q: You recently announced your music choices for next season: “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” for you short program, and “Ever After” for your long program. Can you talk a little bit about these programs/pieces? How you came to a decision for these two pieces of music, what the themes will be, how you view them versus this past season’s programs, etc.

We picked these programs to help our skating grow, and they are far and beyond last year's. The programs show off our improvements in expression and body movements. We will be telling a story in each program and competition we do this season.  

Q: Technically, will you be increasing the difficulty of anything (throws and side-by-sides, mainly), and if so, what will you increase? 
We will keep our throws the same, and will be adding sbs triple toes!

Q: What would you both consider to be your strengths and weaknesses and individual skaters, and as a pair?
Our strength is the technical aspect of skating as we showed last season. Both of us are strong skaters and our biggest weakness is the component side of skating which we are nipping in the butt early this season to strengthen it.

Q: Who is your all-time favorite pairs team?
Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Q: What is your favorite aspect about your coach?
She is down to earth and realistic about our goals and motives. She tells us how it is and doesn't sugarcoat things. She is very easy to talk to and we both trust her very much. Her experience and past with other pair teams is proof that she knows what she's doing. We both believe she is the best coach for us. 
She has known me since the beginning of my pairs career and knows how to get me to be the best I can be. 

Q: Now, this question is mainly for you Alexa, but also for you Chris. Alexa, in every competition from this season, from commentators to announcers, I have heard your last name pronounced probably 15 different ways – phonetically, what is the correct pronunciation or your last name? And Chris, for your last name, I’ve heard it pronounced with and without the K – which is the correct way? 
Seh- meh- kah   
With the K!!

Q: Finally, for each of you, what is one thing that fans do not know about you (it can be anything – skating, personality, etc)?
Everyone knows I love cars and fishing but Alexa and I love watching tv shows on netflix. We watch them during our breaks and on a saturday night we love to stay in and watch shows. 

Thank you both so much!

Side Note: I would just like to mention that from my brief, online experience talking to them, Alexa and Chris are clearly two incredibly polite and gracious people. When I wrote to them one night, hoping to interview them, I waited less than 24 hours for a response, which was: We would like to do an interview with you! They were both very sweet and polite when I corresponded with them, and I wish them nothing but the best of luck! I was so excited and honored to be able to do this interview, and I cannot thank them enough!

- IllusionSpin