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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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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

MyKayla Skinner
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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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Wilson Kipsang, former marathon world-record holder, banned 4 years

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Wilson Kipsang, a former marathon world-record holder and Kenyan Olympic bronze medalist, was banned four years for whereabouts failures — not being available for drug testing — and providing false evidence in his case.

Kipsang had been provisionally banned in January in the case handled by the Athletics Integrity Unit, track and field’s doping watchdog organization. Athletes must provide doping officials with locations to be available for out-of-competition testing. Three missed tests in a 12-month span can lead to a suspension.

Kipsang, 38, received a four-year ban backdated to Jan. 10, when the provisional suspension was announced. His results since April 12, 2019, the date of his third whereabouts failure in a 12-month span, have been annulled. He is eligible to appeal. The full decision is here.

Kipsang won major marathons in New York City, London, Berlin and Tokyo between 2012 and 2017.

He lowered the world record to 2:03:23 at the 2013 Berlin Marathon, a mark that stood for one year until countryman Dennis Kimetto took it to 2:02:57 in Berlin. Another Kenyan, Eliud Kipchoge, lowered it to 2:01:39 at the 2018 Berlin Marathon.

Kipsang, the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist, last won a top-level marathon in Tokyo in 2017. He was third at the 2018 Berlin Marathon and 12th at his last marathon in London in April 2019, a result now disqualified.

Other Kenyan distance-running stars have been banned in recent years.

Rita Jeptoo had Boston and Chicago Marathon titles stripped, and Jemima Sumgong was banned after winning the Rio Olympic marathon after both tested positive for EPO. Asbel Kiprop, a 2008 Olympic 1500m champion and a three-time world champ, was banned four years after testing positive for EPO in November 2017.

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MORE: Christian Coleman suspended after disputed missed drug test