GANGNEUNG, South Korea — American figure skaters Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and her husband, Chris Knierim, knew an Olympic medal was beyond their reach Thursday, when the pairs free skate was contested.
But they had a greater purpose in mind, their hearts heavy with the tragedy they had learned of hours earlier in the athletes’ warmup room at Gangneung Ice Arena, where they watched CNN broadcast details of the Florida school shooting that left 17 dead.
“I think I kind of put pressure on myself today because I wanted to honor those who were lost and skate really well for them and kind of have somewhat of a happy moment for our country,” said a grieving Scimeca-Knierim, 26, of Addison, Ill., emotionally drained after a grueling competition schedule. “Even though we’re here in PyeongChang, our hearts are with them. We may be living in a different world over here with the Olympic hype, but we’re hurting for them.”
The couple’s performance wasn’t what they had hoped. After opening with a lovely quad twist lift, one of the discipline’s more difficult maneuvers, the toll of the past week of competition became apparent. Knierim fell on a subsequent jump and put a hand down on another, and Scimeca-Knierim blamed herself for asking her husband to carry a greater part of their performance after she was up much of the night with an illness that stretched into the morning.
Their score (120.27 points) was well shy of their season’s best marks for the program, performed to music from “Ghost: The Musical.” Combined with their 14th-place finish in the short program the previous morning, they finished 15th.
Germany’s Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot emerged as the surprising gold medalists, vaulting from fourth after their short program to first with a brave, brilliantly executed free skate that earned their season’s best marks and drew cheers from the crowd, which included two-time Olympic champion Katarina Witt.
Massot wasn’t yet born when Witt, 52, earned her golds competing for East Germany in 1984 and 1988. He was overcome by emotion, eyes welling with tears, the moment the couple put the final flourish on the rigorous program. And he wept again when the gold was assured after the competition’s final pair, competing under the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) banner, imploded in what was intended to be a high energy, rollicking romp to a mash-up of Christina Aguilera and Elvis Presley.
In second after their short program, Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov were in ideal position to deliver the first gold medal of the Games for OAR. And a spirited group of Russian supporters cheered them on from a corner of the 12,000-seat arena’s upper deck, holding up large red cards that spelled out, one letter at a time, “Evgenia,” “Vladimir” and “Russia.” But the program went horribly awry on the third element, a throw triple Salchow, and the couple never seemed to regain their composure. Tarasova wept at the sight of their scores, which plunged them to fourth, out of the medals entirely.
Skating a dramatic program to Puccini, China’s Wenjing Sui and Cong Han took silver.
And Canada’s Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, who earlier in the Games had helped their country to gold in the team event, earned their second medals of the Olympics, a bronze.
Thursday’s competition included the North Korean pair of Ryom Tae Ok, 19, and Kim Ju Sik, 25, about whom little is known internationally. Out of medal contention after their 11th-place short program, they were urged on with spirited precision by the roughly 150 female members of the North Korean cheerleading squad.
Gangneung Ice Arena was surrounded by hundreds of uniformed police officers, alternately facing toward and away from the building, as the identically outfitted North Korean cheerleaders filed in roughly an hour before the competition in red warmup suits and red-and-white knit caps. Their efforts were warmly applauded after their first coordinated cheer, which was followed by a song as they waved small North Korean flags in unison.
And they applauded frequently as Ryom and Kim, in complementary black leotards adorned with sequins, performed to the French ballad “Je suis qu’une chanson.” They fell silent when the Americans competed.
Speaking through a translator after the performance, which placed them 13th, Kim thanked fans from both Koreas for their cheers. “We were happy to perform here,” Kim said. “It was very good for us.”
As the lone U.S. pair to qualify for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, the Knierims had been tapped to perform both their short program and free skate for team event. Siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani did comparable double duty in ice dance. And the points both couples earned were essential in clinching the United States’ second consecutive Olympic bronze in the team event.
“It was one of our lowest scores,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “Maybe I’m being too tough on myself, but I wanted to lift the spirits of those who are probably mourning right now. . . .
“You know, we’re so privileged and lucky to be doing what we’re doing, and it’s so sad that 17 people died in the United States. I told Chris today that the world is so much bigger than us. I’m disappointed in the way we performed today, but there are so many people hurting at home, getting the news that their children have died.”
Read more Post coverage of the PyeongChang Olympics: