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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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Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 19, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season 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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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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