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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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MORE: Nathan Chen rallies, wins GP France, sets possible Yuzuru Hanyu matchup

Kyle Dake repeats as world wrestling champ; next challenge: Jordan Burroughs

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Kyle Dake recovered from an unspecified freak accident that required surgery, and not wrestling in a meet for eight months, to repeat as world champion at 79kg, a non-Olympic weight class, on Sunday.

The next six months will bring another challenge — beating Jordan Burroughs for an Olympic spot.

“Every year I have a goal of being the best guy in the world. Last year, I proved it. This year, I proved it,” Dake told Trackwrestling.com. “I’ve got my work cut out for me, coming up.”

Dake, a four-time NCAA champion at Cornell who considered quitting after finishing second at U.S. trials year after year, is now in his freestyle prime. He backed up going unscored on at worlds last year by beating his four opponents in Kazakhstan this week by a combined 27-4, capped by topping Azerbaijan’s Jabrayil Hasanov 4-2 in a final rematch.

Kid Dynamite is unquestionably one of the world’s best pound-for-pound wrestlers.

That was not the case four years ago. Then, an internationally inexperienced Dake moved out of the 74kg division, and up to 86kg for the Olympic year, to avoid facing Burroughs because Burroughs had a bye into the Olympic trials final as the reigning world champion. Dake ended up losing the 86kg trials final to J’den Cox, who on Saturday repeated as world champion himself.

The four-year difference would seem to favor Dake over Burroughs at April’s trials, where Dake has a bye into the semifinals and Burroughs into the final.

Burroughs, at 31 years old, is on the back end of his career. He just missed the finals of back-to-back world championships for the first time, though he came back for bronze medals. Burroughs has made every U.S. world or Olympic team at 74kg dating to 2011 and earned a medal every time, save his tearful Rio Olympic exit.

Dake, reluctant four years ago to detail his decision to move out of 74kg, determined before this week’s worlds that he would choose 74kg over 86kg (where Cox likely waits again).

“74 seems like a good spot for me,” Dake told Trackwrestling last month.

The number of weight classes drops from 10 at worlds to six at the Olympics, ensuring that at least two of these Americans will not make the Tokyo team:

Burroughs — 5x Olympic/world champion
Dake — 2x world champion
David Taylor — 2018 World champion (missed 2019 while injured)
Cox — 2x world champion
Kyle Snyder — 2x Olympic/world champion

Later Sunday, Snyder rallied from being upset in the 97kg semifinals on Saturday to snag a bronze medal with a 5-0 win over Georgian Elizbar Odikadze. A potential third straight world final between Snyder and Russian Abdulrashid Sadulayev was the most anticipated match of the championships, but Snyder was beaten one match early by Azerbaijan’s Sharif Sharifov.

Sadulayev, meanwhile, blanked Sharifov 4-0 to complete a 30-3 romp through his four matches to repeat as world champ.

“The hardest part about it I would say is just the fact that I didn’t get to wrestle Sadulayev again,” said Snyder, a Rio Olympic champion and a 2015 and 2017 World champion who shared bus and elevator rides with Sadulayev on Saturday and Sunday. “I felt prepared for him.”

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MORE: Jordan Burroughs: Time is running out

Israel is first nation to qualify for 2020 Olympic baseball tournament

Margo Sugarman
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Israel’s baseball team, which captivated at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, is headed to its first Olympics next summer.

Israel won a joint European-African tournament to become the first nation to qualify for baseball’s return to the Games after the sport was voted off the program after Beijing 2008.

It joins host nation Japan. Four more countries will qualify — two at the global Premier12 in November, another from the Americas and one more from a last-chance qualifier next year.

Israel, ranked 19th in the world, advanced via its best opportunity in Italy this week. It upset the highest-ranked European nations — the Netherlands (No. 8) and host Italy (No. 16) — and wrapped it up with an 11-1 win over South Africa on Sunday.

Its run came two years after Israel, then ranked 41st, beat South Korea, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands and Cuba before bowing out of the World Baseball Classic. And one week after Israel finished fourth at the European Championship.

Israel’s roster at this week’s Olympic qualifier lacked many of the MLB veterans that it had at the World Baseball Classic. Israeli citizenship was not required at the WBC.

Its most recognizable player is Danny Valencia, an infielder who played parts of nine MLB seasons from 2010-18. Joey Wagman, its starting pitcher for its first and last games this week, plies his trade for the independent-league Milwaukee Milkmen.

MLB players are unlikely to feature at the Tokyo Games, but minor leaguers are expected to be eligible as in the past.

The rest of the Olympic field is likely to be nations from North America (such as the U.S., Cuba, Mexico or Canada) or Asia (South Korea, Chinese Taipei) or Australia.

Baseball will not be on the 2024 Olympic program but could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

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MORE: USA Baseball taps longtime catcher to be Olympic qualifying manager