U.S. Olympic Skater Alexa Scimeca Knierim Opens Up About Relying on God During Serious Illness

While winning a medal would certainly be a dream come true for figure-skating couple Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, their victory has already been won, just by making it to the Winter Olympics this year.

The star American Christian athletes have won two National titles in their career and were selected as alternates in the Sochi Olympics. Coming in 7th place at the World Championships in 2015, the Knierims also raised the bar for U.S. skating duos overall, as that’s the top finish an American team has achieved since 2011.

But after overcoming a rare gastrointestinal disease that threatened both her life and her ability to ever skate again, Alexa now has a bigger goal than simply chasing gold.

“This competition’s very meaningful for us,” Alexa told PEOPLE. “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.”

In an interview last year, the Knierims opened up to PEOPLE about the debilitating gastrointestinal condition that surfaced in spring of 2016.

“In April of 2016 I started feeling very sick at a competition, it was the last one of the year, and issues continued to develop all the way through August of 2016 when I was finally diagnosed and had immediate surgery in my abdomen,” said Alexa. “I ended up having three surgeries and we had to withdraw from all of our events for the first half of the year. My life, our life, changed drastically in that time period—life was on hold and we weren’t really sure what life would be for the two of us.”

At 5’2,” she dropped to a dangerous 80 pounds.

“I lost all of my muscle, and my body mechanics when I started getting back into working out were like next to none,” she shared. “The very first time I stepped back on the ice after my surgeries, Chris had to hold me up because my body was not capable of standing on its own.”

But that didn’t stop this 26-year-old fighter fueled by faith from coming back stronger than ever.

“If you’ve never known down, you’ll never appreciate up,” she wrote in an Instagram post last year. “4 months ago, it was nearly impossible for me to ‘get up’ out of bed. 4 months ago, brushing my teeth was more challenging than any long program I’d ever performed. 4 months ago, when my body was at its weakest, my faith was at its strongest. When you’re faced with a challenge and you find yourself down–no matter how you might’ve gotten there–you have [sic] always have 2 choices: give up and lay there, or get up and fight for what you want.

“Eyes up. Rise up. GET UP!”

And with her supportive hubby and mighty God by her side, that’s exactly what Alexa did.

Though the couple only placed 4th in their free skate in South Korea on Sunday afternoon, they refuse to allow the let-down steal their joy. Following Thursday’s program where they landed a season’s best score, 4th place certainly wasn’t what they hoped for, but Alexa’s health battle has provided them with a bigger vision and greater gratitude for simply performing than ever before.

“Today wasn’t a brilliant skate by any means, but we’re just so happy to be here,” said Alexa. “We’ve already won by being able to step on the ice.”

Shortly after the free skate, Alexa and Chris opened up to reporters about the role their faith has played in strengthening them throughout this journey:

“It’s the reason I was able to get back on the ice because I stopped worrying and stopped trying to control life, because I couldn’t,” Alexa explained. “In the moment, you know, I was so sick and didn’t really know where things were going to go for me, whether it was skating or life in general. So I finally just threw my hands up and said like, ‘You lead the way,’ and it’s my testimony and I stay true to it.”

She shares that the games are no longer about her, but rather about shining God’s handiwork on the platform she’s been given:

“And even here at the Games, it’s no longer about me. I have fans out there who know that I am a true believer in the Lord and I’m trying my best to shine his light and let people know that it’s okay to promote him and do things for him, because in the Christian life that’s kind of what we’re supposed to.”

Chris wholeheartedly agreed with his wife’s grounded perspective, saying, “We both share the same thing. I think it’s played out in her a little stronger than me because of the situation she was put in.”

As discussed in James, Alexa beautifully exemplifies the blessing that trials bring to our lives by fortifying our faith:

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”–James 1:2-4

She views the Olympics as her platform to “glorify God,” adding that “I’m here living my dream, and if that’s the way that I have to go about it, I’ll keep doing it.”

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