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Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron look to new Olympic cycle

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GRENOBLE, France — France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron withdrew from NHK Trophy three weeks ago because of Cizeron’s back injury, but the ice dancers won Internationaux de France by 16.4 points. They won’t take part in the Grand Prix Final, since they participated in only one Grand Prix, but they kindly accepted to sit with NBCSports.com/figure-skating to explain where they were standing, as the first half of the season is now coming to an end.

Will missing the Grand Prix Final this year be a big change for you?

Cizeron: Oh yes! It’s not the way we had planned the start of our season. We started to work on our programs much later than usual, but we wanted to do the whole season anyhow, including the Grand Prix. But health had to come first. We will try to make the best of it, as it will allow us to work more.

Papadakis: Coming to Grenoble, we were eager to launch our season, after all we’ve seen in the first five Grand Prix. There are lots of interesting features in this season’s new programs, and watching them made us feel that we really wanted to go out there and do our own part!

Cizeron: Our first competition this season was like a “reset,” as it were opening the first page of a new adventure.

Papadakis: Four years ago, we didn’t start with an Olympic medal hope. Then we realized it was possible. Last season was nerve-wracking and exhausting. As we wanted to start for another quadrennial, we needed renewed strength, both physically and mentally. So, we have taken more vacation than we had in many years, we really needed to rest. If you want to spend four more years with the same level of energy, then you need to refuel it.

You seem to have changed many things this year.

Papadakis: I hope we’ve changed! (She laughs). We may not notice it ourselves, at least in a conscious way. But these last years, especially these last two, have brought us a lot of maturity and surely a different way of looking at things.

Cizeron: This year we’ve worked just as much as before, but we’ve changed our approach. We want to experiment and try new things, and we try not to put too much pressure on ourselves. The last two seasons were so intense.

Do you think it’s possible to create under pressure?

Papadakis: It’s true, that’s more difficult. Pressure is coming from the others, but it’s also the one you put yourself on your shoulders. Pressure is helpful, though, as it makes you go faster.

Cizeron: Fortunately, we feel the pressure as competitions are approaching, or when we are being filmed. But the rest of the time we are more relaxed – and more patient, too!

Papadakis: Our approach now is not to deal with what we’re going to do next: it’s about what we are doing now, what we are currently creating. It’s the fact that we are creating something. Then you don’t think of anything else.

Cizeron: I would say that we are less and less stressed or, rather, that our stress is quite different now. The choices we make now are more deliberate than they were.

We try to enrich ourselves by developing new collaborations, as well as our physical and artistic capacities, at their best. We have the same energy to create, develop, learn, engage ourselves into different directions. We are meeting new people. That motivates us and helps us discovering beautiful new things. That’s how we will make our sport evolve.

Papadakis: Otherwise we would be completely expired! (She laughs) We also ask ourselves why we’re doing this. We sure want to win the medals, but the medals would not be enough. What makes us vibrate? What kind of skating do we want, what kind of performance, what kind of choreography? We also want to fully enjoy the journey.

Do you mean that you wouldn’t start all over if it were only to win an Olympic gold medal?

Papadakis: Of course not! We’ll fight for the Olympic gold medal for sure, and winning one would be super. But the hope of winning alone wouldn’t make it worthwhile to start all over.

Your rhythm dance was quite special; usually tango can be quite stiff and formal. Yours is completely fluid. How do you make passion so fluid?

Papadakis: Thank you, that’s a compliment for us. Fluid is the way we like to skate. We enjoy choreography when it allows to glide free and keep that freedom into our programs. This is the reason why we chose these pieces. They inspired us for this reason. Tango speaks for itself, it is a universal language. It calls for passion.

We have our own way to skate, for sure, and we’re not going to leave it. We like to take a lot of speed and then skate slower. That gives us the feeling that we fly. It’s much more agreeable for us to skate this way, so we’re always trying to keep that same feeling.

Cizeron: We created this program with Christopher Dean (1984 Olympic Gold and 1994 Bronze medalist with Jayne Torvill), and it was very fun and productive as always, as he always comes up with creative ideas.

Your free dance is quite different from the ones you’ve performed these last years. How do you maintain the balance between changing and staying yourselves?

Cizeron: That’s always difficult. On the one hand, there is what people are expecting from us. On the other hand, there is what we would like. This is always a matter of compromising in both directions, in order to find something which is going to both please people and inspire us at the same time. We try to show other aspects of skating, of choreography, of energy: but we can’t do things that wouldn’t look like us. I think we have met the challenge this year.

