SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It would be easy for Alexa Scimeca Knierim and her husband, Chris Knierim, to glide insouciantly through the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, knowing they had all but locked up the lone U.S. pairs spot on the 2018 Olympic team before taking the ice Thursday in San Jose.
After all, the Knierims are well aware of the huge advantage they have over their pairs compatriots in U.S. Figure Skating's selection criteria.
"We know where we stand," Chris said. "We're very confident in that aspect. (But) regardless of whether we're the leading team, and we're supposed to go, we need to skate well.
"We can't come here and have two bad skates, get third or fourth and still be named to the team, and be confident about that," he added. "You're going to an Olympics. You need to go in high, and you need to go in confident, and that is what we plan on hopefully doing this week."
They did that relatively well in Thursday's short program, when minor mistakes on two elements did not keep them from taking first place with 71.10 points.
The Knierims' errors -- on his landing of a triple salchow and her landing of a throw -- plus clean short programs by the next two teams in the standings kept the result close. Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea, the 2016 U.S. champions who were sidelined last season by her knee injury, were second at 68.93. Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Nathan Bartholomay placed third with 67.84 points.
The husband-and-wife team avoided a disastrous misstep when Alexa's skate caught Chris' pants as she was sliding between his legs before the entry into the difficult throw triple flip. What could easily have become a costly fall wound up doing no more damage than a small hole in his pant leg.
"We were lucky we had enough speed and confidence," she said.
It had taken a long time to regain that confidence after her 2016 abdominal surgeries kept them out of last season's U.S. championships and Grand Prix Series. They returned to competition at the 2017 Four Continents Championships and went on to compete at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships, where they recorded a personal-best short program score before finishing 10th overall in an incredibly deep pairs event.
"Before the surgery, I used to think being (considered) the best team is a little daunting because you have to prove yourself," Alexa said. "But Chris and I proved ourselves to ourselves by making our comeback last year.
"So, for some reason at this U.S. championships, I'm not even thinking about being the best team but being our best," she continued. "I get fulfillment from what we do well, not if we win, because there's a status."
So, they will go ahead with a high-risk element, the quad twist, in the free skate -- not because of the extra points it might bring but simply because they can. Few teams in the world are doing that element this season, and the last time the Knierims did one was at the 2016 worlds, during a 12th-place free skate.
"We want to highlight our strengths," she said. "That twist is ours, and it's something we're good at and known for. No team is perfect at everything, so you should highlight the things you are good at."
(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)