The top figure skating pair teams in the world came together in PyeongChang on Tuesday night for the 2018 Olympic Games’ pairs short program.
Going into the event, all eyes were on Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, the sole U.S. pair team at the Olympics.
The two-time U.S. national champions had already picked up a bronze medal in the team event, for which they skated both the short and long programs. But for Tuesday’s short program, the couple — who began skating together in 2012 and married in June 2016 — was considered a bit of an underdog team. They’d only placed as high as seventh at world champions, and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments in Japan and the U.S.
The skate ended with China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong claiming the top spot with a score of 82.39, followed by OAR/Russia’s Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov’s 81.68, and Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford’s 76.82.
Although it wasn’t their strongest skate, scoring only a 65.55, the Knierim’s celebrated the opportunity to be on Olympic ice on Valentine’s Day —something they also celebrated on social media prior to their skate.
“We were soaking it in,” Alexa told NBC after their skate. “We promised we would be present every single second.
Chris also said he whispered “great job and Happy Valentine’s Day” to her after their short program.
Her response? “I told him the only thing that would top this is having a child on Valentine’s Day!”
The pair also have a dramatic personal story, with Alexa Scimeca Knierim overcoming a rare and potentially deadly gastrointestinal condition less than two years ago.
“This competition’s very meaningful for us,” Scimeca Knierim, 26, told PEOPLE earlier this week. “We’ve kind of been lacking the joy and lightheartedness of life for about two years now, from all the struggles we’ve been through, so being here together, Chris and I are kind of just enjoying it.”
She credits her faith for getting her through, and when asked whether such a competition feels like a celebration, having made it through the lows of Alexa’s health struggles, the couple is quick to reply yes. “One-hundred percent,” Chris, 30, told PEOPLE.
The event also featured the debut of North Korean skaters Ryom Tae-ok, 19, and Kim Ju-sik, 25.
But the ones to beat were Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, of Canada. Like most competitors on Tuesday, the pair had a sea of wins under their belt — including the 2015 and 2016 world champions, seven Canadian national championship titles, victories at the Autumn Classic and Skate Canada, and bronze medals at Skate America and the Grand Prix Final.
Most importantly, Duhamel (who made headlines for rescuing a dog headed to the South Korean meat trade) and Radford already struck gold in PyeongChang — winning the short and long programs for Canada in the team event and topping the competition in the free skate.
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Still, Duhamel and Radford had stiff competition coming their way. Mainly, there was Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, who won the Grand Prix Final in December, as well as gold in the U.S. and silver in Canada.
Savchenko is a seasoned Olympic pro, with two bronze medals from past pairings over her four previous Olympic games. Her pairing with Masson put her at the front of the pack this time around — though she and Masson chose to skate to last season’s short program Tuesday night, telling reporters it felt more comfortable to them.
Behind them were OAR/Russia’s pair Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong — the two teams who were also on the podium at December’s Grand Prix Final.
Tarasova and Morozov are two-time European Championships gold medalists and the reigning Russian national champions. Earlier at the Olympics, they earned a silver medal for their contribution to the team event’s short program. They also had history on their side, as Russian pairs have won gold in every Olympic Games from 1964 to 2006.
Wenjing and Cong perhaps had the most to prove on Tuesday, having missed the 2014 Sochi Olympics when they weren’t selected to the team. Since then, Sui underwent surgeries on both of her feet — operations that forced her to learn how to walk and skate again. She came back alongside Wenjing with a vengeance. They won gold at the 2017 Shanghai Trophy, took silver medals at the Grand Prix final, and have two Worlds silver medals on their trophy case. They are the reigning world champions.
And then there is France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, who competed in their second Olympics together. Though they nearly spoiled a Russian podium sweet at the European Championships (missing the bronze by 0.01 points), the duo had been fighting hard through their Olympic season. They scored a victory at the Autumn Classic, and nabbed silver and bronze in the Canada and France Grand Prix series.
But it’s been a tough journey in PyeongChang so far. James and Cipres failed to advance to the free skate earlier and finished sixth in the team event for France. At the Sochi Olympics, they placed tenth.
Now that a victor has been selected, the pairs will next take on the free skate competition, set for Wednesday.
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.