U.S. pairs skater Chris Knierim takes journey from Ramona to Olympics
Figure skating is an expensive sport. Chris Knierim, having moved from Ramona to Colorado to pursue his ice dreams, needed money to pay for it.
So he got a job at a Sears Auto Center and then Goodyear, first as a tire buster, then changing oil, then aligning suspensions. Eventually he moved to a small shop in Colorado Springs called Ford Street Fleet Services, rebuilding transmissions, even fixing Sea-Doos and motor homes. He went to the rink from 9 a.m. to noon, worked under the hood from 1 to 5, went to class to study diesel mechanics from 6 to 9 p.m.
Axels and axles, Lutzes and lug nuts.
He skated pairs and had three different partners in the sport’s junior levels, consistently winning titles with them but needing a better match for his rapidly improving skills. His coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, found him a promising, new partner in 2012 from suburban Chicago named Alexa Scimeca. He picked her up at the airport in a ’99 black Camaro that he had souped up from 300 to 800 horsepower. He mentioned that he liked cars as the scenery outside blurred past.
Alexa liked him, and a few months later she decided to visit him at his day job.
“I wore this little mini skirt,” Alexa says. “He came out from under a car in his Dickies coveralls — I thought he looked kinda sexy — and I was like, ‘Here are some doughnuts.’ The guys he works with were like, who’s that? He said: ‘My skating partner.’
“And they were like: ‘Oh, now I see why you skate pairs.’ ”
Here’s another reason: Chris and Alexa, now married, are going to the Olympics.
From the beginning
DeeDee Couch was a gymnast first.
But at age 11 she broke her wrist and had a cast on her arm. An ice rink was opening inside the University Towne Centre shopping mall. And you could skate with a cast.
“My mom took me,” DeeDee says. “That’s kind of how my life started.”
By sixth grade, she was no longer a full-time student at Standley Middle School in University City (her father owned the Mobil station on the corner of Genesee and Governor), taking correspondence courses and commuting to Los Angeles to train under legendary skating coaches Frank Carroll and John Nicks. Tiffany Chin, the 1985 U.S. ladies champion from San Diego, was her contemporary.
DeeDee gravitated to pairs skating and was practicing a throw double Axel — among the more difficult moves of that era — when she crashed and shattered her hip. She was 17. She could rehab and return to the ice. Or she could start a family.
She chose the latter and by 19 had two sons, Tyson and Chris. And a divorce.
Then she met Jeff Knierim, a Hoover High alum and Army officer. They took her two boys, had two children of their own, became a military family that moved every other year and ultimately settled down in Ramona once Jeff retired from the service. She got a job teaching figure skating at UTC and started lugging her two oldest sons with her.
“A lot cheaper than day care, I’m telling you,” DeeDee says.
“We had to go to the rink every single day after school,” says Tyson, 13 months older than Chris. “We’d sit there and do our homework while our mom coached. Once our homework was done, we had nothing to do and we’d put on skates and just skate until Mom was done. We spent so many hours at UTC.
“Chris really liked jumping and going fast. It gave him maybe not a sense of freedom but a sense of individuality. He could do his own thing.”
Tyson, not so much.
“I did not like figure skating — at all,” he says. “We were forced to be at the rink so much that I pushed back a little bit.”
Tyson learned his stepfather had wrestled in high school and figured, why not, he’d try out for the team at Ramona High. It quickly became his passion, the antithesis of sequins and Salchows, and he would wrestle in junior college before returning as varsity coach of the powerhouse Ramona High program.
Says Tyson: “I told Chris: ‘Have your fun, dude. Go for it.’ ”
And Chris did, deciding at age 12 that he wanted to get serious about his mother’s sport. He took an interest in pairs, which requires synchronicity and responsibility, not to mention perilous lifts, twists and throws — casting your partner into space with nothing but a sheet of ice to break the fall.
DeeDee shuddered and rubbed her hip.
“At first, she said: ‘No, it’s too dangerous,’ ” Chris says. “Eventually I convinced her.”
Mother initially coached son but quickly realized that wasn’t going to work. DeeDee had been around the sport long enough to see the pitfalls of pushing your children too hard. Chris got tired of his mother telling him what to do at the rink and what to do at home.
So DeeDee found him another coach in San Diego and, when he was 17, made the decision to move the family to the skating mecca of Colorado Springs so he could train under the respected Sappenfield. DeeDee found Sappenfield. Sappenfield found Alexa.
