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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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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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