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Behind the scenes at European Championships: Day 2

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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 event’s second day.

Figure eights

“Eight… is a lot!” Javier Fernandez had suggested one year ago, after he won his sixth European crown, referring to Austrian Karl Schafer’s record of eight straight European titles (Schafer won from 1929 to 1936).

“But who knows? Maybe I’ll throw in a last one next year?” he had added smilingly, regarding 2019.

Since then Fernandez won the Olympic medal he was dreaming of – a bronze in PyeongChang. He decided to come back to competitive ice for one ultimate European try. No other skater other than Schafer and Fernandez has won six or more titles in a row.

Only one has won seven, although not in a row: Russia’s Yevgeny Plushenko. That will be Fernandez’ challenge: equal the Russian’s supremacy over Europe.

“I’d liked to have trained a bit more, but I think it’s possible,” Fernandez told the Olympic Channel a few days ago.

Michal’s practice

“Now that Adam [Rippon] and Ashley [Wagner] are gone, Michal [Brezina] has become the leader of the group in L.A.,” coach Vera Arutunian, who went along Brezina to Minsk, offered. “Michal is very smart. He knows how to train, and we wish all our skaters would train as smartly as he does.”

Learning how to train seems to be a key in skating. “Rafael [Arutunian, Vera’s husband] says that you need two years to adjust to what he wants. And it’s true: you need to give time to time. Skaters start to understand the idea after a while. Beyond technique, you have to understand how to behave in practice. It’s the same whatever the country and culture they are coming from, Asia, U.S. or Europe. It’s a matter of attitude. For instance, you can’t end a season and go travel for months. A sportsman has to keep going all the time. He has to be in a process. He can’t stop, even though his competitive season is over.”

MORE: Mariah Bell coming into her own after 2 years under Rafael Arutunian

When two old buddies meet again

Major championships provide good opportunities to meet. Two of the sport’s recent greats and crowd favorites are in Minsk coaching: Brian Joubert, the 2007 world champion, is coaching France’s up-and-coming Siao Him Fa.

“I don’t skate anymore,” Joubert admitted. “When I do something, I like to do it 100 percent. And coaching is such a passion for me.”

Belgium’s Kevin van der Perren, who thrilled the audiences worldwide with his quads in the 2000s, was here coaching the Dutch skater Kyarha van Tiel.

“She didn’t make it to the free [skate], however,” van der Perren regretted. “It was the worst time to miss a double Axel.”

“Besides her, I teach two 12-year-old girls who started with me from scratch. Now they can land triples, and I’d really like to see how far we can go. I still skate myself every day, and can still do my tricks. I was a guest at Dancing with the Stars in Germany last week. I love performing so much. It took too many years to learn to just let it go.”

Grand venue

The Minsk Arena, hosting Europeans this year, holds 15,000 seats. It was designed by the same architect and with the same plans as the Hartwall Arena in Helsinki, where the 2017 World Championships were held. The practice rink, just across the street, is even more impressive. Just imagine a huge 9-meter wide and 400-meter long speed skating ice track. In the middle of it, you find two regular size skating rinks: one is for hockey, and one is used as the practice rink for these championships. You even have a curling track behind. You enter and exit the practice rink via underground tunnels, under the speed skating track. Around the track are no less than 3,000 seats. The whole is reminiscent from the old open-air rinks of the Alps, in Chamonix in France, or Davos in Switzerland. Except the whole complex – about 10,000 square meters – is covered in Minsk.

But it’s warm inside

Quite impressively, the practice rink is quite warm inside, in spite of the mass of air it gathers and the outside below freezing temperature. “Look! Morgan (Ciprès) is topless!” a lady fan exulted, as the French pair champion was changing from his costume after his morning practice. We won’t disclose more in this column, however.

XXL SX in Minsk

Or: “The Spectator’s Experience is great in Minsk!”

Wednesday afternoon, for the ladies’ short program, the lower section of the gigantic Minsk Arena was full. Wednesday night, for the pairs’ short, the 15,000 stands were completely packed.

True, the event is superbly organized. Volunteers are everywhere with their elegant multi-colored jackets, they are well trained and so willing to help out, whatever the situation. People smile at you as long as you smile at them (yes, even security!), they speak English as much as they can.

Food is not allowed in the rink. Wherever rules apply, they are clearly posted. Signs are clear and visibly posted everywhere to secure the fans, spectators and journalists’ experience and make them enjoy. Even the weather is perfect, as crisp and light as skating should be.

MORE: Javier Fernandez third after men’s short program

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.

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Swimming short-course records in peril as FINA recognizes ISL times

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In the debut season of the International Swimming League, six U.S. short-course records have fallen. USA Swimming has recognized the new circuit’s times from the outset.

International body FINA, which at first threatened to ban swimmers who participated in the ISL and then said it would not recognize records from the team-based league, which debuted in October and will hold its first final meet Dec. 20-21 at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, is now recognizing those times, and the effects on its statistics have been drastic.

MORE: Ledecky sets U.S. record in ISL debut

This morning, a downloaded list of the top times in the world this year included no ISL times. By the afternoon, times from the ISL’s meet over the weekend in College Park, Md., accounted for most of the times on the lists, including the top 10 in the women’s 50m freestyle and women’s 100m freestyle.

So far, the ISL hasn’t figured into the top five on many all-time FINA lists. But the best short-course times are typically posted near the end of the year, and the ISL has two meets remaining.

The U.S. record book has already changed. In October, Katie Ledecky set the 400m freestyle record (3:54.06) and Melanie Margalis set the 200m medley mark (2:04.18).

In College Park this weekend, Margalis also set the U.S. 400m medley record (4:24.46) and Ian Finnerty set two records the 50m breaststroke (25.99), with runner-up Michael Andrew also beating the previous record, and the 100m breaststroke (56.29). Also, Caeleb Dressel set the 50m butterfly record (22.21).

Only half of the swimmers in the ISL will advance to the final, and qualification isn’t necessarily in their hands. After the College Park meet, the Cali Condors and LA Current clinched spots in Las Vegas. That’s bad news for Andrew (New York Breakers), Finnerty (DC Trident) and Ledecky (DC Trident).

Dressel, Margalis and Lilly King — all representing the Condors — will have another shot at records in Vegas. 

FINA, as usual, is running its World Cup circuit during the fall and early winter, and some swimmers — including overall World Cup champions Vladimir Morozov and Cate Campbell — are pulling double duty between the World Cup and ISL.

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IOC announces deal with Airbnb to add housing for future Olympics

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The International Olympic Committee has moved to help with the scramble to house the influx of athletes, staff and spectators with each Olympics, making a deal with online housing broker Airbnb to add accommodations for the Games through 2028.

“The agreement includes accommodation provisions that will reduce costs for Olympic Games organizers and stakeholders, minimize the need for construction of new accommodation infrastructure for the Olympic Games period, and generate direct revenue for local hosts and communities,” the IOC announced.

Airbnb’s partnership also includes accommodation for disability athletes for the Paralympic Games, and the company will join large global companies such as Coca-Cola, Visa and Panasonic as worldwide Olympic partners.

Athletes also will have a chance to make money by hosting travelers.

“As an Olympian host, you can create and lead an experience inspired by your expertise and interests,” reads an explanation on the Olympic athlete support portal Athlete365.

Outside the Olympics and Olympic athlete experiences, the IOC and Airbnb are pledging to work together on long-term support to refugees.

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