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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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Tokyo Paralympic triathlon test event cancels swim due to water bacteria

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TOKYO (AP) — High levels of bacteria forced the swimming portion of a triathlon test event for the Tokyo Paralympics to be canceled Saturday.

It’s the second setback in the triathlon for organizers of next year’s Olympics and Paralympics. An Olympic triathlon running event was shortened from 10km to 5km on Thursday because of what the International Triathlon Union (ITU) called “extreme levels” of heat.

Tokyo’s hot and humid summers are a major worry for Olympic organizers. The water issues are a reminder of the Rio Games, when high bacteria and virus levels were found in waters for sailing, rowing and open-water swimming.

In a statement, the ITU said E-coli levels were “more than two times over the ITU limits.” It said the water was at Level 4, the highest risk level.

E-coli bacteria, which normally live in the intestines of animals and people, can produce intestinal pain, diarrhea and a fever.

The venue in Tokyo Bay, called Odaiba, has been a concern for organizers, who have experimented with different measures to clean the water in the area, located in an urban part of central Tokyo.

The ITU is scheduled to hold it final test event on Sunday “depending on the latest water quality tests”, it said in a statement.

A few days ago the ITU described water quality conditions at the venue as “very good.” However, swimmers at a recent distance swimming event at the same venue complained of foul-smelling water.

The water temperature at the venue on Saturday was 84 degrees Fahrenheit, with the air temperature hovering above 90.

Tokyo spokesman Masa Takaya said “we are set to conduct a comprehensive review with the international federation.”

He said a triple-layer underwater screen will be installed for next year’s Olympics, replacing a single-layer.

“Based on the results of multiple research in the past, we believe that the multiple layer screen will assure the successful delivery of the competitions,” he said.

Filthy water plagued the Rio Olympics. The South American city lacks a functioning sanitation system for much of its population. Open water there tested high for bacteria and viruses, which confronted athletes in rowing, sailing and triathlon.

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MORE: Double DQ caps bizarre Tokyo Olympic triathlon test event

Women’s hurdlers take center stage as Diamond League hits crunch time; how to watch

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A showdown between world record holder Kendra Harrison (U.S.), reigning Olympic champion Brianna McNeal (U.S.) and 2019 world leader Danielle Williams (Jamaica) in the women’s 100-meter hurdles is the marquee event of the Diamond League meet Sunday in Birmingham, England.

With the track and field world championships not starting this year until Sept. 28, the Diamond League gets an uninterrupted run to its season finales Aug. 29 in Zurich and Sept. 6 in Brussels. The 32 Diamond League events are split between the two finales, with a $50,000 prize awaiting the winner of each final.

The last two meets before those finales — Sunday’s meet and the Aug. 24 meet in Paris — are all about qualifying for a shot at those final jackpots.

Birmingham will be the last chance to win points in the men’s 400m, women’s long jump, women’s 1,500m/mile, men’s javelin, women’s 100m hurdles, men’s 100m and women’s 200m. It’s the second-to-last chance in the women’s discus, women’s pole vault, men’s 400m hurdles, men’s high jump, women’s 3000m steeplechase and women’s 800m.

NBC Sports Gold streams live and commercial-free on Sunday, starting with field events at 7:15 a.m. Eastern and track events kicking off at 9 a.m. Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA airs coverage Monday at 4 p.m.

The women’s 100m hurdles also features two Americans who need points to reach the final — Nia Ali and Queen Claye.

Other American athletes aiming to improve solid chances of qualifying include Raevyn Rogers (women’s 800m), Jenn Suhr (women’s pole vault), Mike Rodgers (men’s 100m), Valarie Allman (women’s discus), Michael Cherry (men’s 400m), Kahmari Montgomery (men’s 400m), Vernon Norwood (men’s 400m), David Kendziera (men’s 400m hurdles), Jeron Robinson (men’s high jump) and Courtney Frerichs (women’s 3,000m steeplechase)

Americans who have already qualified in these events include Ajee Wilson (women’s 800m) and Brittney Reese (women’s long jump), both of whom will be competing in Birmingham,

U.S. qualifiers Jenna Prandini (women’s 200m), Emma Coburn (women’s 3,000m steeplechase) and Sandi Morris (women’s pole vault) will not be in Birmingham. Christian Coleman (100m) withdrew from the meet on Friday, spoiling a showdown with Canada’s Andre De Graase and leaving the potential qualification of Jamaica’s Yohan Blake as the most interesting question.

Americans who may qualify in absentia, pending other results, include Justin Gatlin (100m), Noah Lyles (100m), Jenny Simpson (1,500m), Rai Benjamin (400m hurdles), TJ Holmes (400m hurdles), Michael Norman (men’s 400m), Nathan Strother (men’s 400m) and Fred Kerley (men’s 400m).

In a non-Diamond League event, U.S. champion Craig Engels brings his famous mullet to Birmingham in the 1,500 meters.

Here are the Birmingham entry lists and the current Diamond League standings. The schedule (all times Eastern, x-event not counted toward Diamond League standings):

7:45 a.m. — Women’s Discus
8:02 a.m. — Women’s 100m Hurdles Heat A
8:07 a.m. — Women’s Pole Vault
8:14 a.m. — Women’s 100m Hurdles Heat B
8:26 a.m. — x-Men’s 110m Hurdles
8:46 a.m. — Men’s 100m Heat A
8:55 a.m. — Men’s 100m Heat B
9:03 a.m. — Men’s 400m
9:10 a.m. — Women’s Long Jump
9:13 a.m. — Men’s 400m Hurdles
9:19 a.m. — Men’s High Jump
9:23 a.m. — Women’s Mile
9:33 a.m. — x-Women’s 100m
9:38 a.m. — Men’s Javelin
9:43 a.m. — x-Men’s 1,500m
9:55 a.m. — Women’s 3,000m Steeplechase
10:12 a.m. — x-Men’s 800m
10:22 a.m. — Women’s 100m Hurdles Final
10:32 a.m. — Men’s 100m Final
10:41 a.m. — Women’s 800m
10:52 a.m. — Women’s 200m

Here are five events to watch:

Women’s Pole Vault — 8:07 a.m.
Suhr has no Diamond League points but has the world lead at 4.91 meters. Perennial contenders Katerina Stefanidi (Greece) and Yarisley Silva (Cuba) are also competing.

Men’s 400m — 9:03 a.m.
No one has clinched qualification yet, but Cherry is set to compete in Birmingham and should get through. Americans have the top four spots in the standings — Norman, Cherry, Strother and Kerley.

Women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase — 9:55 a.m.
World record holder Beatrice Chepkoech and three fellow Kenyans who have all qualified alongside Coburn will have their eyes on records.

Women’s 100m Hurdles — 10:22 a.m. final; 8:02 a.m. heats
Most of the top 12 on the world list this year and most of the hurdles who have clinched spots in the final will be here, including Williams and the American trio of Harrison, Sharika Nelvis and Christina Clemons. McNeal, who will run in the world championships with Harrison and Ali, will not qualify.

Women’s 200m — 10:52 a.m.
Dutch sprinter Dafne Schippers, who’s aiming for her third straight world championship, has qualified but will race in Birmingham against equally accomplished sprinters Shaunae Miller-Uibo (Bahamas), who has won the last two Diamond League titles at this distance and the 2016 Olympic 400-meter gold, and Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, whose list of international honors is lengthy.

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