World pairs: Russian triumph, some U.S. promise

Chicago Tribune

LONDON, Ont. - Give credit to Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, a pairs team for barely 11 months, after they capitalized on an unexpected opportunity with a strong free skate Friday at the World Championships.

It was a performance of substantial promise.

But let’s keep this in perspective, which has been easy to lose when a young U.S. pairs team does surprisingly well.

Remember that even though the world meet rookies moved up three places from a 12th in the short program, they still finished ninth of the 16 teams who had advanced to the final, and they were more than 20 points from fifth place.

Scimeca and Knierim (173.51) were a light year behind the winners, Russians Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, but so was everyone else.  A free skate of surpassing brilliance made them 20-point winners with a world record total score of 225.71.

This was a case where a fall – Trankov went down when his toe pick caught the ice after another rafter-rattling throw of his partner – cost them a point but had no impact on an emotionally, artistically and athletically imposing 4 minutes, 30 seconds to a haunting. Baroque-style composition, “Violin Muse,” by Ikuko Kawai.

They are the first Russian world champions since 2005 in a discipline their country once utterly dominated, winning 12 straight Olympic golds from 1964 through 2006.  (Coincidentally, the last Russian world champions were another Tatiana and Maxim – Totmianina and Marinin.)

“This means we can fight for the gold in Sochi (2014 Olympics), which would be big for Russia, because we lost it in 2010,” Trankov said.

He and Volosozhar had won the world silver medal two years ago, their first season as a team, which goes to show that superior skaters who had pairs experience with other partners can rise quickly to the top.

Emphasis on superior skaters.

Back to the perspective issue:  Scimeca, of Addison, and Knierim, of San Diego, are not unusual on the U.S. scene of late - a couple who made an impact quickly.  The question is whether they will be unusual by staying together and continuing to improve longer than their bright flash in the recently empty pan of U.S. pairs skating.

To wit: Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker.  Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett.  Mary Beth Marley and Brubaker.

Dalilah Sappenfield coaches Scimeca and Knierim.  She also coached McLaughlin and Brubaker.

“A big part of teams breaking up is they want the quick success without the time behind it,” Sappenfield said.  “The kids now realize the longer you stay together, the more successful you are going to be in the long run.”

Sometimes the reward for all that that isn’t enough.  Sappenfield also coached Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin, who stayed together six years, then split after finally winning a U.S. title and finishing sixth at worlds in 2011, best world finish since 1997 by a U.S. team in a non-Olympic year (many top teams skip the post-Olympic worlds.)

Coughlin, it seems, already was envisioning a future with his current partner, Denney.  They won nationals last season but have been sidelined since he had hip surgery in December.

“We’re in it forever.  You can quote me on that,” Scimeca said.

They got much farther than expected in one season.  Coughlin’s injury put the Scimeca and Knierim on the world team after having finished second at nationals.  The national. champions, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, wound up 13th  Friday, giving the U.S. the combined finish needed to keep two spots for Sochi.

Scimeca’s foot injury forced them to withdraw from last month’s Four Continents Championship.  But they made the most of their chance to skate at worlds, overcoming a poorly executed opening element in the free skate to achieve high difficulty levels on everything and leave a solid impression in the minds of international judges.

 (If you think that doesn’t matter, check the ridiculously high scores given to Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy just because they are four-time world champions.  Doing a horrible performance - a fall, three watered-down jump elements- to the worst cover ever of Ravel’s “Bolero,” they still wound up with an undeserved second in the free skate and an undeserved silver medal over Canadians Meaghan Duhamel and Eric Radford.)

“We’re just thankful we had such a great run this season,” Scimeca said.

The trick for Scimeca, 21, and Knierim, 25, will be handling the inevitable future adversity as well as they did her injury.  That could become more complicated because they also are a couple off the ice.

“That’s not something I would recommend,” Sappenfield said of the romantic relationship, “but they are both adults, so there is nothing I can do about it.”

Knierim said they take pains to compartmentalize their lives into on- and off-ice segments.  Scimeca acknowledged it isn’t always easy.

“Because we are dating, training every day can be difficult,” she said. “(We need) to be able to tell each other, `Hey, I’m not feeling this great today, don’t take it personally.’  And we are able to make it through each day without there being conflict and emotions, because we are very open with each other.’’

Of course, if the romance fades, who knows what will happen to their side-by-side spin?

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