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Column: Pairs skaters Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier share special bond on the ice

A female skater thrown by her male partner twirls in the air
U.S. figure skaters Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier perform in the pairs free program at the 2022 World Championships in Montpellier, France, in March.
(Francisco Seco / Associated Press)

Alexa Knierim had skated with her husband Chris as a pair for so long that no other touch felt like his. Theirs was a marriage of love and figure skating, a union that brought them three U.S. pairs titles and a bronze medal in the team event at the 2018 Olympics.

When bouts with depression led Chris to retire from competition in 2020, they decided she should continue — which meant she’d have to allow someone else to lift and twist and toss her in the air. The thought made her hesitate.

“Any time on the ice I would help another male pair skater and hold their hand it always felt weird, like it wasn’t the right fit. Like I was skating with somebody else, and it wasn’t Chris,” she said. “It was distracting.”

Then she met Brandon Frazier, an elite pairs skater whose previous partnership also had ended. They had a tryout at her training base, Great Park Ice in Irvine, just as the COVID-19 pandemic shut the world down in March 2020.

Not everything went perfectly. It was good, she said, the rink was closed to the public and fans couldn’t see some of their stumbles. As rough as it sometimes was, Knierim still sensed something extraordinary was possible. “It just felt from the moment that we first started skating it was going to work, and that feeling took over,” she said.

Their chemistry carried on through the Olympics in Beijing, where they contributed to a U.S. silver medal in the team event and ranked sixth in a deep pairs field. A month later in France, in a field that lacked the top five Olympic finishers, they won the world championship, the first American pair to prevail since Southern Californians Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner triumphed in 1979.

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The joy and celebration of past Games is missing in Beijing as the Winter Olympics head down a soulless path devoid of fun.

Knierim‘s and Frazier’s athleticism and elegance embody a peak for American pairs skating, which has trailed the rest of the world because U.S. pairs often don’t stay together long enough to develop strong unison or to perfect difficult skills that match the top Russian and Chinese pairs. Knierim and Frazier have defied logic and the odds in their short time together. The pandemic shutdown challenged them but made them more determined than they imagined they could be.

“That’s how I knew, as we were working together and building our foundation through that obstacle, I knew no matter where our journey takes us, we’re going to be strong enough and good enough to handle any obstacle, and that’s just what we did,” Frazier said.

The duo will get a rare chance to skate for family and friends when the Stars on Ice tour visits Honda Center in Anaheim on Saturday. They’ll perform two solo numbers and four group numbers with a stellar cast that includes Beijing Olympic gold medalist Nathan Chen — who also trains in Irvine — Beijing Olympic ice dance bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, 2018 U.S. Olympic team bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu of Arcadia and U.S. women’s champion Mariah Bell, another Irvine-based skater.

Stars on Ice hasn’t featured a pair in a long time, but Knierim and Frazer deserve marquee billing.

Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, of the United States, compete in the pairs short program.
Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier compete in the pairs short program at the Beijing Winter Olympics.
(Bernat Armangue / Associated Press)

“One of my favorite parts about figure skating is the performance side of things. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing while I was competing, and doing it in this type of setting is really fun,” Knierim said during a recent phone interview. “This is our first Stars on Ice tour, so we’re just taking every kind of experience and learning from it and it’s been a great time.”

Babilonia plans to be in Anaheim on Saturday too. She feels linked to Knierim and Frazier through a glittery thread spun by renowned coach John Nicks, now 93. He coached Babilonia and Gardner to their world title and later coached Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, who now coach Knierim and Frazier and other pairs.

“It’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s what it’s supposed to look like,’ ” Babilonia said. “That’s the kind of pair skating I love, when it becomes, as I say, two as one. And Alexa and Brandon have it. I call it the Nicks legacy.”

Meno, who won three U.S. pairs titles with Sand, was sure Knierim and Frazier would be compatible physically and technically before they tried out. The intangibles of the relationship were less predictable, but those clicked too.

Nathan Chen’s road to an Olympic figure skating gold medal goes through many stops, a notable failure, but in the end puts him in the history books.

“Personalitywise, they really complemented each other very well. And they were both equally motivated and worked equally hard from the beginning, and that’s not something you see all the time with pair teams,” Meno said. “From the moment they tried out they had a very shared idea of what their goals were and what their goals were each day. I’ve never really coached any two people that have worked harder each and every day that they came in to the rink.”

They had no time to waste. “They came in to the rink like it was the Olympic Games every day and they were trying to skate the best they could each and every session,” Sand said.

It ended up being a win-win-win situation for them as well as for Chris Knierim. Alexa said he’s doing well, coaching her and Frazier as well as other pairs. “We miss each other because we’ve been apart so much since February,” she said, “but we both know that this is part of the journey.”

After the Stars on Ice tour ends later this month, Knierim and Frazier will discuss whether they will aim for the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Olympics. It’s a long road with no guarantees, but there is the lure of becoming the first American pair to win Olympic gold.

“In less than two years we’ve seen what they’ve done, and with more and more time together they’ll be skating even more as one,” Meno said. “They’ll become more powerful, everything will just improve that much more. It’s incredible what they’ve done in less than two years, so I can’t even imagine how good they can be in another four.”

Recapping the news, results and highlights from The Times’ team of reporters who covered the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.

Babilonia, 62, said that if she were in their position she would stop competing. “If they don’t continue, I mean, look what they have to show. And if they do, I wish them the best of luck,” she said. “But we had a lot more options back then.

“It will be interesting to see where they take it and what decision they make. But right now, ride that wave. Work it, ride it, embrace it. I told them, ‘You guys embrace every second of this. You earned it.’ It’s amazing.”


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