“He was really scared of me before. And I think he still doesn't want to get on my bad side.”
American figure skater Alexa Knierim cracks into a big smile as she talks about her new partner, Brandon Frazier, the two having known one another for eight years, but only having paired up in March of 2020.
In their nine months of training together – mostly amid the challenges of a global pandemic – the two have come to know each other better and better, which they hope will help them on the ice, too.
“I think in the beginning he only saw me in a competitive light and I only really saw him in a competitive light,” Knierim continued in a recent interview with Olympic Channel. “We actually did not know each other on a deeper level. But now I really know who the person Brandon is and what he stands for. I admire him. I think one of my favourite parts about taking on this partnership was just seeing a totally different side of Brandon that I was not expecting.”
It’s unexpected, too, for a top-level pairs team to come together less than two years before the coming Winter Olympic Games – in this case, Beijing 2022 – but Knierim and Frazier, both former U.S. champions, are different in that sense: At ages 29 and 28, respectively, they are veterans and are hungry for success in their new venture,
Knierim won a team bronze medal at PyeongChang 2018 with husband Chris.
“Skating with Alexa brings a different, unique fire to my own personal motivation every day that I get to skate along with her now and not against her,” Frazier said.
“Last year (at nationals) before we started warming up, we made eye contact. And there's just a competitiveness. It's healthy, but I always thrived off it. ... We both ended a huge journey with our past partners. So for us, it's it is kind of a blessing that we're able to still compete.” - Brandon Frazier to Olympic Channel
Following their international debut together at Skate America in October – where they won – Knierim and Frazier are set to compete this coming weekend at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, held (like Skate America) in Las Vegas, with no fans and strict social distancing measures.
Other top teams include their training partners Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, as well as former U.S. champs Ashley Cain Gribble and Timothy LeDuc as well as Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov.
The U.S. is allotted two pairs spots for the coming world championships, set – for now – for Stockholm in March. The U.S. Championships usually serves as a heavy factor for which teams will go to said worlds.
Beijing on the brain
While Knierim and Frazier have plenty of goals in the near future that are not Olympic-focused, they no doubt are aware that Beijing is just over a year away. Knierim, as noted, is looking for her second Olympic experience, while Frazier would be going for the first time.
“You just have to stay in the moment and take each day as it comes,” Knierim said. “It is such a big goal and dream of mine and ours together to go to the Beijing Olympics.”
She continued: “But we both know that the only way to get there is to get through today. And we've done such a great job of doing that because at the beginning of teaming up, we were training during the pandemic, and it was kind of a blessing because we had a lot of time behind the scenes without too many people peeking in or (us) being pushed out in front of an audience too soon to really utilize that time to find our timing.”
Knierim and Frazier have seen a silver lining in what has been a difficult time over the last few months, doubling down on their training without the distractions of travel, constant competitions and checkpoints that – while can be helpful to a new team – can also be challenging.
“With the goal to be going to Beijing... we just do our very best every single day. I know from experience, if we do that, things will work out the way they should.” - Alexa Knierim
Frazier is confident that Knierim’s experience of having already gone to the Games could have a positive impact on his skating, which, in turn, would only benefit the team.
“I'm happy that she's been there and has a little bit of experience like that,” he said. “You know, it is a dream, I think, of any athlete that is in an Olympic sport to go to the Olympics. So for me, it's something I have wanted since I started ice skating. ... it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning and gets through the tough days is that dream of skating on Olympic ice. Even though I haven't been to the Olympics, I don't try to just hope to have an Olympic appearance, I really want to be a competitor at the Olympics, not just another athlete there.”
A team atmosphere in training
Knierim had previously made the move to Southern California with her husband Chris to work with two-time Olympians Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, who were also overseeing the up-and-coming American team of Calalang/Johnson.
With Frazier now part of the SoCal family and maintaining a good friendship with Chris Knierim, Alexa and Brandon are building what they hope is the kind of atmosphere that can help them compete with some of the best pairs teams in the world, a discipline that the U.S. has not always been strong in in the past.
“When Chris retired and I was thinking of skating with Brandon and thinking about where to go, I wanted to stay here because I knew what a healthy environment it is,” Knierim said. “We do a great job of separating friendship from competitiveness. Our coaches, they write the plan and they keep everything individualized, individualized from one (team to) another. We feel like we're being taken care ... (and) it's such a healthy dynamic because you see them skate and it pushes you to do your program, run a little bit better.”
The duo has also engaged with weekly video sessions with renowned pairs coach Nina Mozer, the Russian who led Sochi 2014 champs Tatiana Volozhar and Maxim Trankov to Olympic gold. An interpreter helps with the language barrier in the sessions, which began in the summer of 2020.
“We run our programs, our sections, and we go back to the screen and we listen to her feedback,” Knierim explained. “It's been such a blessing because she's been able to watch us grow and develop from the summer. And I feel like it's really enhanced our skating because she can see when we do something odd or abnormal from the last time she saw us. ... [It’s] forced us to be on our game and adds a little bit of excitement to daily trading.”
Creating a new (fierce) dynamic
Knierim and Frazier continue to work hard on identifying what makes them unique and different, having for so long skated with different partners on the international scene. Their Skate America win helped with that, and they hope to show similar progress at U.S. nationals this coming weekend.
They also feel as though their strengthening partnership can help them shine on the ice, too.
“In our sport, it's important to me personally to be able to get along with the person I'm skating with,” Frazier shared. “I have really enjoyed getting to know Alexa as a person. It speaks to a lot of why she is so successful and good at what she does. But on top of all of it, I just like the person she is. At the end of the day, it makes me think about how I can do better personally when I get to see her and how she works and how she treats other people at the rink.”
“I think that Brandon was surprised at how well we get along,” Knierim offered, laughing. “I consider him like a best friend of mine. I have no problem spending time outside of the rink with him because we just have fun and we share the same sense of humor.”
They will be all business in Las Vegas, however.
“I think what we want to bring to the ice is this intensity of fierce competition that we're never going to back down,” Knierim said.
“I hope that when we skate, we can show that fire and rawness to just go as hard as we can... that we’ll never stop without a fight. That’s my favourite thing about skating with Brandon: He is probably at the same level of competitiveness as I am.”
“We have one live event under our belts... (so) my biggest thing I want us both to focus on is every time we go out and compete right now is try to progress on certain things from the previous event,” Frazier said. “There's still such a development phase we're in. But I think on top of everything, we are just trying to show our love and passion of the sport. Even though the fans are watching virtually. We want to create that feeling, even if it's through a camera, we want to show them. So when we go out and compete with our programs, we want to create that energy.”