Alexa and Chris found love.
Six years after Chris picked her up in the ’99 black Camaro with 800 horsepower, they are in South Korea wearing Team USA jackets. They’re not expected to contend for a pairs medal, but they could get one in the team competition that begins Thursday night PST, a few hours before Opening Ceremony.
Sitting in Gangneung Ice Arena will be DeeDee Knierim-Couch. She never made it to an Olympics as a skater. She made it as a mom.
“I have thought about it,” says Chris, now 30. “Through the years of growing up, she’s never made it about her not making an Olympics or her not being a national champion. It’s never been about that. She’s never mentioned it once. When I started skating, she was my mother. She wasn’t living her dream of going to the Olympics through me.
“There’s no thought in her mind that I’m finishing her Olympic dream or anything like that. She’s just happy for us. At some point it was just a mother and her son going to the rink.”
The mechanic and the Midwestern girl skated at their first U.S. Championships together in 2013. Their free program music was the soundtrack from the Italian film, “Life is Beautiful.”
And it was.
They quickly were becoming more than partners on the ice. Doughnuts are a powerful elixir at an auto shop.
Somehow, they fit. Opposites attracted. He had lived in Germany, Utah, Colorado, Ramona. She lived in the same house in Addison, Ill. He was the strong, silent type. She was bubbly and outgoing. He liked “tinkering” with cars, buying them, fixing them, selling them.
“I can turn on the car,” Alexa says.
Her hobby is rhinestoning, or stoning for short. “I’m a stoner,” she jokes.
It provides a healthy respite from the endless hours together at the rink and at home. He grabs a wrench and heads for the garage. She meticulously decorates her skating costumes — and anything else, really — with tiny, shiny rhinestones.
“I like to put them on everything,” Alexa says. “It’s nice on days when I know he’s going to be in the garage for a few hours, I can do my own project. I’ve threatened to stone a seat belt.”
Chris shakes his head. No chance. Not in his cars, not in his babies.
“Yeah, since I’ve known Chris, he’s probably gone through 20 or more cars,” Alexa says. “He gets them on Craigslist. It’s like the car that he has to have and he’s not going to do anything to it, then he starts to tinker with it, then he’s bored with it, then there’s a new car that he has to have so he sells the other one. I swear, he’s a regular at the DMV. We have a box of license plates in the garage. He’s, like, obsessed. He’s gone through more cars than I’ve had shoes in my lifetime.
“But from watching him, I think working on cars is therapeutic for him. I’ve noticed a trend after a rough training day or he’s not in the right frame of mind, he naturally goes to the garage right away and is tinkering for hours.”
They wouldn’t realize just how much they’d need therapeutic outlets. Life isn’t always beautiful.
They were married in June 2016 (Dalilah, their coach, officiated), and on their wedding day Alexa spent most of the morning vomiting. It wasn’t from nerves. She would get worse over the summer, losing 20 pounds from her already slight 5-foot-2 frame.
Ten doctors and countless trips to the ER later, she was diagnosed with a rare gastrointestinal disorder that required three abdominal surgeries. Last February she posted a picture on Instagram of the six-inch scar running north-south on her stomach with the message: “4 months ago, brushing my teeth was more challenging than any long program I’d ever performed.”
She also posted a graphic video of doctors removing the surgical drainage tube. When her mother asked why she shared something so gory, Alexa replied: “I suffered for eight months. I think the world can suffer for 10 seconds.”
They missed most of the 2016-17 season and withdrew from the U.S. Championships. They returned to the ice less than a year ago for the Four Continents Championships in South Korea. The following month, they finished 10th at the World Championships in Finland.
A few weeks later, Jeff Knierim, Chris’ step father who raised him from 6 months old, died of a brain aneurysm after, his family says, suffering from exposure to sarin gas during Operation Desert Storm. It was Jeff, an amateur mechanic, who gave Chris his love of cars.
An uncle also passed away.
“It’s been a long road from Alexa’s illness to both my dad and uncle passing,” Chris says. “It’s not been an easy year and a half. But I’m very lucky to have Alexa and all the people around me, supporting me, to get me through the hard days.”
From the gloom of tragedy, though, has come radiant perspective. You approach life differently when you understand its fragility.
It hit Alexa last year at the Four Continents Championships, as she crashed on one triple Salchow after another in pre-competition practice sessions at the same arena used in these Olympics.
