Behind the scenes at Grand Prix France: Day 2

Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron
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Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Grenoble to cover Internationaux de France, the sixth and final Grand Prix event in the series before the Grand Prix Final. This is his behind-the-scenes look at the competition on the first day of competition.

The e-coach?

E-learning has been a strong trend in teaching and business – would it be expanding to skating coaching as well?

Team USA’s Nathan Chen has to cope with a dual challenge, starting this season: keeping winning and developing his sport as he has these last seasons, and carrying a load of studies at the prestigious Yale University he enrolled earlier this fall.

“I now train full time in New Haven (where Yale is located),” Chen explained. “I have no time to go back to L.A. (where his perennial coach, Rafael Arutunian, coaches). We just call one another regularly.”

“I do my best,” Arutunian explained. “I can’t stop Nathan to do his studies. But it’s not easy. Actually, when I was a younger coach, I didn’t believe in such a way of teaching, mainly because I didn’t know. But now I realize it is quite possible.

“It requires two things: one, that you are a very high level professional, so you understand what’s going on and what you’re talking about when you analyze your skater’s problem. And second, that you are very well organized on the other end. The skater explains the problem to his coach, and the coach gives his recommendation about what to do. And on the other end the skater needs to do it.

“In this system you have only one attempt each time: this is the problem, here is the recommendation, and then you have to do it.

“Being physically present together makes it much easier, of course. It gives you more potential attempts. I can put a hand on your shoulder to show you a move, and I can feel where and how you are precisely. We can even go talk over it at the coffee machine.

“I could easily coach via Skype. But if you want to solve or learn or understand something, Skype may not even be necessary. Telephone can do it. It may even be better, actually (he laughs): coaches have to give one recommendation, not 25!”

Better back

France’s Guillaume Cizeron, the three-time and current World gold medalist with Gabriella Papadakis, kindly gave an update about the injury in his back, which prevented the team from competing in NHK some two weeks ago.

“My back is doing much better now,” Cizeron stated Thursday night. “As the time was to head to NHK, I must say that it was already going better. It was a rather recurrent pain, and I had been treating it for a while already.

“But it was still hurting, so we decided not to risk a more serious injury. Also, the trip to Japan would have taken some 24 hours, that is, a very long time. But today I feel in great shape again.”

Paradakis and Cizeron practiced their new free dance Thursday afternoon in Grenoble, and made it clear that they were both in great shape.

To all of Javi’s fans

Many thought that Spain’s Javier Fernandez had left the competitive ranks after his brilliant Olympic campaign (Fernandez won the Olympic medal he was striving for – a bronze – in PyeongChang).

Brian Orser, his coach, who coaches Team USA Jason Brown and Russia’s Yevgenia Medvedeva in Grenoble, has a different opinion. “Right now, he’s doing shows in Spain,” Orser explained, “and I’ve not talked much with him lately. But he told me that he wanted to compete at the European Championships next year. He did compete at Japan Open earlier this season, and he did quite well, even without much of a training. The plan, as it is now, is that he should come back to Toronto after he is done with his shows. Then it will time for him to get ready for the Europeans!”

Fernandez has won a historical record of six continental crowns through his career, and he may be coveting a seventh title. The current record is held by Austria’s Karl Schaeffer, who won 8 titles between 1929 and 1936. Records can be the best friends of fans!

Hurting falls

The new rules still are a hot topic in Grenoble, as the skating community is trying to tame it. “Risk is not rewarded as much as it could be anymore,” France’s Maé-Bérénice Méité stated during the French team press conference, Thursday night. “You really need to promote reliability and creativity now if you want to get bonuses. A fall hurts even more than before,” she concluded.

For sure, a fall hurts! The room erupted in laughter. She did, too, when she realized what she had just said. Hopefully, Méité and her counterparts won’t get hurt in Grenoble.

Cheering stands

Dozens of Japanese fans have made the trip to Grenoble to support their skaters. “But not only,” a trio of Japanese ladies emphasizes: “We came to encourage Nathan Chen!”

Japanese spectators are very quiet in the stands. But the stands have been so lively Thursday night and Friday morning, during the official practice sessions: the schools of Grenoble are bringing full loads of classes to fill the stands. The children gasp each time they see a jump, a spin, a spectacular move or… Just a fall. Trust children: they love skating for a reason!

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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MORE: Behind the scenes at Internationaux de France, Day 1 | TV/Stream Schedule 

IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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