American pairs teams make worlds debut

LONDON, Ontario -- Dizzying best describes the past year for U.S. pair Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, whose impressive unison spins helped them keep their equilibrium in the short program at the world figure skating championships Wednesday. They finished 12th out of 18 pairs in their worlds debut with a score of 55.73 points. Fellow Americans Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir are just behind them with 55.68 points.

Scimeca, 21, of Addison, Ill., and Knierim, 25, who grew up in San Diego, are an upstart team who began working together just 11 months ago, matched up by coach Dalilah Sappenfield at the Colorado Springs World Arena. The athletic partnership quickly blossomed into a romantic one, as well.

"I don't really recommend it, but they are [an off-ice couple]," Sappenfield told reporters, laughing. "They're adults, they're not little kids, so I have no problem with it ... what happens in the rink, they don't take it home. They're very good about that."

Their bond may have worked to their advantage in the intense environment of a world championships -- a trip that was far from a sure thing after their second-place finish at nationals in January. "I told them to stay focused and connected with each other, because they find comfort in each other," Sappenfield said.

Boston-based Castelli, 22, and Shnapir, 25 won in Omaha to secure a spot on the world team. 2012 U.S. champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, who are also part of Sappenfield's Colorado Springs group, did not compete at nationals as Coughlin was still recovering from hip surgery, but successfully petitioned to be named to the world team based on past results.

However, in mid-February, Denney and Coughlin elected not to go to worlds so Coughlin can "heal correctly," in Sappenfield's words, and focus on an Olympic bid in 2014.

Scimeca and Knierim said they trained all along as if they were sure things rather than first alternates. They've drilled spin technique, a previous weak link, in four sessions with specialty coach Janet Champion over the past few weeks.

"It's paying off really well," Scimeca said. "She's given us both different things that we've never really looked at before. We try really hard to match each other's fly and sit positions. We were both shocked by how different things were."

Scimeca said she has had to "train smart" because of a bone bruise and tendonitis in her right foot that forced the pair to withdraw from last month's Four Continents event, but the condition has largely cleared up in the past two weeks.

Castelli and Shnapir recovered well from Shnapir's fall on side-by-side triple Salchows when he launched her into a huge throw triple Salchow.

"It wasn't our best. I definitely think we can do better and we will do better," Castelli said of the program, also their first at a world championships.

Both stressed they're competing here for experience and trying not to dwell too much on placement. "We know it's worlds, but we do our best to ignore the signs," Shnapir said, gesturing toward the hard-to-miss championship logo-laden backdrop behind him.