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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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Breanna Stewart to miss entire WNBA season with Achilles injury

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Breanna Stewart, the world’s top female basketball player and one of the most dominant athletes of 2018, is expected to miss the entire upcoming WNBA season after rupturing an Achilles playing in Europe on Sunday, according to the Seattle Storm.

“The situation is still a shock to me,” was posted on Stewart’s social media. “I’m feeling every emotion possible at this point but just know that the bounce back will be real and I’ll be back better than ever.”

Stewart, 24, skyrocketed in this Olympic cycle.

The Storm’s franchise player went from playing the second-fewest minutes on the 2016 Olympic team as its youngest player to leading the U.S. per game in points (16.3) and minutes (27) at the 2018 World Championship tournament.

Stewart earned MVP honors at worlds, matching her WNBA season and Finals honors. She became the first player to earn all three MVPs in one year.

Stewart is still expected to be in play for the 2020 Olympic team, given the Storm expect her to make a full recovery by the start of the following WNBA season next spring.

Tamika Catchings made the 2008 Olympic team after tearing her right Achilles in September 2007.

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Caster Semenya leads Olympians in Time 100; streak hits 16 years

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An Olympian has made the Time 100 Most Influential list every year since its annual inception in 2004. South African runner Caster Semenya, soccer players Alex Morgan and Mo Salah and LeBron James kept the streak going in 2019.

It’s the fourth appearance for James (2005, 2013, 2017), extending his record for an athlete, and the first for Semenya, Morgan and Salah. Semenya made it in the “icons” category, while the other three are “titans.”

Two-time Olympic 400m hurdles champion Edwin Moses penned an essay about the two-time Olympic 800m champion Semenya, who is fighting a legal battle with the IAAF over a potential rule change limiting women’s testosterone levels in her events. If the rule goes into effect, Semenya’s dominance (three years undefeated at 800m) is expected to vanish.

“Caster Semenya has taught us that sex isn’t always binary, and caused us to question the justness of distributing societal benefits according to “male” and “female” classifications,” Moses wrote. “Ultimately, this incredibly difficult issue is a political one for sport to resolve. But however it is addressed, Semenya will have already made a singular historical contribution to our understanding of biological sex.”

Here are Olympians and Paralympians on past Time 100 lists, counting only athletes who competed in the Games before being listed:

2018 — Kevin Durant, Roger Federer, Chloe Kim, Adam Rippon
2017 — Simone Biles, LeBron James, Neymar
2016 — Usain BoltCaitlyn JennerKatie LedeckySania MirzaRonda Rousey
2015 — Abby Wambach
2014 — Cristiano Ronaldo, Serena Williams
2013 — LeBron James, Li Na, Lindsey Vonn
2012 — Novak DjokovicLionel MessiOscar Pistorius
2011 — Lionel Messi
2010 — Yuna KimSerena Williams
2009 — Rafael Nadal
2008 — Andre Agassi, Lance Armstrong, Oscar Pistorius
2007 — Roger FedererChien Ming-Wang
2006 — Joey CheekSteve Nash
2005 — LeBron James
2004 — Lance Armstrong, Paula Radcliffe, Yao Ming
2000 (20th Century) — Muhammad Ali

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