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Behind the scenes at Grand Prix France: Day 3

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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 second day of competition.

 

Hairy rotations

Discovering Jason Brown’s new look makes one wonder: was he asked to cut it off to increase his rotational speed and enhance his quad abilities, as any mechanical engineer would suggest? “Not at all!” Brian Orser, his coach, answered in a big laugh.

The reason is purely aesthetics. When you make as big a change as he made, you need to make a statement: in your program, in your image, in your look. Then… Snap! But it was tough for him, because it was really his thing.” So far the change was worthwhile!

Jason’s France

Brown’s outings in France have always been big successes for him. The first time he came, back in 2013, he became an overnight sensation in Paris after an exhilarating free skate to “Riverdance,” which was to conquer the United States at the subsequent Nationals. This time he won the short program, some 5.55 points ahead of Alexander Samarin, and 9.47 points ahead of third place Nathan Chen.

“I want to compete and I’m so determined on quads. But it’s nice to be rewarded for what you’re doing,” Brown commented afterwards. “I admire these guys for pushing the sport the way they do, but I won’t give up the artistic side, and I’ll keep pushing them on that side as well.” Brown’s French revolution is on its way!

What is love?

Team USA’s Jason Brown, who brilliantly won the short program Friday afternoon in Grenoble, kindly explained why he elected to skate to “Love is a Bitch” this season.

“The story of this program started when I was taking time off after my season was over, last year. My sister sent it to me, like: ‘I just listened to this!’ It was like a joke, in fact, because there was ‘love’ in the title, and the two pieces of music I had used last season had ‘love’ in their title as well [‘The Scent of Love’ and ‘Inner Love’]. It ignited a kind of a fire within me. I thought it was a different variation of love, and a different way of connecting to a different side of me. It was … I wouldn’t say a revenge, as I am not chasing anyone for revenge, but it was like I’m hungry for more. I’m not over yet! And this program pushes me a little different.”

Japanese corner

Japanese fans are known for their generosity toward the skaters. It seems you could even measure the density of Japanese people in a crowd by the number of flowers and plush toys they send to one of their skaters (or someone they love, like Nathan Chen or Deniss Vasiljevs, their two heavy favorites in Grenoble).

Quite visibly, the short side of the rink, where the kiss and cry has been set, is a Japanese corner. When Marin Honda, Rika Kihira and Mai Mihara skated, the short side of the rink with was like a blooming tulip field in the Netherlands in spring time! With several colored plush toys among them. Well done, ladies, only Yevgenia Medvedeva managed to avoid a Japanese sweep of the intermediate podium!

Is this censorship?

Everybody knows how strong Guillaume Cizeron is on the ice. Friday’s post-event press conference proved he was also strong behind a microphone. While he was holding it, making again a strong comment about their performance, the articulated the arm of the microphone collapsed on the table. Ask Mai Mihara, Alexandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii, who also won their event and used the same microphone: they had to hold it to talk. Who wants the winners to fight with their microphone?

Skating pairs and pairs on skates

Russia’s Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlozkii had a different perspective over their first-place finish after the pairs’ short program Friday night.

“I feel myself not in my place, sitting with such great skaters at this table,” Kozlovskii offered at the post-event press conference, as his team was sitting between North Korea’s Tae Ok Ryom and Ju Sik Kim, to their right, and France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès, to their left.

It’s completely our place, I think!” Boikova added right after her partner’s comment… And the duo kept arguing together for a few seconds before they recomposed. A pair has to be a pair – and your partner will always be a mystery anyway…

For your (blue) eyes only

Boikova and Kozlovskii gave an interesting rendering of their short program, set to “Dark Eyes.”

“This program was set by Natalia Bestemianova and Igor Bobrin,” Boikova explained [Bestemianova won the Olympic gold medal with Andrei Bukin in 1988 and Igor Bobrin is the 1981 European gold medalist].

“Tamara (Moskvina, who coaches the team in St. Petersburg) asked them to come working with us. They made our last two short programs,” Kozlovskii added. “And guess what? Both Dmitrii and I have blue eyes, not dark ones!” Boikova said in a smile.

Make him quiet!

Russia’s Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov won the second place in their rhythm dance Friday night, after the brilliant silver medal they won at Skate Canada. Katsalapov, who won an Olympic bronze medal with Elena Ilinykh back in 2014, had to significantly change his style of skating after he joined forces with Sinitsina, some four years ago. This season the duo seems to have found its balance.

“Everything, every business takes time,” Katsalapov explained. “Time is the main thing. All coaches I’ve had have wanted me to be calmer, just like I skated tonight. But the truth is … I can be like a street dog. The one who calms me is Vika [Sinitsina’s nickname]. She is passionate, yet peaceful. That saves me lots of energy, which I give to her. I trust her, and I’m relaxed when I feel her with the music.”

Find your partner’s inner energy, align yours with it, and you’ll reach the top of the world!

Last official practice

Is there anything more thrilling than arriving in the early morning and hearing some skating music coming out of the rink? The men started early Saturday morning, followed by ice dancers and ladies. The last group of the ladies event was particularly impressive, with Russia’s Yevgenia Medvedeva, Japan’s Mai Mihira and Rika Kihira, and Team USA’s Bradie Tennell on the same ice sheet.

“Today I was not able to visualize the triple Axel well,” a disappointed Kihira had stated Friday night, after she missed her trademark jump in the short program. “So tomorrow at practice I’ll focus more and double-check on my triple Axel,” she promised. The audience in attendance was not disappointed, as she nailed her triple Axel – alone and in combination with a triple toe, even in her run-through!

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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2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

MORE: Takeaways from abbreviated 2019-20 winter sports season

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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