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Behind the scenes at Grand Prix France: Day 4

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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 day after the competition.

Chen has much more in store

Don’t try to follow the planned program content of Nathan Chen’s skates. He often changes them at the last minute.

“I know the rules and how to coordinate the jumps, in regards to combos and not repeating quads,” Chen explained after his victorious free skate in Grenoble. “I have a basic layout ready for the program, but also Plan B variations. Before a program I have a layout ready, but that also may change!”

In Grenoble, Chen had planned a quad Salchow followed by a quad Lutz, and he delivered a quad flip and a quad toe to open his program.

“We made the decision yesterday, before practice. I’m not yet at the level I should be. Skating a clean program is very important nowadays. Also, I need to be realistic with myself. I skated the maximum I could pull as now,” Chen added. And yet, watching Chen skate, one could feel that his program still had a lot of potential.

“Yes, the goal is to keep on improving and adding things. It’s a big confidence boost to know I can!” Chen concluded.

Watch the board!

It happened right during Team USA’s Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov’s free program Saturday night: the plastic tile of a sponsor fell off from the board onto the ice. In a split second, while Lu and Mitrofanov were skating to the other side of the rink, a staff member jumped over the board onto the ice and threw the tile over. He jumped back again before they were back, thus avoiding a potentially dangerous fall by the skaters, especially since the tile was ice-white and would have been difficult to see. However impressive the guy’s jumps were, the points he amassed there couldn’t be found in the team’s results!

Heading to Nationals

A journalist asked the three best pairs in Grenoble to comment about how they planned to prepare the big national championships awaiting them. Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea talked about the work they were planning to in their Colorado training base and subsequently gave the microphone to Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès.

“No,” Ciprès replied jokingly: “I won’t say anything, because the question is about ‘big championships.’ We don’t have a big championship here!” The room erupted in laughter. No other internationally competitive pair exists at the moment in France.

Fortunately, Russia’s Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii had a lot more to say about the level of Russian Nationals!

Applause-o-meter

If the placement of a skater were correlated to the loudness of the applause he or she received, then Yevgenia Medvedeva would have come first in all categories in Grenoble. The audience cheered at her as soon as she stepped on the ice, be it for practice or competition. She didn’t make it to the podium this time, but watching the protocols makes you wonder: maybe the volume of support she got could be correlated to her components? She received the best of the field for her free program Saturday. At any rate, and however strongly the social media in Russia may be bashing her, she can count on a solid – and unique – crop of fans around the world!

Rika and her big bag

When she arrived at the post-event press conference after her impressive victory, Rika Kihira was carrying a huge bag full of the gifts she had received on the ice, plush toys, cards and flowers all mixed up at once. The bag was so big, that it was almost hiding her, and she could certainly have been put in it as well. Watching her, all smiles out, you could really tell how petite and young she is. Yet a big champion already!

Food is over!

“No food?” was Medvedeva’s first reaction when she discovered that the Skating Lounge, where skaters and coaches could nurture themselves after a practice or a competition segment, had been destroyed and chairs had already been piled up. Medvedeva was one of the first ones to reach the site Sunday morning, but most skaters and officials had the same reaction afterwards: “It’s a pity, the food was so good!” an official said. “We have managed to save some water,” an ISU staff member suggested with a smile – to make the ice maybe?

This column is way too harsh on the French organization, however, as the Club of Grenoble did a wonderful job for all of us here. Grenoble is regaining its status as a skating capital of the world it was, half a century ago!

Improbable encounter

Lady Jayne Torvill graced the rink with her presence. The 1984 Olympic gold medalist (with Christopher Dean) was invited to the French Team Supporting Club party. There, she was found discussing with an elderly gentleman, saying how much he remembered her team’s world famous “Bolero”, that night of February 14, 1984. This gentleman happened to be Guillaume Cizeron’s grandfather. He explained to her how he taught Guillaume to do tumbling when he was younger. You have to listen to Grandpa’s memories to come to know your heroes better!

Just like school children!

