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North Korean pairs’ team takes next step after Olympic debut

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Apart from China, Asian countries still have to work their way up in pairs’ skating. North Korea progressed last season when Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik qualified outright for the Olympics in the fall. A missed entry deadline nearly derailed their plans, and their next major competition wasn’t until January’s Four Continents Championships.

Between competitions, much was written about the team and the six months they spent training in Montreal with renowned pairs coach Bruno Marcotte. They used Four Continents as an Olympic tune-up and won their country’s first ISU medal, a bronze.

In PyeongChang, they finished a creditable 13th place. A month later at worlds, 12th.

Ahead of Internationaux de France, they spent two weeks training with a local club in Villard de Lans.

“They absolutely don’t bear the image I would have expected from North Koreans,” Karine Arribert-Narce, a prominent ice dance coach in France, offered after the two weeks she spent with them. “They have developed a very strong artistic fiber. They were very interested in all the music pieces I had prepared for my own students. Each time they step on the ice, they start working right away and don’t speak one word. They radiate on the ice as they work.”

Ryom and Kim ultimately finished fourth in France. Their total score of 187.95 marked a personal best and puts them 12th in the world so far this season, though each of the Olympic medalists are not competing this fall, or retired.

Their team leader, Ri Chol-un, and coach, Kim Hyon-son, joined their NBCSports.com/figure-skating interview as interpreters from Korean to English. The team requested before the interview that it only dealt with his team’s skating.

Ri and Kim were prominent pair skaters in their own time in North Korea. “Back in 1992, our country organized international competitions,” Ri said. “I won medals in junior, but Ms. Kim was much better than I was. We never skated together. She participated in the first Asian Games in Sapporo. Then she went to university and graduated to become a coach.”

How satisfied are you about your performance in Grenoble?

Ri: Our athletes were not satisfied when they finished the competition in Grenoble. Their performance was not perfect, [Ryom did not launch her side-by-side double Axel], but they cried after their performance was over. These skaters love skating so much.

Did they enjoy skating in Grenoble?

Ri: Yes, they had pleasure skating there. Even though their performance in the free program was not so good, the audience cheered at them throughout.

How long do Ryom and Kim train every day?

Ri: They usually spend four hours a day on the ice, and two more hours off the ice. These days they skate two hours only, plus off-ice time. During competitions they have to control their body condition, so they reduce the amount of ice time.

Ju-sik, the way you accompany your partner as she comes back to the ice after a lift or a twist is smoother than most of your competitors. How do you work on this?

Kim: We work this way in practice, always. I hold her like if she were a flower bouquet. When I catch her or lift her, I feel responsible for her.

Ryom: I trust him a lot, too. That allows him to do that.

Kim: Our connection allows to do that. I have to be connected with her, always, even in practice. Coach’s requirement. All pairs have to be connected, right?

Are you married together?

Kim: No [smiling].

Another impressive feature of your skating is your unison, for example your side-by-side triple toe. How did you learn that?

Kim: First, we have to put our minds together. That’s the most important element. We practice many, many times.

Are there any specific technical elements you’re particularly working on?

Kim: After our first Grand Prix in Helsinki [they finished fifth], we worked on every single element and the overall performance in practice. We mostly focus on technical elements, especially the death spiral.

Your free program is set to a French song, “Je ne suis qu’une chanson” (or “I am only a song”), by Canadian singer Ginette Reno. How do you relate to it?

Kim: Our coach was very impressed by this song, and by the singer’s voice. There is a great passion and emotion in this song, and we can feel it. There is also a great passion and emotion in our skating. Our coach thought that it might be right for our personality.

What would you like to achieve in skating?

Ri: They would dream to be top skaters in the world. This year is the first year they participate in the Grand Prix Series. After the Olympic Games, the skaters and their coach hoped to skate in Grand Prix. Now, after two competitions, they have gained more experience with other skaters and coaches. This should allow them to improve and reach a new level toward that dream.

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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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.