AP

James, Cipres ahead of pairs’ field at Europeans

1 Comment

They entered as one of the favorites and left the ice in first place: France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres won the short program of the European Championships in Minsk, 2.65 points ahead of second place Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov from Russia, and 2.85 points ahead of Italy’s Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise, who are standing in third before Thursday’s free skate.

Results: Pairs’ short program

Many thought that Russia’s Alexandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii, who had skated earlier in the evening, would shake up the podium. They are standing in a close fourth position, 1.12 points behind the podium.

Skating first in the last group, James and Cipres fulfilled the contract they had made for the day: emerge in first, after the flaws they experienced earlier in the season with that same short program. The performance they delivered was flawless, from their opening triple twist to a perfectly synchronized side-by-side triple toe and ample throw triple flip. Their lift was particularly impressive, as they moved from one intricate position to the next with an incredible flow. They received a +1.75 points GOE (Grade of Execution) for it. Most of their other elements were rated above 1.0 points.

“We needed to change a few things to gain more speed, when we need it through the program, especially after the twist,” James explained.

“We made adjustments with Guillaume [Cizeron, who choreographed their program] during Christmas, and he found the way to overcome our problems,” Cipres added.

“We’re very happy we made these changes,” James offered, “but we need to keep going!”

Cipres reminded everyone jokingly: last year, the team had dropped from first to fourth after the free.

The Grand Prix Final gold medalists cracked their season’s best to amass 76.55 points for their short program.

Tarasova and Morozov succeeded the French team on the ice. They returned to the spectacular program to Sergei Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto they skated to last season, and displayed the unique and amazing power they have to offer. Their triple twist was incredibly high, and their throw triple flip was impressively ample. Tarasova underrotated the triple toe of the pair’s side-by-side combination. The crowd quickly understood that the hope of a superlative program had eluded them. They nonetheless garnered 73.90 points, with an artistic mark up-to-par with that of the French team (35.40 points for the Russians, and 35.40 points for the Russians).

“Going back to last year’s program was our common decision,” Tarasova explained.

“It’s more impressive, more powerful in terms of skating, it includes good transitions and great speed. Everything in this program is bigger than in the previous one. It allows to show the strong side of our team,” Morozov added.

Della Monica and Guarise took the ice after the Russians and delivered a beautiful and inspired routine to Joe Cocker’s “Never Tear Us Apart.” Their side-by-side triple Salchow was in perfect synch, and Della Monica landed her throw triple flip in full speed and control.

“We push every day at our maximum,” Guarise emphasized after the competition was over. “Our coaches keep telling us ‘stronger, faster, stronger, faster, push, push, push’ … And we keep falling and falling. And then one day comes and you manage to stay on your feet. From then on you start to show good skating, and also your emotions. That’s the only way we know!”

Boikova and Kozlovskii certainly put the strongest energy into their program, at a level only the Italians could match. They amassed 72.58 points, a new season’s best for the fourth-place team.

MORE: Behind the scenes at the European Championships: Day 1

As a reminder, you can watch the 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!

Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

AP
Leave a comment

Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Athletes warily embrace progress as USA Gymnastics evolves

Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Nosferatu is golf’s Olympic rankings guru. Who is he?