Just skating at the Winter Olympics this year, medal or no, is already a victory for pair figure skater Alexa Scimeca Knierim, she tells PEOPLE, less than two years after facing down a rare and potentially deadly gastrointestinal condition.
“This competition’s very meaningful for us,” says Knierim, who skates with husband Chris Knierim. “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.”
The couple competed Sunday afternoon in team figure skating, in Gangneung, South Korea, where they placed fourth in their free skate, the second of two routines in that event. It was somewhat of a let-down following a short program on Thursday that earned them a season’s best score, although the team still went on to earn a bronze medal.
Days later, the duo captured hearts when they competed in the short program for the pairs’ skate on Valentine’s Day — ending in a disappointing position — and are competing in the second part of their skate on Thursday morning (while viewers watch from home Wednesday evening).
Regardless, the Knierims say making it to the Games is its own reward.
“Today wasn’t a brilliant skate by any means, but we’re just so happy to be here,” Alexa, 26, told PEOPLE on Sunday, “We’ve already won by being able to step on the ice.”
Asked if 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, tells PEOPLE.
Speaking to reporters not long after their free skate on Sunday, Chris and Alexa also discussed the key role their Christian faith has played in their lives, from Alexa’s worsening condition, her diagnosis on through her recovery.
“It’s the reason I was able to get back on the ice,” Alexa said, “because I stopped worrying and stopped trying to control life, because I couldn’t. 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.”
“And even here at the Games, it’s no longer about me,” she continued. “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.”
For her, the Olympics is an opportunity to “glorify God, and my followers know that that’s my purpose and it makes me happy,” Alexa said. “I’m here living my dream, and if that’s the way that I have to go about it, I’ll keep doing it.”
Standing beside her, Chris agreed: “We both share the same thing,” he said of the place of religion in their lives. “I think it’s played out in her a little stronger than me because of the situation she was put in.”
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Alexa and Chris have a group prayer before each of their competitions, just after warming up off the ice, she said. They also meet regularly with other Christian athletes in Colorado.
“So it’s taken a big kind of role in my life and Chris’ and I truly believe that’s why we were able to get here,” she said.
The Knierims previously detailed Alexa’s health journey to PEOPLE in an interview last fall, explaining then how she became ill in the spring and summer of 2016, eventually being diagnosed two months after their June wedding that year.
“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,” Alexa told PEOPLE. “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.”
“I’m 5-foot-2 and I was about just over 80 lbs. before and after surgery,” Alexa said. “I lost all of my muscle, and my body mechanics when I started getting back into working out were like next to none … 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.”
And yet here they both are now, together, at their first Olympic Games.
“Coming here, you know, this is the cherry on top,” Chris said last week after competing in the pairs’ short program. “We’ve had a tough couple of years, and this is just something really special.”
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.