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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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Mark Spitz takes on Katie Ledecky’s challenge

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Swimmers around the world took on Katie Ledecky‘s milk-glass challenge since it became a social media sensation, including one of the few Americans with more Olympic gold medals.

Mark Spitz, who won seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games, took 10 strokes in an at-home pool while perfectly balancing a glass of what appeared to be water on his head.

“Would’ve been faster with the ‘stache, @markspitzusa, but I still give this 7 out of 7 gold medals,” Ledecky tweeted.

Spitz joined fellow Olympic champions Susie O’Neill of Australia and American Matt Grevers in posting similar videos to what Ledecky first shared Monday.

In Tokyo next year, Ledecky can pass Spitz’s career gold-medal count of nine if she wins all of her expected events — 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles and the 4x200m free relay.

Then she would trail one athlete from any country in any sport — Michael Phelps, the 23-time gold medalist who has yet to post video of swimming while balancing a glass on his head.

MORE: Spitz puts Michael Phelps’ career in perspective

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Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis eyeing Grand Slam record

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Serena Williams travels with “like 50 masks” and has been a little bit of a recluse since early March and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t have full lung capacity, so I’m not sure what would happen to me,” Williams said Saturday, two days before the start of the WTA’s Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., her first tournament since playing Fed Cup in early February. “I’m sure I’ll be OK, but I don’t want to find out.”

Williams, 38, has a history of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. She faced life-threatening complications following her Sept. 1, 2017, childbirth that confined her to a bed for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.

More recently, Williams enjoyed “every part” of the last six months at home in Florida, her longest time grounded since her teens.

“I’ve been a little neurotic, to an extent,” on health and safety, she said. “Everyone in the Serena bubble is really protected.”

Williams is entered to play next week in Lexington and at consecutive tournaments in New York City later this month — the Western & Southern Open and U.S. Open, the latter starting Aug. 31.

Williams is the highest-ranked player in the Lexington field at No. 9. Others include 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, older sister Venus Williams and 16-year-old Coco Gauff.

She has been bidding ever since having daughter Olympia to tie Margaret Court‘s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, albeit many of Court’s crowns came before the Open Era and, notably at the Australian Open, against small fields lacking the world’s best players. Williams reached the last two Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, losing all of them.

She showed her seriousness in committing early to this year’s U.S. Open by installing a court at home with the same surface. Three of the top 10 female singles players already said they will skip the U.S. Open due to travel and/or virus concerns, including No. 1 Ash Barty.

“Tennis is naturally a socially distanced sport, so it was kind of easy to go back and just walk on my side of the court and have my hitter walk on his side of the court,” Williams said.

The French Open starts two weeks after the U.S. Open ends. Williams was asked if she will fly to Europe for tournaments this autumn.

“I see myself doing it all, if it happens,” she said.

The Tokyo Olympics are too far away to make plans.

“We’ll have to kind of wait to see what happens in the fall,” she said. “One thing I have learned with this pandemic is don’t plan.”

MORE: Past U.S. Open champions get wild cards

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