Javier Fernandez, in final competition, third in men’s field

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The audiences of the world have learnt to change flags rapidly nowadays. Thursday afternoon in Minsk, Belarus, the Russian flag mushroomed from every part of the stands for Maxim Kovtun’s skate, it reappeared again for Alexander Samarin’s, and stayed even longer for Mikhail Kolyada’s. Then it got replaced by the Spanish gold and red banner all over the stands, as Javier Fernandez skated. But in the end, the Russian flag prevailed during the men’s short program at the European Championships.

Kolyada took a strong lead for the gold, as he was the only one of the afternoon to crack the 100-point bar. Samarin is standing second before Saturday’s free program, some 8.51 points behind his Russian teammate. Fernandez is standing in third, a mere 0.14 point behind Samarin.

Results: Men’s short program

Kolyada didn’t let his numerous fans down. His program, set to Muse’s “I Belong to You,” was an instant hit and grabbed the audience’s applause right from the start. Kolyada landed all his elements (a quad toe, triple toe combination, a triple Lutz and a triple Axel) with ease. He has polished his skating and displayed fluid and smooth edges, pure lines, and yet his trademark presence on the ice. Kolyada is so present in each of his steps, fully living the moment in connection with his audience. He amassed 100.48 points for his program, a new season’s best.

“The main difference from previous outings is that now I’m healthy,” Kolyada offered. “It’s definitely easier to skate when you’re healthy. This was a good performance.”

Kolyada won his first small gold medal (awarded after short programs at major competitions) in an ISU event.

“But this day can’t be a special day in my life yet,” he added. “It’s important now not to let out the emotions, I need to keep them for the free.”

Samarin opted for the most difficult content. He opened with a magnificent quad Lutz, triple toe, but tripled his subsequent quad flip attempt. The audience nonetheless gave him a strong ovation at the end, up-to-par with the energy he had displayed throughout. Belarussian and Russian audiences appreciate the energy of competitors more than any other people. Samarin garnered 91.97 points, a new season’s best.

“I wanted to show more,” Samarin offered. “I practiced quad flip and it went well in training, so I thought I could include it, although I was afraid that I wouldn’t have enough experience to include it.

“Well, now I’ll have more experience,” he said, smiling.

Fernandez skated to his charm-routine, Malagueña. He opened with a quad toe, double toe. Rather surprisingly, his subsequent quad Salchow was deemed underrotated by the panel.

“I’ve been away quite a bit this season, but I think that I’m still able to recognize a few things in skating. I saw the landing of my quad Salchow on the ice. I rotated not even half of a straight angle on the ice, so the jump should have been validated, and it was not,” he offered at the post-event press conference.

Fernandez’s component score went slightly above Kolyada’s (46.64 points for the Spaniard, 46.44 points for the Russian), but his total, 91.84 points, meant that he’ll have to fight in the free.

“Oh yes, I’ll fight!” he promised. “In the free, 9 points is nothing. I want to show that I can do more than 91 points.”

The sensation of the day came from French skater Kevin Aymoz, who displayed an exhilarating and crisp program to Bryce Fox’s “Horns.” He captivated the audience and wound up in fourth place, 0.32 point ahead of Kovtun, who missed his opening quad toe.

MORE: How to watch Europeans

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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Sam Girard, Olympic short track champion, surprisingly retires at age 22

Sam Girard
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Sam Girard, who avoided a three-skater pileup to win the PyeongChang Olympic 1000m, retired from short track speed skating at age 22, saying he lost the desire to compete.

“I leave my sport satisfied with what I have accomplished,” Girard said in a press release. “This decision was very well thought through. I am at peace with the choice that I’ve made and am ready to move onto the next step.”

Girard and girlfriend and fellow Olympic skater Kasandra Bradette announced their careers end together in a tearful French-language press conference in Quebec on Friday.

Girard detailed the decision in a letter, the sacrifices made to pursue skating. Notably, moving from his hometown of Ferland-et-Boilleau, population 600, to Montreal in 2012. His hobbies had been of the outdoor variety, but he now had to drive an hour and a half from the training center just to go fishing.

In PyeongChang, Girard led for most of the 1000m final, which meant he avoided chaos behind him on the penultimate lap of the nine-lap race. Hungarian Liu Shaolin Sandor‘s inside pass took out South Koreans Lim Hyo-Jun and Seo Yi-Ra, leaving just Girard and American John-Henry Krueger.

Girard maintained his lead, crossing .214 in front of Krueger to claim the title. He also finished fourth in the 500m and 1500m and earned bronze in the relay.

“My first Olympics, won a gold medal, can’t ask for more,” he said afterward.

Though Girard was already accomplished — earning individual silver medals at the 2016 and 2017 Worlds — he came to PyeongChang as the heir apparent to Charles Hamelin, a roommate on the World Cup circuit whom Girard likened to a big brother. Girard earned another world silver medal this past season.

Hamelin, after taking individual gold in 2010 and 2014, left PyeongChang without an individual medal in what many expected to be his last Olympics. However, he went back on a retirement vow and continued to skate through the 2018-19 season.

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MORE: J.R. Celski explains decision to retire

Maia, Alex Shibutani extend break from ice dance competition

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Brother-sister ice dance duo Maia and Alex Shibutani will not compete next season, the Olympic bronze medalists announced via U.S. Figure Skating on Friday.

“We’re healthier and stronger than we were after the Olympics, and we’re continuing to push ourselves,” Maia Shibutani said in a press release.

“We’ve continued to skate a lot, and we feel like we’ve benefited from some time away to create in different environments and focus on experiences that can help us grow,” Alex said.

The “Shib Sibs” won the U.S. title in 2016 and 2017. They won their first world medal in 2011 (bronze) before reaching the world podium again in 2016 and 2017 with silver and bronze, respectively.

They most recently competed at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, where they earned bronze both individually and in the team event.

Maia and Alex Shibutani are now the second ice dance medalists from PyeongChang to announce they’ll sit out at least part of next season. Gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada will tour instead this fall and are not expected to return to competition.

The siblings haven’t stayed away from the ice entirely in their break from the sport, though — they’ve also been touring and performing in shows.

The Shibutanis became the second set of siblings to earn Olympic ice dance medals after France’s Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay in 1992.

MORE: How Gracie Gold landed in Philadelphia, thoughts competitive return

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