“It was a little embarrassing,” Alexa says. “I started to get upset about it and I thought about it and let my mind wonder. And then I was like: Are you kidding me? You’re going to cry over a jump? You’re going to worry if you’re going to fall in your program when you have the ability to be here and compete?
“My whole outlook changed in that moment. I was grateful to have the chance to fall versus stressing out that I was going to fall. I was like: I hope I fall because I’m here. That’s where my mind kind of shifted.”
It is why they returned all the triple jumps to their programs for the U.S. Championships last month even after a knee injury limited Chris’ ability to train them. Or why, for the first time since the mysterious illness that nearly killed her, they reinserted their signature move: the elusive quadruple twist, where Chris thrusts Alexa eight feet in the air while she performs four revolutions horizontal to the ice before he catches her.
Fear? Trepidation? Hesitation?
Life is too short, too fleeting.
They wobbled on some landings in the short program at nationals and then again in the free program. There was a long, nervous delay for the judges’ scores, and Alexa spent it staring at the floor, knowing they hadn’t skated their best with the lone U.S. pairs spot in the Pyeongchang Olympics at stake.
The scores, finally, were posted: Alexa raised her head and saw a “1” next to their names, covered her face with her hands and began sobbing uncontrollably, the emotions of 18 terrifying and tumultuous months pouring out. The 6-2, 187-pound car mechanic wrapped a thick arm around her shoulder, pulled her close and softly kissed her tear-streaked cheek.
‘How cool is that?’
Jeff Kneirim liked two things: working on cars and watching the History Channel.
Chris followed him to the garage. Tyson followed him to the living room.
Twenty years later, Chris still constantly tinkers with cars. Tyson became a seventh-grade history teacher at Olive Peirce Middle School in Ramona.
In the afternoons, he walks next door to the high school and coaches a wrestling team that has spent this season ranked No. 1 or 2 in the San Diego Section. He is leaving early Wednesday for South Korea with his mother, in time to see Alexa and Chris skate in the team event, then stay through the pairs competition next week.
The CIF team championship is Saturday.
“I’m going to be bummed out about that,” Tyson says, “but, I mean, I’m going to see my brother skate in the Olympics. How cool is that?”
Ramona’s Chris Knierim will be the fifth figure skater with local ties to compete at a Winter Olympics. All five have won national championships.
Tiffany Chin: The San Diego native finished fourth at the 1984 Winter Games despite placing second in the short program and third in the free program. Back then, school figures were also part of your final score, and Chin was 12th in them. The following year, she won the U.S. Championships and was third at the World Championships. Chin now coaches elite skaters.
Todd Eldredge: He trained at the UTC rink under coach Richard Callaghan in the years before the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France, where he finished 10th. Callaghan moved to Detroit to coach and Eldredge followed him, winning six national titles and the 1996 world title. He also skated in two more Olympics.
John Baldwin Jr.: After first competing as a singles skater, the longtime San Diegan switched to pairs and teamed with former Japanese singles skater Rena Inoue to win the U.S. title in 2006 and make the U.S. Olympic team. They finished sixth in Torino, but became the first pairs team to land a throw triple Axel in competition. Inoue is now his wife. They live in Escondido.
Rachael Flatt: She grew up in Del Mar, learning to skate at the UTC mall before moving to Colorado Springs to train. Flatt won the 2010 U.S. Championships and finished seventh at the Vancouver Olympics a month later. She has since retired from skating and graduated from Stanford.
Chris Knierim: Fresh off another national championship with partner (and now wife) Alexa Scimeca, he has chance to do what San Diego skaters before him could not: win an Olympic medal. The Knierims are not considered contenders in the pairs competition at the Pyeongchang Games but they’re part of a U.S. squad that many think could win a bronze medal in the team event.
Six people with San Diego County ties (and one with future ties) will be competing in the Winter Olympics:
Chris Chelios, asst coach men’s hockey team (Mira Mesa)
Lindsey Jacobellis, snowboard cross (Encinitas resident)
Shaun White, snowboard halfpipe (Carlsbad)
Chris Knierim, pairs figure skating (Ramona)
Seamus O’Connor, snowboard halfpipe for Ireland (born in San Diego, grew up in Ramona, most recently lived in Point Loma)
Elana Meyers, bobsled (born in Oceanside while her dad was at Camp Pendleton and spent some summers at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista)
Troy Terry, hockey (University of Denver player was drafted by Anaheim Ducks and almost certainly will join San Diego Gulls later in 2018).