Behind the scenes at the European Championships: Day 3

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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 third day.

Kovtun’s comeback

Many were eagerly waiting to see Maxim Kovtun, who won the Russian Nationals one month ago. Kovtun fell on his opening quad Salchow in his short program, but he landed a splendid quad toe, triple toe combination, and a solid triple Axel (both elements earned more than 2.0 points GOE). He is standing in fifth place before Saturday’s free program.

Kovtun acknowledged that this was a true comeback for him, and that the past two years were not easy.

“This is a long story,” he explained after his short program was over. He thought a little and then stopped talking in English: “See? My brain can’t work anymore: I can’t speak English after a short program!” He said with a laugh.

His explanations then came through an interpreter.

“In my first life [with his first coaches], I had that feeling that I didn’t realize myself fully. This was eating me from the inside.

“Then I started working with my current coach [Elena Buianova], and I could do my best to reach my real goals. She encourages me and during training I feel I want to go further. We worked very hard and devised specific routines for training.”

For the first time maybe on the ice, Kovtun seemed calm Thursday afternoon. In his former days he would spend his programs rushing after his next elements, forgetting the moment as if future had to be caught.

“But future has come already,” he said. “I have been working with a sports psychologist, and I suppose I grew up, too. I have to say also that my brain understands better what I have to do, because every day we are doing the same. Each time I smile, breathe, move in the program, everything is trained and ready because it has been repeated many times. We are working hard, and the results will speak for themselves.

“As for the next steps of my career, we have a strategy. It’s ‘do what we can do right now.’ I’ve lost my technical level for a short time. I needed a lot of work to reach a high level again, at least in practice. Now we have to do the same at competitions, and skate two clean programs. The decision was made in all consciousness not to jump over one’s head,” Kovtun concluded.

Kovtun appeared back to his usual technical standard, and also to his humorous usual style.

Polina Lakhtsutko, from Belarus, assisted with Maxim Kovtun’s interview and his comments.

MORE: Three Russian men in top five at Europeans after short program

End of practice routine

A routine has started to build up in Minsk: at the end of each group of practice, a few dozens of fans gather at the very end of the huge covered stadium, at the bottom of the stairs: they are waiting for their preferred skaters to pass by after their practice. A “mixed zone” has been organized for journalists, but it could be called “the selfie zone”!

Charming Italian dancer Marco Fabbri has several followers. Each apparition of Latvia’s Deniss Vasiljevs gathers gasps and whispers. Michal Brezina has clearly a strong fan base as well. But Javier Fernandez is certainly the most popular. In 13 European Championships, he has attracted nearly two generations of followers! No doubt why he has so many fans around the globe.

Coaches, too…

Two coaches are much sought after as well, at least as much as their skaters: Brian Joubert, who coaches Adam Siao Him Fa, the French competitor, and Stephane Lambiel, who coaches Vasiljevs. In the mixed zone, each one is asked for a selfie, a kiss or a photo (or all three!) with or without their protégés.

Who is she?

Lady fans are running after Marco, Michal, Deniss and Javi, but not only. In the pack-crowded stands of the Minsk Arena, several were focusing on a commanding lady walking up the steps, as Dame Tatiana Tarasova was going back to her TV booth.

“She is a famous TV commentator in Russia!” one fan offered. Of course, “this lady” coached her skating stars to win 68 medals at the Olympics, Worlds, Europeans and Four Continents through her care – which must certainly be the highest number in the world.

Chicken?

Vasiljevs’ costumes are quite noticeable. During the short program, he was wearing flashy bright yellow pants with a shining black jacket. One of Vasiljevs’ fans, an English teacher from Minsk who volunteers at the official hotel, tries to come to every outing, practice or competition, of her favorite skater.

Asked how she liked his costume, she quickly answered: “Oh! The chicken pants? That’s how we call it in Russian… At least he can’t remain unnoticed. We know instantaneously where Deniss is!”

But why chicken?

“Because that’s the color of a chick,” she explained.

Vasiljevs stayed focused on his mission in Friday’s morning practice, as he worked on landing his quad extensively. His fans can rest reassured.

MORE: Behind the scenes at day 2 of 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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Kendall Gretsch wins six gold medals at Para Nordic Ski Worlds

Kendall Gretsch
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Kendall Gretsch, who won Paralympic titles at the last Summer and Winter Games, added another six gold medals at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Sweden last week.

Gretsch, 30, earned seven total medals in seven days between biathlon and cross-country skiing.

Gretsch won gold medals in three different sports across the last three Paralympics: biathlon and cross-country skiing in 2018 (two years after taking up the sports), triathlon in 2021 and biathlon in 2022.

She plans to shift her focus back to triathlon after this winter for 2024 Paris Games qualification.

Gretsch, born with spina bifida, was the 2014 USA Triathlon Female Para Triathlete of the Year. Though triathlon was added to the Paralympics for the 2016 Rio Games, her classification was not added until Tokyo.

Also at last week’s worlds, six-time Paralympian Aaron Pike earned his first Paralympic or world championships gold medal in his decade-plus career, winning a 12.5km biathlon event.

Oksana Masters, who won seven medals in seven events at last year’s Paralympics to break the career U.S. Winter Paralympics medals record, missed worlds due to hand surgery.

The U.S. also picked up five medals at last week’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Spain — three silvers for five-time Paralympian Laurie Stephens and two bronzes for 17-year-old Saylor O’Brien.

Stephens now has 18 career medals from world championships, plus seven at the Paralympics.

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World champion skier Kyle Smaine dies in avalanche at age 31

Kyle Smaine
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Kyle Smaine, a retired world champion halfpipe skier, died in an avalanche in Japan on Sunday, according to NBC News, citing Smaine’s father. He was 31.

Smaine, a 2015 World champion in ski halfpipe, had been doing ski filming in Japan, sharing videos on his Instagram account over the past week.

The native of South Lake Tahoe, California, finished ninth in ski halfpipe at the 2016 Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado.

In 2018, Smaine won the fifth and final U.S. Olympic qualifying series event in ski halfpipe but did not make the four-man team for PyeongChang. His last sanctioned international competition was in February 2018.

Late Sunday, two-time Olympic champion David Wise won the X Games men’s ski halfpipe and dedicated it to Smaine.

“We all did this for Kyle tonight,” Wise said on the broadcast. “It’s a little bit of an emotional day for us. We lost a friend.”