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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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World champion wins doping case citing bodily fluids from boyfriend

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — A world champion canoeist won a doping case Monday after persuading a tribunal that her positive test was caused by bodily fluid contamination from her boyfriend.

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) ended its investigation into 11-time world champion Laurence Vincent Lapointe, who tested positive for a steroid-like substance in July. She faced a four-year ban and could have missed her event’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games.

The Canadian canoe sprint racer and her lawyer detailed in a news program that laboratory analysis of hair from her then-boyfriend showed he was likely responsible for a tiny presence of ligandrol in her doping sample.

“The ICF has accepted Ms. Vincent Lapointe’s evidence which supports that she was the victim of third-party contamination,” the governing body said in a statement, clearing her to return to competition.

The legal debate is similar to tennis player Richard Gasquet’s 2009 acquittal in the “cocaine kiss” case. The Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted Gasquet’s defense that kissing a woman who had taken cocaine in a Miami nightclub, after he had withdrawn injured from a tournament, caused his positive test.

The 27-year-old Vincent Lapointe was provisionally suspended for almost six months and missed the 2019 World Championships, which was a key qualifying event for the Tokyo Olympics. American 17-year-old Nevin Harrison won the 200m world title in her absence.

She can still qualify for the Olympic debut of women’s canoe sprint events with victory at a World Cup event in May in Germany.

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U.S. women’s soccer team begins Olympic qualifying, which should rest on one match

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The U.S. women’s soccer team has never been in danger in Olympic qualifying, but that doesn’t change this fact: It must win on Feb. 7 to reach the Tokyo Games.

The CONCACAF tournament begins Tuesday in Houston, where the world champion Americans face world No. 72 Haiti. The last two group games are against No. 68 Panama on Friday and No. 37 Costa Rica on Feb. 3. The top two nations from the group advance to Feb. 7 semifinals.

The U.S. roster, with 18 of its 20 players coming from the 2019 World Cup team, is here.

Since CONCACAF qualifies two nations to the Olympics, the semifinals are the deciding games.

Should the U.S. win its group, it would face the runner-up from the other group in a winner-goes-to-Tokyo match. The other group (world ranking):

Canada (8)
Mexico (37)
Jamaica (53)
St. Kitts and Nevis (127)

Chaos could result in the unlikely event that either the U.S. or Canada finishes second in its group, and the two North American powers play a semifinal.

The U.S. is undefeated in Olympic qualifying history, since the tournament format began in 2004 — 15-0 with a goal differential of 88-1 (not counting matches played once they’ve already clinched qualification). The lone goal allowed came in a group-stage match in 2008, when the U.S. was already assured a spot in the semifinals.

Still, the U.S. knows the feeling of one poor outing in an important match. In 2010, it lost to Mexico in a winner-to-the-World Cup match. The U.S. was forced to win a last-chance, home-and-home playoff against a UEFA team — Italy — for the last spot in the World Cup.

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