SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — U.S. champions again after all the terrifying health challenges of recent years, the husband-wife Knierims celebrated with those kid-sized, single servings of chocolate milk. Tiny pop-in straw and everything.
Alexa Scimeca-Knierim could exhale at last.
Just earlier, she leaned forward nervously awaiting the score, hands clasped. She knew full well the previous pair had performed beautifully. Her own program with husband Chris featured a few minor mistakes.
It also had a beautiful quadruple twist high above the ice with a slight flaw, yet they also were the only ones to even attempt the high-difficulty element in Saturday's free skate.
In a calming and reassuring gesture, her husband reached his right arm around her and rested his chin on Alexa's left shoulder. Then came just what they had so strived for while fighting back from serious health challenges: a national championship.
"The feeling after when you know you've nailed your program and you just feel like so alive inside, and you just want to just like celebrate, because I knew all the mistakes we left on the table it was disappointing," Alexa said. "So when we skated over to get our marks, I was unsure how the rest of our elements would be scored, and would it hold up to keep us at the top when we lost so many points on the jumps. So I was concerned whether we would win or not in that moment.
"I came here really wanting to make the Olympic team obviously, but to say I didn't care if we were the champions or not would be a lie. It was very important to me to win again. And in that moment I was a little doubtful."
The couple captured a second title three years after their first at the U.S. Figure Skating championships, likely securing their Olympic berth for the Pyeongchang Games in South Korea.
"I'm in disbelief," the 26-year-old Alexa said, fighting back the tears. "I was not feeling confident we would come out on top."
Afterward and holding hands, they drank their separate cartons of chocolate milk at the news conference.
The Knierims led the short program two days earlier and followed with another strong showing in their long program, scoring 135.50 points Saturday and 206.60 total. That put them in prime position with the U.S. Figure Skating committee that will pick the top pair to represent the U.S. next month, looking to prove the Americans can make waves in the event despite constant scrutiny on the world stage.
"I don't think people are really going to change their mind until we get a medal again, unfortunately," Alexa said. "We're all going to focus on ourselves, and hopefully the world will change their opinion on us."
They opened by pulling off that quadruple twist high above the ice with a minor error, but missed on their side-by-side triple salchows. It didn't matter.
The pair's challenging comeback journey from injuries and Alexa's rare and debilitating life-threatening condition that required multiple abdominal surgeries has no question been a tough one. So to triumph in an Olympic year was particularly satisfying.
Chris, 30, called it a blessing and a miracle to be in this position after all his wife endured with her health.
"From where we've been, we're in a much better place as far as practices at competition and at home," Chris said. "Things are really starting to come together."
Now, they await official word to arrange for their tickets to Korea.
Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea came into the free skate in second place, but Kayne fell on a throw triple lutz. That error came after a strong start to their program that featured nice double axels side by side in a beautifully choreographed performance to "Swan Lake." They scored 131.87 for a total of 200.80.
"This program today is really special for both of us," Kayne said. "I love 'Swan Lake.' It's my favorite ballet."
Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Nathan Bartholomay, a 2014 Sochi Olympian with a different partner, were third.
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