Alexa Scimeca Knierim exudes grace in the rink, but it’s her off-the-ice battles that make her Olympic journey remarkable.
“Whatever is put in front of us, we can handle it, whether good or bad, we can take it on,” said the 26-year-old from Addison.
She skates pairs with her partner and husband, Chris Knierim. The two were married in Colorado in June 2016.
For the young couple, their vows of “in sickness and in health” were tested very early on in their marriage, according to Alexa’s mom Tina Scimeca.
“She was ill the morning of her wedding,” said Tina. “We thought it was the flu, and she wasn’t getting better. Then she started dropping weight.”
By fall of 2016, the mysterious illness prompted three abdominal surgeries and forced Alexa off the ice for months.
“It was horrifying,” said Tina. “I wanted to be there and just hold her and make it all go away.”
The couple said they took it “day-by-day” and slowly saw Alexa’s condition improve. They began training again, and now their sights are set on the sole pairs’ figure skating spot on Team USA ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“Hopefully, we are past (the illness) and heading into something terrific this year,” said Tina.
U.S. Figure Skating will not select the athletes who will represent Team USA at the Olympics until after this weekend’s national competition, but Alexa and Chris, the 2015 U.S. National Champions, have a good shot.
That realization overwhelmed Tina, a third grade teacher at Army Trail Elementary School, with emotion as she thought back on her daughter’s journey.
“There was something about Alexa on the ice that was so special that I felt that she was going to really be something someday,” said Tina.
Alexa learned to skate at the Addison Park District at age 7, Tina said. The youngest of three children, Alexa made a deal with her parents to keep up with her schoolwork if she wanted to continue skating.
“Every morning, she’d wake up her dad at five in the morning, and she’d get him out of bed to take her skating,” Tina said. “Then she would go again after school, do her homework and get ready for the next day, and she never complained.”
Tina said those early years were a struggle financially to support Alexa’s skating. The family got by, in part, by hand-making many of Alexa’s costumes.
“Around 8 years old, she would say, ‘Do you think I could go to the Olympics?’ and I’d say, ‘Absolutely, you can be anything you want,’” said Tina. “It’s what I tell my students, too. If they don’t feel that way, they’ll never achieve greatness and strive for it.”
By age 16 or 17, Tina said Alexa faced another obstacle -- a health scare that questioned whether she would be able to skate again.
“She was just dizzy all the time, and she would sway back and forth,” said Tina. “She couldn’t skate anymore because she couldn’t stand up on the skates.”
Tina said the episode devastated Alexa – “it’s not just a sport,” Tina explained. “It’s in her soul.”
Alexa eventually got better. Shortly after, she switched from singles to pairs skating, moving first to Connecticut, then to Colorado to train.
Alexa was paired up with Chris Knierim in April 2012. Tina remembers the chemistry was immediate.
“She actually texted me and said, ‘Mom, he’s really cute and he’s really nice,’” said Tina. “I could already tell she was getting butterflies in her tummy.”
Through all of Alexa’s trials and hardships, Tina said she’s found strength.
“She has found such a deeper faith,” said Tina. “She’s not afraid. She was fearless in the sport, but now she feels like she can conquer life.”