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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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Noah Lyles’ unbelievable time comes with an oops at Inspiration Games

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Noah Lyles may one day break Usain Bolt‘s world record, but Thursday wasn’t going to be that day. Even if, for about five minutes, Lyles was the first man to break 19 seconds over 200m.

Lyles registered 18.90 seconds, racing alone against competitors simultaneously sprinting on tracks in Europe. The time was unbelievable, given Bolt’s world record was 19.19 seconds. Turns out, it was too good to be true.

Minutes later on the broadcast, commentator Steve Cram said that Lyles only ran 185 meters, starting from an incorrect place on his Florida track.

“You can’t be playing with my emotions like this,” tweeted Lyles, who raced in Sonic the Hedgehog socks. “Got me in the wrong lane smh.”

Lyles, 22, has run 66 official 200m races dating to 2013, according to Tilastopaja.org. He is the reigning world champion and the fourth-fastest man in history with a personal best of 19.50 seconds.

But he had never experienced what came Thursday, with few spectators and nobody else in adjacent lanes for the Inspiration Games, a socially distanced meet with Olympians competing against each other on different continents.

Perhaps the setting played a role in the mistake.

“It actually felt pretty good besides getting that full gust of wind,” Lyles, who ran into a registered 3.7 meter/second headwind, said before he knew his time or that he was 15 meters short.

Christophe Lemaitre, the Olympic bronze medalist from France, got the win in 20.65 seconds.

Earlier Thursday, Allyson Felix had a succinct reaction to the strangest victory of her sterling career.

“That’s weird,” she said after running 150 meters alone, in front of few spectators on a track in Walnut, California.

Officially, Felix ran 16.81 seconds — impressive, especially if the reported 2.6 meter/second headwind reading was accurate — to defeat Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo and world 200m bronze medalist Mujinga Kambundji.

Miller-Uibo raced alone in Florida. Kambundji was on her own in Zurich, the base of the Inspiration Games, a repurposed version of an annual Diamond League stop. The coronavirus pandemic is forcing meet organizers to get creative this summer.

Full meet results are here.

Felix, a 34-year-old mom with nine Olympic medals, called her event “very strange.”

“It feels sort of like practice, but not even because there’s really no teammates or anything,” she told 1996 Olympic decathlon champion Dan O’Brien at Mt. San Antonio College. “It’s hard to challenge yourself. I think that’s the big thing with running solo.”

Canadian Olympic medalist Andre De Grasse won a 100-yard race in 9.68 seconds, defeating French veteran Jimmy Vicaut (9.72) and Olympic 110m hurdles champion Omar McLeod of Jamaica (9.87). De Grasse, Vicaut and McLeod raced together, in every other lane at a Florida track.

The 100 yards is scantly contested in top-level meets. Nobody has broken nine seconds in a 100-yard (91.44-meter) race, according to World Athletics. But Usain Bolt‘s estimated 100-yard time en route to his 2009 world record in the 100m was 8.87 seconds.

The regular Diamond League calendar is scheduled to resume in August.

“This was fun,” Felix said. “I can’t wait until we can do it in person.”

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Jeff Gadley, Willie Davenport changed bobsled as Winter Olympic pioneers

Jeff Gadley
Photos courtesy Jeff Jordan
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Jeff Gadley‘s life changed when a stranger in a car tailed him on a decathlon training run in Plattsburgh, N.Y., in 1978.

The driver was Al Hachigian, a veteran U.S. bobsledder on the lookout for new talent.

Hachigian found the right man. Gadley had just won the first Empire State Games decathlon and set sights on the 1980 U.S. Summer Olympic Trials. Once Hachigian got his attention, he asked the 23-year-old Gadley if he ever considered pushing a bobsled.

“Of course,” Gadley said. “I grew up in Buffalo.”

Hachigian looked at Gadley — undersized for a bobsledder at 5 feet, 8 inches, and no more than 180 pounds — and decided he was worth extending an invitation to a trials event for the 1978-79 season.

“I think you could do well,” Hachigian told Gadley. “But there are no Black bobsledders, so you kind of have to be a little bit prepared for some things.”

No problem, Gadley said.

A year and a half later, Gadley and a later bobsled convert — Willie Davenport, the 1968 Olympic 110m hurdles champion — became the first Black men to compete on a U.S. Winter Olympic team in any sport.

