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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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Adeline Gray breaks U.S. record with fifth world wrestling title

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U.S. wrestlers have won more than 60 gold medals in the history of the world championships. Adeline Gray is at the top of that list.

Gray earned her American record-breaking fifth world title in Kazakhstan on Thursday, taking the 76kg final 4-2 over Japanese Hiroe Suzuki.

She broke her tie of four world titles with Olympic gold medalists John Smith and Jordan Burroughs and Tricia Saunders, who earned her crowns in the 1990s before women’s wrestling was added to the Olympics in 2004. Burroughs can match Gray later this week.

“I’ve got to mark that off my bucket list,” said Gray, who earned her seventh medal Thursday, six weeks after right hand surgery. “Kristie Davis was a nine-time world medalist, and I’m still chasing that.”

Gray, 28, earned her fourth straight world title and continued an impressive rebound. She had a two-year win streak before being upset in the Rio Olympic quarterfinals, missing the chance to become the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion.

Though Gray keeps a pyramid with goals — including five-time world champion, Olympic champion and to “be exciting” — she purposely grounds herself with acronyms and conversations with friends to lessen the hype.

“I had a lot of those thoughts before 2016, and I think that let it creep up to me a little bit in a negative way,” Gray said in June. “Just the fact that some people were saying, like, hey, you’ve had a great career. It’s awesome what you’ve done. You’re already written in the history books kind of thing.”

Gray revealed six months after that Rio disappointment that she wrestled in Brazil with a shoulder injury. She underwent surgeries on that shoulder and to repair a torn meniscus in her knee in January 2017 and went 11 months between matches, missing that year’s world championships.

During that break, she married U.S. Army Capt. Damaris Sanders. She scaled 14,000-foot mountains. Gray wasn’t sure about returning. She thought about trying to have a baby instead. Even when she did get back on the mat, she considered phasing out if she started losing matches.

“It took a little bit of figuring out what I wanted and figuring out why I wanted to come back,” she said Wednesday, after reaching the final. “Really, the reason I’ve been sticking around is because coach Terry [Steiner]‘s been whispering in my ear, making sure I know that I’m good enough to be winning at this level. And there’s something more than that. There’s this huge wave of women’s sports, and I’m part of that. It’s something special.”

Earlier Thursday, American Tamyra Mensah-Stock reached Friday’s 68kg final, one year after taking bronze in the division. Mensah-Stock routed Japan’s Olympic champion Sara Dosho 10-1 in the quarterfinals.

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MORE: World Wrestling Championships TV Schedule

Genzebe Dibaba, 1500m world record holder, to miss world championships

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Genzebe Dibaba, the 1500m world record holder, will miss the world track and field championships that start next week due to a right foot injury, according to her agency.

The Ethiopian Dibaba lowered the 1500m world record to 3:50.07 in 2015, then won the world title a month later. Kenyan Faith Kipyegon relegated her to silver at the Rio Olympics. Dibaba was last in the 12-woman final at the 2017 Worlds, then withdrew from the 5000m at that meet, citing illness.

Dibaba’s absence further opens the door for Americans Shelby Houlihan (second-fastest in the world last year) and Jenny Simpson, the Olympic bronze medalist and 2017 World silver medalist.

Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan is fastest in the world this year and broke the mile world record on July 12. Hassan has range from 800m through 10,000m, and it’s not guaranteed she will contest the 1500m in Doha starting with the first round Oct. 2.

The event is already lacking Caster Semenya, the two-time Olympic 800m champion who took bronze in her world 1500m debut in 2017. Semenya is excluded from races from 400m through the mile under the IAAF’s new rule capping testosterone in those events.

MORE: U.S. roster for track and field worlds

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