How Olympic Pairs Skater Alexa Scimeca Knierim Overcame an Illness That Reduced Her to 80 Lbs.

Married pairs skaters Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim are the sole pair to represent the United States in PyeongChang

Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim are partners on and off the ice.

When the pairs skaters take the ice in PyeongChang Thursday evening, they’ll be the first married pair to compete at the Olympics since fellow Americans Jenni Meno and Todd Sand went to Nagano in 1998. And this time, they are the sole set of American pairs skaters heading to South Korea — making them the United States’s only hope for a pairs figure skating medal in PyeongChang.

Throughout their partnership, they’ve won two National titles (in 2015 and again this year) and served as the Olympic alternates in Sochi. They also helped to raise the profile of U.S. pairs skating worldwide, coming in seventh place at the 2015 World Championships, the best finish for an American team since 2011.

You may recognize them by their signature move: A quad twist, where the man throws the woman into the air, parallel with the ice, she spins four times, and then he catches her.

And their off-ice romance only helps them on ice, Alexa tells PEOPLE in an interview conducted prior to the pair arriving in Pyeongchang.

“We just know everything about each other, and I think it helps in the day-to-day when we go to practice and when we compete,” she says. “We support each other and we kind of know what the other one needs in that moment, and I think that’s what pushes us forward to be the great team that we are.”

Alexa and Chris were first introduced by their coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, and started skating together in 2012. Within a month of meeting, they were dating. And then by 2014, they were engaged. That same year, they served as the second alternates in Sochi. Their profile continued to rise in 2015 when they won their first national championship.

2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships - Day 5
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But just a few months before their June 2016 wedding, everything changed.

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At the last competition of the 2015 to 2016 season, Alexa started vomiting for hours on end with no clear cause in sight. Even having spent the bulk of her life as an athlete, she had never suffered any serious injuries or been under the knife. This sort of health scare was unchartered territory for her.

Even after they tied the knot in 2016, the vomiting “episodes” — as they had begun to call them — continued, even the night before they wed. (Luckily, she was well for the ceremony, which was officiated by Sappenfield and attended by fellow Olympian skaters Ashley Wagner and Adam Rippon.)

It took several doctors visits and multiple trips to the emergency room to figure out what was going on. In the meantime, they were forced to withdraw from competition for the rest of the year. Alexa was eventually diagnosed with a rare, potentially fatal gastrointestinal condition. She underwent three surgeries and her weight whittled down to just 80 lbs. When she returned to the ice for the first time, she had to retrain her body.

“The moment I stepped back onto the ice after my surgeries, Chris had to hold me up,” she said. “I was not capable of standing on my own because of how weak and fragile my body was at that time.”

But before long, she was skating not just like normal again — perhaps even better. They made their comeback at the Four Continents Championships in 2017, where they placed seventh, and then at the World Championships, where they came in tenth, with one of the highest pairs scores in American history.

2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships - Day 4
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While many would resent such a massive challenge being thrown their way less than two years before their next chance at their Olympic dream, Alexa and Chris say that as difficult as it was, it made them a stronger team. Winning at this year’s National Championships, in particular, made Alexa feel that the pain and hard work were worth it.

“It was a hard year, but it made us grow in ways I don’t think we could have if we didn’t go through the traumatic experience that we did,” Alexa told PEOPLE.

Chris agrees: “After last year, everything that we went through, that helped strengthen our relationship together.”

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