LONDON, Ontario (AP) — Alexa Scimeca and Christopher Knierim are in it for the long haul.
The U.S. runners-up finished ninth at the World Figure Skating Championships on Friday. Considering this was their first trip to worlds and they started skating together less than a year ago, that would seem to bode well for their future and the U.S .medals prospects in pairs.
The American pairs have been in a sorry state for the last decade, failing to produce any couple that could contend on the international stage. While it's true the Russians, Germans and Chinese have had a stranglehold on the top spots, staying power has been a bigger problem for the Americans.
Rather, the lack of it.
The U.S. has had several pairs who showed great promise, only to split up after a season or two. (Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, Brubaker and Mary Beth Marley, and Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett, just to name a few.) Contrast that with Olympic silver medalists and two-time world champions Pang Qing and Tong Jian, who were made their 15th appearance at the world championships this year. Or Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, who have been skating together since 2003.
"You need that longevity," said Dalilah Sappenfield, currently the premier pairs coach in the United States. "A big part of team's breaking up is they want quick success without the time behind it."
Few have had success quicker than Scimeca and Knierim. Only six months after teaming up, they won a lower-level international event. That earned them a trip to NHK Trophy, a Grand Prix event, and they finished fourth.
Though they were second at the U.S. championships, they originally were alternates for the world team. Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, the 2012 U.S. champions, were granted a bye onto the world team after he had hip surgery in December. But Denney and Coughlin withdrew, giving Scimeca and Knierim another opportunity for that all-important face time with the judges.
"We're very thankful and grateful we've had such a great run this season," Scimeca said. "It sets our resolve higher for next year."
Scimeca and Knierim, who are also a couple off the ice, have the daring athleticism that makes pairs skating so thrilling. She soared so high on their opening triple twist that he would have had time to bend down and relace his skates, and NBA players will be asking for tips on her hang time on the throw jumps — but they're equally polished at the soft side of the discipline.
Skating to "Life is Beautiful," fans could feel the connection between the two. That's always the goal of pairs, of course, but some couples can only fake it. When Scimeca laid her head on Knierim's shoulder during a lift, it looked natural, not something a choreographer or coach told her to do.
"They're just so connected," said Sappenfield, their coach.
Now the trick is making sure they stay that way.
Not to worry, Scimeca said.
"We're in it forever," she said. "And you can quote me on that."
ONE FOR THE TEAM: Some skaters could be pulling double duty next year with the team event making its Olympic debut in Sochi.
The 10 countries that qualify will compete one skater in a short program for each discipline, with the top five countries advancing to the free skate. The International Skating Union is hoping skaters will be excited about the additional opportunity to win an Olympic medal, particularly if they're not going to be contenders in their individual events.
"We're very excited for that team event," said Eric Radford, who won a bronze medal in pairs with Meagan Duhamel. "Canada is doing so well (at worlds) and it's really starting to look like we have the opportunity to win a gold medal."
But what about skaters who do have a shot at medals? Will they want to compete, knowing it could harm their chances? The team competition begins the day before the opening ceremony and lasts three days, meaning the pairs and men will have little break before their individual events. The ice dancers and women, meanwhile, will have a long lull before they compete again.
The same skater can do both the short and free programs in his or her discipline, but countries also will be able to make up to two substitutions across the entire team. That would seem to favor a country like the United States, which likely will send at least two skaters in each discipline. For example, the Americans could use their third dance team to do both portions of the competition. Or they could have Olympic silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White to do the short dance and use a different team for the free dance.
"Then you have to look at your strategy," said David Dore, 1st vice president of the ISU. "How important is that medal?"
Most skaters are still a little fuzzy on the details of the team event, and reaction has been mixed.
"It's new," said Maxim Trankov, who won the pairs title Friday with Tatiana Volosozhar. "All skaters will concentrate for their event, not the team trophy."
There is the potential for that extra medal, though.
"It's our Olympic Games in Russia," Trankov said. "If our team qualifies, for sure we will fight for the medal in this competition."
NO DELAYS: Even the International Skating Union has issues with a rule that allows skaters to take an injury timeout during their programs.
The rule has been the subject of much debate since Four Continents, when Olympic and world champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir used it after she developed leg cramps. Other than a 3-minute time limit, there are no rules or restrictions for the break. There's also no penalty in the performance break.
That's led some to question whether the rule could lead to abuses by skaters trying to catch their breaths or gather energy for a particularly difficult part of the program.
"The fact of the matter is, we just don't have the right rules in place," said David Dore, first vice president of the ISU.
"The skaters have done nothing wrong," Dore added. "Unfortunately, the system doesn't seem to have the right rules in place."
While the rule likely can't be changed until the ISU Congress in the summer of 2014, Dore said he expects modifications will be made before the Olympic season begins.
ICE CHIPS: Olympic preparation meetings in Sochi forced International Skating Union president Ottavio Cinquanta to miss the World Figure Skating Championships. The International Olympic Committee's coordination commission, along with Cinquanta and the leaders of the other six winter sports federations on the Olympic program, spent two days in Sochi earlier this week to review plans for next year's games. ... Dore said the ISU did not have a problem using a smaller venue for these world championships, even if the event is normally a hot ticket in the year before an Olympics. "What is more important is the fact that there are a number of activities in and around the event which involve skaters, the skating family and also the fans and the audience. It is a complete experience for everyone," Dore said. "If you have the venue empty, you don't have much to work with."