They had been together for such a short time, barely a season of true international competition when you factor in the year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and yet Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier had still accomplished so much.
So at the end of a whirlwind 2022 season, when they missed the national championships after Frazier contracted COVID but returned for breakthrough performances by an American pair at the Olympics and world championships, they are inevitably reached a career crossroads.
Should they settle for what they had already done in competition, finish in style by skating flawlessly to become the first American team to win the world title in pairs since 1979? Should they finish on that high that followed after winning an Olympic team medal and a sixth-place finish in the individual event at the 2022 Winter Games, the best result for American pairs at the Olympics since 2002?
Or should they keep competing to see what more they could do, both in terms of tangible results and the intangible quality that makes a pair more than two skaters together?
When Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 29, sat down in early July to discuss these questions, after two months with Stars on Ice in Japan and the United States, their skating tour would play a big part in the answers.
“It made sense for our schedule to move on,” Knierim said. “We had done everything we could in two years.
“Still, I felt like it might be sad or disappointing to end a really talented career together so soon. Being on tour had opened our eyes to how in sync and unity we were on the ice. so there was a bit of curiosity, a feeling of ‘What else are we capable of?’
They’ll start to find out when the Grand Prix Series opens this week at Skate America in the Boston suburb of Norwood. As reigning world champions, they are the marquee entry into their field, a rare position for an American couples team.
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Knierim’s curiosity about what that stature would look like was one of the reasons that made her prefer to continue.
“It’s to be able to start the season with the title of world champion and to see how that could give us confidence and balance when we take the ice,” she said.
Ironically, they had debated skipping the 2022 Worlds. They were exhausted by the tension that followed Frazier’s illness in early January, by the doping imbroglio involving the Russian single skater. Kamila Valieva which kept them from receiving the team event medals (silver or gold, the latter if Russia is disqualified), the long labor in a COVID-restricted Beijing environment in the three weeks between arriving in China and the individual pairs event at the end of the figure skating schedule.
“When we got back from Beijing, we struggled,” Frazier said.
“That post-Olympic feeling (disappointment) is real,” Knierim said. “But we started thinking, ‘Do we maybe want to have [a career] with only one world appearance?’ So we said to ourselves that we should make other worlds.
It made no difference, both said, that the five pairs that finished ahead of them at the Olympics, three Russians and two Chinese, would not go to the world championships, making Knierim and Frazier the top team in the field. The Russians were (and still are) banned by the International Skating Union due to their country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and the Chinese decided not to send any skaters for unspecified reasons.
These absences strangely increased the pressure on Knierim and Frazier.
“Does it help when there are literally fewer people on the pitch? Yes,” Knierim said. “But your stakes are higher.
“Everyone was like, ‘Oooh, there’s a big opportunity here,’ and then you’re like, ‘Well, shit, I don’t want to mess this up when everyone’s expecting it.
“Before, it was always ‘Americans are in the bottom half. It’s about everyone. All of a sudden you go to this event and everyone is like, ‘Well, this is you to take it.’ »
Anyone inclined to add an asterisk to their world title should first consider 1) only you can beat those who compete and 2) how well they skated to win.
Knierim and Frazier set personal bests in the short program and freestyle. They did two “clean” programs, which means there are no negative overall execution scores on any of the 18 technical elements.
How difficult is it to skate two clear pairs programs in a world championship? According to skatingscores.com, in the 22 World and Olympic events under the scoring system first used at these events in 2005, only 15 of the 66 medalists and eight of the champions had zero negative GOEs.
It was the first time Knierim and Frazier had been cleared in their 12 events overall since partnering in May 2020. Knierim hadn’t made it in 44 events with his former partner, husband Chris, even though they had won three US titles together before him. retired in February 2020.
When Knierim saw the double Olympian David Santee after the Olympics, he congratulated her on winning the world title “like you did, with two fantastic programs, being able to have your best skating with your greatest achievement”.
“People can say, ‘This one wasn’t there, that one wasn’t there,'” Knierim said. “That didn’t detract from the feeling of genuine gratification we did.”
They have the same feeling of being deprived of a team medal ceremony in Beijing because the results will not be official until the Valiyeva doping case is resolved, which could take several more months. She had helped Russia to the top score in the team event, with the United States second.
“Would it have been nice to have that Olympic moment on the podium that everyone dreams of at 10 years old? Of course,” Frazier said. “It’s disappointing not to have had that feeling. But that won’t change my pride, and I know that when the medal arrives, it will be a reminder of what we’ve done.
Knierim added: “They can never take away the camaraderie that we shared. Whether gold or silver, it will always shine. I’m at peace with that.
Knierim already has a bronze team (with her husband) from 2018. She also has four US titles (one with Frazier.) If they decide to continue until 2026, she would be favored to make a third Olympic team, including only two other U.S. women (Ina Kyoko and Jenni Meno) have done in pairs over the past 94 years.
“We take it one season at a time,” she said. “One thing we learned from last season is that you never know what’s going to happen.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.
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