That’s why also we’ve changed our choreographic process. We’ve worked with Stéphane Lambiel last July (the 2005 and 2006 World gold medalist from Switzerland has become a respected coach and choreographer, as well as a coveted performer throughout the world), and he has provided us with lots of new material. It’s been very inspiring. Marie-France Dubreuil, who coaches us (alongside with Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer), has put all the pieces we had created with Stéphane together.

By working with different people, you get a new wealth of creation and innovation. There are many surprises in this program, elements we had never done before. We’ve also changed significantly the style of our music. The piano had become our trademark: now the base of our free dance is the guitar, and that modifies significantly the energy within our bodies. We’ve tried to deliver it as best as we could, but it’s only the premises of what it will become through the season.

And yet, that doesn’t change our personality.

Papadakis: This year’s program is more down-to-earth. It tells a story with two precise people, an encounter between two individuals who are destined to live something together, possibly two lovers. They evolve across one another, rather than looking after the same ideal together. That’s also new for us.

Cizeron: We even have lyrics in our music this time!

You sometimes give the feeling that your approach is an intellectual one. Is this something deliberate?

Cizeron: In fact, we don’t have an intellectual approach. Our approach is more physical and deeply felt. If we do intellectualize our skating, it’s because we will have analyzed what we’ve been doing in just intuitive a way. Our skating is always something deliberate, with a clear intention. But a lot comes from the feelings and the impressions we get. We just try to make programs that move people.

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: Yevgenia Medvedeva misses Grand Prix Final

Hirscher leads by 0.56 seconds after first run in World Champs slalom

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Marcel Hirscher swept into the finish area and wagged his finger triumphantly in front of the camera.

The message was clear: The ski king is back.

The Austrian produced an emphatic response to relinquishing his giant slalom title two days earlier at the world championships by taking a 0.56-second lead after the first run of the slalom on Sunday.

Only Alexis Pinturault of France was within a second of Hirscher, who was on course to win a record-tying seventh career gold medal at the worlds.

Marco Schwarz of Austria was in third place, 1.22 seconds off the lead.

Hirscher, the seven-time overall World Cup champion, showed no ill-effects from the cold that has been affecting him this week. After the giant slalom on Friday, he said he would be going straight back to bed to rest up for the slalom.

He looked in good working order on Sunday.

As the third skier on the course, Hirscher took 1.70 seconds off No. 2 starter Henrik Kristoffersen, who beat Hirscher to GS gold on Friday, and more than two seconds off Clement Noel, who came to the worlds in form after wins in Wengen and Kitzbuehel.

Save for Hirscher crashing, only Pinturault looks capable to denying the Austrian a third slalom gold at the worlds — something only the great Ingemar Stenmark has achieved. Pinturault was only 0.06 seconds behind Hirscher at the third checkpoint but he went wide at the first turn on the final descent and lost half a second.

“I’m still in the fight,” Pinturault said, “and still have a chance in the second leg. That’s the essential (thing).”

Daniel Yule of Switzerland was 0.28 behind Hirscher at the last split before falling at the start to the final descent.

Hirscher also won the slalom at the 2013 and 2017 worlds. A seventh career gold at the worlds would tie the men’s record held by compatriot Toni Sailer from the late 1950s.

Austria, a storied Alpine skiing nation, needs Hirscher to deliver in the final event to avoid finishing the world championships without a gold medal for the first time since Crans Montana, Switzerland, in 1987. The women’s team has already finished with no medals and that hasn’t happened since Schladming, Austria, in 1982.

Watch an encore presentation of the first run on NBCSN at 7:00 a.m. ET. The second and deciding run can be seen live starting at 8:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold.

Mikaela Shiffrin proving she’s in league of her own

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There are ski racers, and then there is Mikaela Shiffrin.

NBC Sports essayist Tim Layden calls Shiffrin the “rarest creature,” a prodigy who continues to get better with age.

Shiffrin’s stardom took off with her heart-stopping slalom gold medal in the 2014 Olympics. It looked like she would ascend to an even higher level four years later in PyeongChang when she claimed a gold medal in the giant slalom, but then she lost a battle with her nerves and failed to win a medal in the slalom. She did capture a silver in the combined event.

That Olympic disappointment has fueled her historic World Cup season. She became the youngest skier to pass the 50 win mark. She broke the women’s career record for slalom victories, and she became the first skier ever to win four-straight world championship titles in a single event.

A true prodigy indeed.