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US pairs skater Chris Knierim takes journey from California to Olympics

Mark Zeigler, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Olympics

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 began Thursday night EST, 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."

Love blooms

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."

Overcoming obstacles

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 left 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?"

(c)2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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