Preparing the final gala is always a feat – if not a feast. Yohann Deslot, who coaches in Grenoble, rehearsed the group numbers with the best ranked skaters of the competition Sunday morning. Needless to say, they were not the best-disciplined class one would dream of. Deslot was trying to give his instructions, but the skaters had other plans.

Kevin Aymoz, the French men’s hope, was playing on the ice like a fish in the water. Canada’s Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier were certainly the most exuberant of all, cheering and pulling their fellow skaters. Maria Sotskova, Yevgenia Medvedeva and Stanislava Konstantinova, the three Russians, were dancing as if they were in a nightclub. Morgan Ciprès lifted Vanessa James into a pair spin – just for the fun of it. Guillaume Cizeron looked like a 1970s New York gangster with his trendy cap above his beard. Nathan Chen skated with his Yale student’s classy glasses. Fortunately, the final number could drive from their talent!

Bye Grenoble!

The six legs of the Grand Prix season are now over. The next stage, for the happy few, will take place in beautiful Vancouver. Thank you, skaters and coaches and team members to have given us such a thrill in Grenoble. Thank you all for having followed us. It’s been a privilege for us to give you some of the powerful vitamins only skating can give.

Stay tuned though: there is much more awaiting you in the following week… And the week after!

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 to capture Grand Prix France title 

World Cup Alpine season opener gets green light

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After checking the snow on the Rettenbach glacier in Soelden, Austria, FIS officials announced Thursday that the traditional World Cup season opener is set to go ahead as planned Oct. 26-27 with men’s and women’s giant slalom races.

Current conditions at Soelden show a solid 30 inches of snow at the summit. The race finishes at an altitude of 2,670 meters (8,760 feet), far above the currently snowless village.

The first races of the season are never guaranteed to have enough snow, though last year’s men’s race at Soelden had the opposite problem, being canceled when a storm blew through with heavy snowfall and high winds. 

France’s Tessa Worley won the women’s race last year ahead of Italy’s Frederica Brignone and U.S. skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who would go on to dominate the rest of the World Cup season.

The Soelden weekend is followed by three dormant weeks until the season resumes Nov. 23-24 in Levi, Finland. The World Cup circuits then switch to North America. The men will run speed events Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Lake Louise, Alberta, then head to Beaver Creek, Colo., for more speed events and a giant slalom Dec. 6-8. The women run slalom and giant slalom Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Killington, Vt., and head to Lake Louise the next weekend.

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Olympic marathon and race walk move from Tokyo to Sapporo draws some pushback

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In the wake of a dropout-plagued set of world championship endurance races in Qatar, moving the 2020 Olympic marathons and race walks from Tokyo to the cooler venue of Sapporo is a quick fix for one problem, pending the potential for untimely heat waves.

But the move has drawn some opposition for a variety of reasons.

First, many organizers and politicians appear to have been caught by surprise. Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, was “taken aback” and Sapporo’s mayor, Katsuhiro Akimoto, learned about the move from the media, Kyodo News reported. Koike even sarcastically suggested that the races could move all the way northward to islands disputed by Russia and Japan.

South African sports scientist Ross Tucker suggested that running in heat and humidity poses an interesting challenge for athletes, some of whom may be able to catch up with faster runners by preparing for the conditions.

British marathoner Mara Yamauchi made a similar point, saying the move was unfair to those who already were preparing for the heat, humidity and other conditions.

Belgian marathoner Koen Naert said he will make the best of the change but complained that some of his preparation and every runner’s logistical planning would no longer apply.

The angriest athlete may be Canadian walker Evan Dunfee, who placed fourth in the 2016 Olympic 50km race and nearly claimed bronze as a Canadian appeal was upheld but then rejected. He says runners and walkers can beat the conditions if they prepare, which many athletes did not do for the world championships in Qatar.

“So why do we cater to the ill prepared?” Dunfee asked on Twitter.

The move also takes athletes out of the main Olympic city and takes away the traditional, tough less frequent in modern years, finish in the Olympic stadium.

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