Vanessa James, Morgan Cipres win European pairs’ title

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Victories often hide impressive stories. For many years France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres had been chasing after a European medal. Two years ago, they had finally won one – a bronze. Thursday night in Minsk an even bigger dream came true, as they won the European crown, ahead of two Russian teams: Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, who had been reigning over pair skating at Europeans for the last two years, and newcomers Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii.

James couldn’t hold her tears for a long while afterwards, going from one interview to the next and crying through her laughs (or was it the contrary?) each time. Cipres was savoring the historicity of the moment.

Results: Pairs’ final

Nothing had to be taken for granted, however. One year ago, James and Ciprès were also standing in first place before the free program, but a sub-par free put them in fourth overall, 0.01 points short of the podium.

Thursday, it could have been the same.

James had to struggle to hold on to their side-by-side triple toe, double toe, double toe combination. She had landed her triple toe quite leaning toward the front, but her flexibility and balance allowed her to catch her take-off position to launch the two following jumps, right in synch with her partner. The team even received a positive GOE (+0.78 point) for that combination, which proved to be the determining factor of the evening.

James put a hand while landing their side-by-side triple Salchow, but their throw triple flip and huge final Salchow were brilliant. Their lifts were particularly impressive, both athletic and intertwingling innovative positions, with interesting transitions from one to the next.

The Belarussian audience gave them a spontaneous standing ovation, and they had to remain on the ice for several minutes before leaving to the kiss and cry. They received 149.11 points for their free, a new season’s best, and 225.66 points overall.

“It’s an amazing feeling for us to be standing here tonight,” Cipres said.

“It’s a dream come true. We’ve dreamt of that forever,” James continued.

“It was not easy today, and we really had to fight for it. We’ll keep going to hopefully win more titles,” Cipres added.

Tarasova and Morozov also had a brilliant skate, as powerful and polished as only they can stand up to. Their music, Balmorhea’s “The Winter,” opened on silence gently punctuated by piano notes. Tarasova and Morozov’s power and charisma were enough to fill the empty space and make it live before the actual music started building on. They also beat their season’s best by 3.44 points, but that was not enough.

Rather amazingly, their only major mistake came on the same element the French had been struggling with right before. Tarasova landed the opening triple toe of their side-by-side combination, but missed the second one and came back too late for the last element. That element cost them a lot. It was a downgraded triple toe + combo, only earning them a mere 0.74 points, compared to the 7.58 points the French had received for the element.

Boikova and Kozlovskii had opened the last group. They appeared more tense than in their short program, and they also struggled with that same triple toe, double toe, double toe combination, which he interrupted at the landing of the first jump. Their usual energy came back after their throw triple loop. Their jumps were as lively and joyful as their Nutcracker music thereafter.

“We are physically and emotionally exhausted tonight, as this was the first major championship of our career. We are thinking of the other team which should have represented our country, so we really felt that we needed to stand on this podium,” Kozlovskii stated, referring to the absence of Natalia Zabiiako and Alexander Enbert.

Italy’s Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise also had a great skate, marred with just a few mishaps, but they couldn’t hold to the third place they had won in the short. They ended up fourth.

MORE: Behind the scenes on the second day at the European Championships

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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Regan Smith swims another historic backstroke time at Pro Series meet

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Regan Smith, who last summer broke both backstroke world records, put up the fastest 100m back in history outside of a major international meet or trials competition on Saturday.

Smith, a 17-year-old Minnesota high school senior, clocked 58.26 seconds to win at a Pro Series meet in Knoxville, Tenn. It tied for the 12th-fastest time in history. None of the other fastest dozen came in January, six months out from when swimmers peak for the world’s biggest events like the Olympics.

Making it more impressive: Smith did it 27 minutes after finishing second in the 200m butterfly, which she’s also expected to contest at June’s Olympic trials in Omaha.

“It actually wasn’t as bad, as I was nervous it was going to be,” Smith, whose world record is 57.57, said of the double on NBCSN. Smith entered two events per day at the three-day Knoxville meet, in part to prepare for the trials, where she is slated to race six straight days in a bid to make the Olympic team in enough events to swim eight straight days in Tokyo.

On Saturday, Smith held off fellow 17-year-old Phoebe Bacon by six tenths. Bacon beat Smith at the U.S. Open in December, posting the second-fastest time among Americans in the event for 2019.

The teen emergence puts pressure on Kathleen Baker, the Rio Olympic silver medalist who had the world record before Smith took it at worlds.

Full Knoxville results are here. USASwimming.org live streams the last night of finals Sunday at 6:30 ET.

In other events Saturday, world silver medalist Hali Flickinger overcame Smith in the 200m fly, winning in 2:08.34. Smith, third-fastest among Americans last season, was .39 behind. The second-fastest American last year, Katie Drabot, was not in the field. The top two at trials make the Olympic team.

Erika Brown beat world champion Simone Manuel in a freestyle sprint for a second straight meet, taking the 50m free in 24.57 seconds.

Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, edged Manuel by .06 and took .01 off her personal best. Brown ranked third among Americans last year behind Manuel (24.05) and Abbey Weitzeil (24.47).

Brown also defeated Manuel in the 100m free at the U.S. Open in December, moving to fourth-fastest in the U.S. last year in that event. The top six in the 100m free at trials are in line to make the Olympic team, given relay spots.

MORE: Australian swim star issues plea after hometown hit by fires

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Mikaela Shiffrin nearly makes it three-way tie for World Cup win

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Mikaela Shiffrin came .01 shy of making it a three-way tie for a World Cup giant slalom win on Saturday, confirming GS has been the most up-for-grabs discipline for either gender in recent years.

Shiffrin, beaten in her last two slaloms, had the fastest second run to place third behind co-winners Italian Federica Brignone and Slovakian Petra Vlhova in Sestriere, Italy. The reigning Olympic and World Cup champion in the GS rallied from fourth place and .42 behind after the first run.

Shiffrin still leads the World Cup overall standings by 233 points over Vlhova. The American last won Dec. 29. Though she made the podium in three of her four races since, Shiffrin expressed a lack of confidence heading into this weekend’s races at the 2006 Olympic venue.

“The most exciting thing for me is that people have stopped asking me, like, are you unbeatable?” said Shiffrin, who won a record 17 World Cup races last season and has four victories nearly halfway through this season, tied with Vlhova for most on tour. “I feel really good in GS. It’s just been a long time since [the last GS on Dec. 28].”

Vlhova earned her third victory this month after beating Shiffrin those last two slaloms. Brignone leads the GS season standings by 61 points over Shiffrin, seeking to become the sixth different woman to win that discipline title in the last six years. There are four more GS races left this season.

It’s the second straight season with a World Cup GS tie. Last Feb. 1, Shiffrin and Vlhova tied in Maribor, Slovenia.

It’s the first time the top three finishers were separated by such a small margin since the last three-way tie for a win in 2006, when Lindsey VonnMichaela Dorfmeister and Nadia Styger had the same super-G time, and fourth-place Kelly VanderBeek was .01 behind.

“Last season, I had the lucky side of the hundredths many times, so sometimes I’m not going to be on the lucky side, too,” said Shiffrin, who had three victories by .16 or tighter last season.

World Cup racing continues with a parallel giant slalom on Sunday at 5:45 a.m. ET on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBC Sports Gold.

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MORE: Shiffrin among 10 dominant Winter Olympians of 2010s decade