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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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Amy Cragg to withdraw from U.S. Olympic marathon trials

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Defending champion Amy Cragg will miss the Feb. 29 U.S. Olympic marathon trials with an illness, according to her social media.

“The Trials are the reason I have shown up every day for the last four years, so this has been an extremely difficult decision,” was posted on her social media. Cragg later said she had Epstein-Barr virus, according to multiple reports.

Cragg, 36, was among the favorites to grab three Olympic spots at trials in Atlanta, despite not having competed over 26.2 miles since the February 2018 Tokyo Marathon.

She withdrew from the 2018 Chicago Marathon with a hamstring injury and also scratched a month before the 2019 Chicago Marathon, citing signs pointing to needing more time after the previous year’s injury.

Cragg, fourth at the 2012 Olympic trials, relegated Des Linden and Shalane Flanagan to second and third at the 2016 trials. Linden and Flanagan went on to win the Boston and New York City Marathons, respectively, ending long U.S. women’s victory droughts.

Cragg went on to finish ninth in Rio and earn a 2017 World bronze medal, the first world championships marathon podium finish for an American woman since the first worlds in 1983.

Cragg could still make the Tokyo Olympic team in the 10,000m if she races at track trials in June. She won the 2012 Olympic trials 10,000m but hasn’t raced the distance on the track since May 2017.

“Right now my only goal is to get healthy so that I can train at the level needed to be competitive,” Cragg said in an emailed message from her agent. “That being said, the reason I am still in this sport is because of the Olympic Trials and Olympics. It is what excites me more than anything, so it is something I would still love to do.”

With Cragg absent and Flanagan retired, Linden is the only woman in next week’s field with Olympic marathon experience.

Other favorites include Olympic 10,000m runner Molly Huddle, world championships 10,000m runner Emily Sisson and Jordan Hasay, the second-fastest U.S. female marathoner in history.

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Galen Rupp, after tumult, finds familiarity before Olympic marathon trials

Galen Rupp
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As Galen Rupp bids for a fourth Olympics, and perhaps become the first man or woman to win the Olympic marathon trials twice outright, he found some rare familiarity these days on the roads Feb. 8.

“Feeling like my old self again,” Rupp said Wednesday of winning a low-key half marathon in Mesa, Ariz., his first completed race in 16 months and since parting from now-banned, career-long coach Alberto Salazar. “It’s obviously been a long year and a half.”

Rupp clocked 61 minutes, 19 seconds on a downhill course. It’s faster than any half marathon by an American recorded by World Athletics since the start of 2019. Granted the downhill, but Rupp also said he was instructed by new coach Mike Smith to make it a controlled effort.

“He didn’t want me to run all-out, didn’t want me to really push and put myself in a big hole,” Rupp said, noting he was still in heavy training. “You don’t want to break that [training] up and put yourself in a deficit by having a massive effort.”

Mesa answered questions about Rupp’s readiness for the Olympic trials in Atlanta on Feb. 29 (NBC, 12-3 p.m. ET). Even to the two-time Olympic medalist himself. Rupp said he started the half marathon with a little bit of doubt — given recent left ankle and calf injuries — but felt early on that everything would be fine.

“It really put my mind at ease,” he said. “I’m going to be good for the marathon.”

His last two marathons did not go well.

At the 2018 Chicago Marathon, Rupp dropped from the leaders around mile 19 and finished fifth in a title defense. An Achilles injury flared up near the end. He underwent surgery later that month for two tears. Doctors said the ankle had been “a ticking time bomb.”

“They said I was really lucky to have as good of health as I had and manage it as I did,” Rupp said.

He went a full year before racing again, at the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 13, 12 days after Salazar’s ban was announced. Even that was a rushed comeback, Rupp said after dropping out around mile 23 with a calf injury.

“I’m not going to say it was a wake-up call,” Rupp said, “but I think I was a little bit stubborn before Chicago.”

Rupp said he ran through pain in training to get to the start line four months ago. He had trouble walking for several days after the abbreviated race and focused on physical therapy for about two months. He resumed normal, pain-free training in December.

By early January, Runner’s World reported that Oregon-based Rupp found a new Flagstaff-based coach in Smith, who leads a Northern Arizona University program that won the last three NCAA men’s cross-country titles.

“The biggest thing to me was Mike’s philosophy in coaching was very similar to the program that I was under for so many years,” said Rupp, who was for more than a decade part of the Nike Oregon Project, which was shut down last fall after Salazar’s ban for doping violations (which he appealed). Rupp wasn’t implicated by USADA and has a clean drug-testing record. “What I love most about it was Mike’s honesty and how forthright he was about everything. You could tell he wasn’t just saying what I wanted to hear or say, ‘We’re just going to do whatever you’ve been doing and try and replicate that.’ You’ve got to keep evolving and trying new things.”

Smith declined an interview request through NAU until after trials. He agreed to coach Rupp after about a month of communication and hard questions, according to Runner’s World.

“Because of its timing and the headlines I was reading like everyone else at the time, this was not a road I wanted to go down,” Smith said, according to the report. “To be honest, it was just easiest to turn it down. I’m actually — as crazy as this sounds — really proud I did not.

“What I found out by getting to know Galen was that there was much more going on than the picture portrayed of him, and I wish the world knew that. I have never seen someone more all-in in my life.”

Rupp, asked his toughest moment of the last two years, said he moves forward.

“Throughout any hardships and setbacks, I felt a lot of gratitude that I had as good of a run as I did with my health and everything going well for as long as I did,” he said. “It can be easy to get angry and get down, like why me, but I do believe that things always work out. There’s a reason behind all this stuff.”

Which brings Rupp to Atlanta next week for the first time in his life, aside from airport layovers. The race is unlike any other he has contested. The course is unusually hilly. The format — Americans only, top three make the Olympic team — makes for different tactics than the World Marathon Majors that Rupp is used to.

In 2016, Rupp entered as a favorite but without any marathon experience. He won convincingly, pulling away from now-retired Meb Keflezighi by 68 seconds.

The field is deeper this year. Seven Americans broke 2:11 in 2019. Only one did in 2015. But Rupp, at his best, is in his own class.

His personal best 2:06:07, from his last healthy marathon in 2018, is 1:49 faster than the second-fastest in the trials field in this Olympic cycle (Leonard Korir). The next-fastest, Scott Fauble, is more than three minutes behind by personal bests.

“I can confidently go in and say that I’ve put in the work for this, just like I know that I put in the work in 2016,” Rupp said. “Of course, you want to go in and have good races, feeling confident and being on a roll like I was several years ago. But I think that’s why that race in Mesa was so important to show, more to myself, that hey, you’re ready to go. You can still run well. You haven’t lost everything. Surgery didn’t wipe you out.”

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