AP

Behind the scenes at the European Championships: Day 1

Leave a comment

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Morgan Hurd left off U.S. gymnastics team for world championships

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Simone Biles is joined on the U.S. team for the world gymnastics championships by five women bidding to make their first Olympic team next year.

Sunisa LeeKara EakerJade Carey, Grace McCallum and MyKayla Skinner were named to the team at the conclusion of selection camp competition Monday in Sarasota, Fla. Biles locked up the first spot by winning an all-around competition on Sunday.

A notable omission was Morgan Hurd, the 2017 World all-around champion in Biles’ absence who was fourth in the all-around at the U.S. Championships in August and ninth at the selection camp on Sunday. Hurd, who came back from December elbow surgery, was named a non-traveling alternate along with Leanne Wong.

Had Hurd made the team, she could have bid to join Biles as the only women to earn all-around medals at three straight world championships. Instead, her absence is a testament to the U.S. women’s depth.

The Americans won every Olympic or world team title dating to 2011, the longest reign of dominance since Soviet teams of the 1970s. Last year, their margin of victory — 8.766 points — was the largest in history at an Olympics or worlds.

A look at the six women on this year’s team, one of which will be designated an on-site alternate at worlds in Stuttgart, Germany:

Simone Biles
Undefeated in all-around competitions for six years, Biles will break more records in Stuttgart. The biggest one is career world championships medals. Biles is at 20, tied with Svetlana Khorkina for the female record. The overall record is 23, held by retired Belarusian Vitaly Scherbo. Last year, Biles became the first gymnast to earn medals in every event at worlds in 31 years and won the all-around by a record margin despite two falls and a kidney stone.

Sunisa Lee
The revelation of this summer. Lee went from third in the junior division at last year’s nationals to second to Biles both at nationals in August and in Sunday’s selection competition. At the latter, Lee was only .35 of a point behind Biles, closer than any of Biles’ last five margins of victory at nationals. She is the national champion on uneven bars and the youngest woman on the team at 16.

Kara Eaker
Eaker solidified her spot by placing third at the selection camp with a score that would have been runner-up to Biles on either day at nationals. Eaker was 10th at nationals with scores more than two points lower than what she did on Sunday. She is a medal contender on balance beam. Eaker had the second-highest beam score in qualifying at worlds last year but fell off the apparatus in the final, placing sixth.

Jade Carey
The 2017 World silver medalist on floor and vault. Carey decided last year to try to make the Olympic team on her own individually — a new wrinkle in Olympic qualifying this cycle — which precluded her from competing at the 2018 Worlds. She’s well on her way to clinching an Olympic spot before June’s trials, but first she will be an asset to this team as its second-ranked floor and vault gymnast behind Biles.

MyKayla Skinner
The 2016 Olympic alternate pulled off the rare feat of making a world team while being an NCAA gymnast (at Utah). Skinner returned to elite gymnastics this season for the first time since Rio and impressed Sunday, placing fourth in the all-around. Like Carey, she specializes on floor and vault.

Grace McCallum
McCallum was third in the all-around at nationals and sixth at the selection camp. The 2018 World team member is best known for her floor, too. She was seventh in qualifying at 2018 Worlds on the event but missed the final due to the two-per-country rule.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: U.S. men’s team named for gymnastics worlds

Tommie Smith, John Carlos part of U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame class

AP
Leave a comment

Tommie Smith and John Carlos are part of the 2019 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame class that will be inducted later this year.

The sprinters were sent home from the 1968 Mexico City Games after staging a protest by raising their gloved fists on the medals stand. They were long left on the sidelines at the USOPC, but the federation has worked to bring them back inside the family in recent years.

“It sends the message that maybe we had to go back in time and make some conscious decisions about whether we were right or wrong,” Carlos said, according to USA Today. “They’ve come to the conclusion that, ‘Hey man, we were wrong. We were off-base in terms of humanity relative to the human rights era.'”

The class will be inducted at a ceremony in Colorado Springs on Nov. 1. It will be the first class inducted since 2012.

The rest of the class: Candace Cable, Erin Popovich, Chris Waddell (Paralympics), Lisa Leslie (basketball), Nastia Liukin (gymnastics), Misty May-Treanor (beach volleyball), Apolo Anton Ohno (short track speedskating), Dara Torres (swimming), the 1998 U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team), Ron O’Brien (diving coach) and Tim Nugent (special contributor).

After the Hall of Fame essentially stalled out, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland pushed to revive it as part of a federation effort to focus more on athletes.

“We thank them for their impact on sport and society, and for continuing to inspire the next generation of athletes and fans,” Hirshland said.

The induction of Smith and Carlos is long overdue. After being kicked out of the 1968 Olympics for their iconic raised-fist protest on the medals stand, the sprinters were left on the sideline of the official U.S. Olympic movement. Their 2016 visit to the White House, along with USOPC leaders, marked the first official event they’d been part of since their ouster in 1968.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

VIDEO: Kaepernick introduces Smith, Carlos at USATF Night of Legends