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Behind the scenes at the European Championships: Day 1

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Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Minsk, Belarus to cover the European Championships. This is his behind-the-scenes look at the competition on the first day.

Spanish sunshine

Tuesday’s plane from Frankfurt, Germany to Minsk, Belarus was crowded by Spanish fans, judges and Spain’s own Javier Fernandez’ family. Famous coach Pasquale Camerlengo and his team, Robynne Tweedale and Joseph Buckland, were also onboard, but they were exhausted by the long trip they took from Detroit, with a five-hour connection in between through the night.

Europe and the skating world have been converging on Minsk, this week’s other skating capital of the world – besides Detroit, of course, with U.S. Championships heating up. A new quadrennial is starting, and skating’s doors are wide open.

Skating international aura

Skating has remained one of the favorite sports in Russia and Belarus. Monday night, as their plane landed in Minsk, France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the four-time world champions in ice dance, were greeted by five cameras as they passed the exit gate of Minsk International Airport. They were interviewed right away. No time to waste.

Multi-Euros

All four reigning European champions are in Minsk to defend their title. Altogether they amassed 13 tittles through their careers. Spain’s Fernandez has already six gold medals under his belt, while Papadakis and Cizeron have four, also in a row. Russia’s Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov have two, and Alina Zagitova, who is the only Olympic gold medalist of the field, has just one. Far gone is the time when the top skaters of an Olympiad ended their competitive career right after the Games.

And yet, the oldest male skater on the ice will be Italy’s dancer Marco Fabbri, who will turn 31 in two weeks – which is far from being old. Will Europe show a renewal of the guard, on the eve of this new quadrennial?

Disclosing skating’s best kept secrets

“What we’re looking for is effortless skating,” renowned judge and ISU Single and Pair Skating Technical Committee Yukiko Okabe, from Japan, mentioned before the competition started. “We like to see a program that seems effortless. We don’t like it when skaters have to push hard to skate.”

Papadakis and Cizeron have made effortlessness one of their trademarks. The way they glide and fly over the ice turns each one of their programs into a magical moment for all spectators in attendance. That came to a rare exception Tuesday night in Minsk, during the team’s first practice session in the main rink. Cizeron tumbled in the middle of a step sequence, as he was carrying Papadakis. Both fell, she on her back. No one was hurt, but their fall suddenly unveiled the extreme difficulty of their steps and postures. Only when you fall do you realize how high you were.

European marathon

Ladies and their officials have embarked into a marathon day again in Minsk, like only European Championships can provide. They started their practice session at 7:30 a.m., and the 36 competitors will skate their short program until 5 p.m. local time. Russia’s Olympic gold medalist, Alina Zagitova, displayed a flawless run-through, highlighted by a crystal-clear triple Lutz – triple loop combination.

Latin music forever

The last group of ladies short program sounds like a medley of the Latin musical repertoire: Russia’s Stanislava Konstantinova skated to “Malaguena,” Russia’s Sofia Samodurova skated to Nyah’s Flamenco, and Switzerland’s Alexia Paganini performed to Piazzola’s “Yo Soy Maria.” Does Javi’s effect strike again?

And that the end…  

Italy’s Matteo Guarise and his on-ice partner, Nicole Della Monica, have long been crowd favorites. This year they have reached new heights, winning a silver medal at each of their Grand Prix assignments and qualifying for the Final (they placed fifth).

“We tried to make something different from what we usually do,” Guarise explained after he left the ice of his morning practice. “I think it suits us well, though. We feel really well prepared for this Championship,” he added. The Italian champion, who once was a roller skate champion, and his partner, have kept on raising the ladder of success in ice skating.

“We’re like turtles!” he said. “You know turtles: they push hard, they go slow, but they go everywhere!”

And in the fable, the turtle wins.

MORE: How to watch Europeans, streaming schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships and European Championships 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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Ginny Fuchs hopes to emerge from OCD, tearful Olympic experience

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None of the boxers at this week’s U.S. Olympic Trials competed at a prior Olympics, but flyweight Ginny Fuchs remembers the specifics of her one Olympic experience in Rio.

Fuchs, who won the 2016 Olympic trials but failed to clinch a spot at the Games in international qualifiers, was nonetheless named team captain and brought to Rio as a sparring partner.

She had mixed feelings. Watching from the crowd as Claressa Shields repeated as Olympic champion on the final day of the Games was motivating. Fuchs had toyed with turning professional but, after talking to Shields, decided to forge another four years as an amateur for another chance to become an Olympian.

The Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony, two weeks before that Shields final, was too much for Fuchs to bear. She could not stay in the Athletes’ Village nor march with the U.S. delegation at the Maracana.

“I remember watching the Opening Ceremony at the place I was at with everybody,” she said. “I couldn’t watch. It was hard for me to watch. I went back to my room, cried and went to bed.”

Fuchs is favored to win the 51kg/112-pound division this week at Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Lake Charles, La., with finals streaming live on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday (4-7 p.m. ET). It’s one of five women’s Olympic weight classes, up from three in 2012 and 2016, the first two editions of the Games for female boxers.

No boxer can clinch an Olympic spot this week, but failing to make a final would all but end Tokyo hopes.

Fuchs’ toughest opponent in this Olympic cycle — which included an undefeated 2017 and a 2018 World bronze medal among more than 130 fights — may be herself. Fuchs has been open about struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It started in fifth grade.

“I can remember the first time I was on the school bus, and I was looking at the ground and looking at everybody’s backpacks on the floor,” said Fuchs, a 31-year-old from the Houston area. “And an instant thought came in mind, like, Oh my god. Everybody’s backpack is getting contaminated by this dirty floor on the bus.”

She cited a more recent example: spending up to 40 minutes washing her hands searching for that “perfect clean feeling.” Fuchs found boxing via a boyfriend after she was kicked off the LSU cross-country running team as a freshman walk-on for damaging school property in a prank.

She said the disorder hit her hardest this year. In January, she was driving to a Walmart three times a day to buy cleaning supplies, according to The New York Times.

She underwent intensive therapy and skipped October’s world championships, where she could have established herself as a clear Olympic gold-medal favorite.

“I still am going to probably do therapy for the rest of my life,” Fuchs said. “Maybe not as intense as I’m doing it right now, but it’s almost like training for boxing.

“You’ve got to keep training to keep winning in boxing. So I’ve got to keep training my OCD thoughts and how to handle and manage it. … Boxing is giving me hope almost. Like OK, outside the ring and in my room and the bathroom, I feel like [OCD] controls me and feel trapped. But I have this environment in this space in the gym, in the boxing ring, where I can be myself. And not let it attack me in a way where I can still enjoy life and not be trapped.”

Should Fuchs make the final of her division in Lake Charles, she will advance to a January camp and tournament, after which the U.S. roster for Olympic qualifying will be named.

If selected, Fuchs would head to a North and South American Olympic qualifying event in early spring in Buenos Aires to clinch the spot she could not secure four years ago. If necessary, she could get a second chance at a global qualifier in May in Paris.

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Yulia Efimova has lawyer ready if Russia ban affects her

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Yulia Efimova, the Russian swimmer who earned two Rio Olympic silver medals after initially being excluded from the Games for serving a prior doping ban, is bracing for another legal fight after the latest sanctions against her nation.

On Monday, Russia was banned from the 2020 and 2022 Olympics and the next four years of world championships in Olympic sports due to more recent anti-doping violations. However, its athletes can still compete as neutrals, if meeting specific anti-doping criteria, similar to how they did at the PyeongChang Winter Games.

Efimova was initially barred from the Rio Olympics under an IOC mandate that any Russian who previously served a doping ban would be ineligible due to the country’s anti-doping violations at that time.

Efimova appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which ruled that IOC stipulation unenforceable. She went on to earn 100m and 200m breaststroke silver medals and develop a rivalry with American Lilly King, who said Efimova should not have been eligible.

It’s unclear from Monday’s ruling whether Efimova will be allowed to compete as a neutral, should Russia accept the sanctions or any appeal to CAS by the nation be denied.

“I will behave in a similar way,” to 2016, Efimova said, according to RT.com. “I have already hired a lawyer. There is a rule that a person can’t be punished twice for the same offense. If you violate a driving code or instigated a brawl you will not be punished twice for that. I hope it will work, but I cannot be sure of [a positive outcome].

“Right after my race at the Rio Games, I said that this doping controversy was not over, it was just the beginning, and we would have problems in the future. It was quite clear. And with every new year the situation is only getting worse and worse.”

Efimova, 27 and the two-time reigning world 200m breast champion, was banned 16 months between 2013 and 2015 after testing positive for a steroid. A FINA panel ruled that Efimova was not intentionally trying to cheat but was negligent in failing to read the label of a GNC store supplement.

“Yes, long ago I made a doping violation,” Efimova said this week, according to RT. “But there are a great number of U.S. and European athletes who have a similar situation regarding doping, and they are competing without any restrictions. If you want to introduce those regulations, they must be equally applied to all athletes, not only Russian competitors.”

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