“It was a huge story,” leading up to the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games, Gadley said in a recent interview. “Since we were the first, people wanted to know how we felt. What you thought about the sport being traditionally white. My answer was always, look, I can’t attribute a particular color to playing out in the cold. To be the first African American ever to compete in the Winter Olympics, I think it’s nice. I think it broadens the thought process of people and maybe will bring, one day, stronger and faster athletes to the sport.”

Gadley and Davenport, push athletes in driver Bob Hickey‘s 12th-place sled at those Olympics, accelerated a line of accomplished athletes converting from track to bobsled. They were followed by, most famously, Edwin Moses, Renaldo NehemiahLauryn Williams and Lolo Jones. NFL players Willie Gault and Herschel Walker also pushed sleds.

“There is a myth in this country that says Blacks can’t make the American Winter Olympic team,” Davenport said, according to Jet magazine in 1980. “Jeff and I proved this to be wrong that you don’t have to be rich and white to make it.”

Back when Gadley joined the national team, it was all white and mostly men from around Lake Placid, home of the only Olympic-level bobsled track in the country.

“I’m sure a lot of these people had not been around African Americans before,” said Jeff Jordan, Gadley’s best friend from SUNY Plattsburgh who rounded out the four-man Olympic sled with Hickey, Gadley and Davenport.

Gadley excelled from the start, earning a spot at the 1979 World Championships. Not everyone on the team was excited about his quick rise. Gadley estimated that out of about 20 national team members, seven or eight didn’t like him because of his skin color. He knew about two definitively, witnessing a conversation at the worlds in Germany.

“The worst thing I heard is that someone didn’t want a Black guy on the back of their sled,” Gadley said. “The saddest part is knowing that, at the world championships, your own teammates don’t like you because of your color.

“I said, I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to ride on the back of his sled anyway, even if I’m told to. I said, I don’t want to be on the back of your sled, either, and I just left it at that.”

Gadley competed in another sled at worlds, finishing 10th.

“It wasn’t all about skin color,” Gadley said. “Part of it was about you’re breaking up a culture.”

The next season, Hickey, a veteran driver from Upstate New York, was looking to fill his sled with push athletes. He chose the new group of Gadley, Jordan and Davenport. They won the Olympic Trials, despite Jordan and Davenport being rookies (Davenport reportedly pushed a bobsled for the first time a month or two before trials).

“They were the first real world-class athletes to hit bobsledding,” Jordan said of Gadley and Davenport. “We pretty much crushed them [the local bobsledders at Trials], and they did not like it. I don’t know if they would have liked it, period. It didn’t matter what nationality or color.

“The only thing they knew was they were getting their butts kicked. I can’t say we were mistreated other than they would rather have their buddies on the Olympic team.”

Davenport, at 36, was 12 years removed from his Summer Olympic title and the oldest U.S. bobsledder in Lake Placid. While his speed was an asset, his lack of experience was evident, his teammates said.

“Willie was on the other side of his career,” Jordan said. “He brought a lot of notoriety. We were in People magazine, on Good Morning America. None of that would have happened without Willie’s presence. He wasn’t there for the same reason Jeff [Gadley] was there.

“If Willie had just been another Jeff Gadley, would we have gotten that attention? Maybe, eventually, but there was quite a bit of attention early on.”

Gadley, Hickey and Jordan, in recent interviews, remembered the buzz at the Lake Placid Games. Curt Gowdy, the Hall of Fame sportscaster, called bobsled for ABC. President Jimmy Carter‘s 12-year-old daughter, Amy, showed up one day.

The Americans finished more than six seconds behind the winning East German quartet, but were slowed to an unknown degree by inferior equipment. Hickey said that the East German driver, 39-year-old Meinhard Nehmer, told Gowdy that the Americans would have won if they had his sled.

“They came and went quick,” Hickey said of the Olympics. “We weren’t prepared.”

It marked the end of the Olympic careers for Davenport and Gadley. Davenport died in 2002.

Gadley gave up the decathlon after the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games was announced. He now lives in Texas with his wife.

Most of his Olympic mementos and photos were discarded or lost over the last 40 years. But Gadley was glad for the experience and feels fortunate for the opportunity, back when bobsled was a regional, if not local, sport.

“I would say pioneers would be a good word to use,” for Davenport and I, he said. “It was just a matter of exposure where I was and what I was doing [at the time]. It made an example to others that, hey, as a Black guy, if he’s doing it, I can do it, too.”

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Jeff Gadley