Reigning champions Papadakis, Cizeron in comfortable lead after rhythm dance at Europeans

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The Tango Romantica of the 2019 Rhythm Dance was danced in front of its creator, legendary coach Elena Chaykovskaya, who was in the stands.

Chaykovskaya witnessed the clear-cut victory of the four-time European champions, France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who elevated the record score they had set at the Grand Prix de France earlier in the season. They earned 84.79 points, some 3.42 points ahead of Russia’s Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, and 5.74 points ahead of third place skaters Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri from Italy.

Results: Rhythm dance

Papadakis and Cizeron had to wait before taking the ice, as they skated last. Their dance was smooth and fluid as usual, with the additional tonicity that Tango requires. Their step sequence and first Tango section received a level 2, their other elements a level 4. Still, the way they executed their elements (as reflected from the GOEs they received) was deemed the best of the evening – as were their components.

“As we were skating we could notice that our first Tango pattern was not completely clean,” Cizeron admitted afterwards. “It’s hard to skate full speed with passion and expression and do the key points at the same time. It’s something we’re better at when we practice than when we perform. But we’re working at it.”

“Tango is a dance we really like,” Papadakis added. “We haven’t had much experience with it, so we were really happy to learn it would be this year’s dance. It works well with the speed and glide, so it gives us another opportunity to express ourselves, as it combines both the strong character of the dance with glide.”

Stepanova and Bukin had their own personal approach to their dance. The audience cheered and applauded right from the start of their performance. Their Tango sections were rated level 2 and 4, their step sequence received a level 3. Their twizzles and lift were awarded a level 4.

“We have already won two bronze medals at previous Europeans, but this one will remain special,” Stepanova offered. “The assessment of our coaches was incredibly nice [after we skated], and it means a lot to us. Ice dance for us is when you show your emotions, your theatre, your show and the technical part at the same time. We are very happy to have surpassed the 80-point bar, especially at such a competition.”

“Everything comes with time,” Bukin added. “With experience you start to understand how and what to show and do it the best way.”

They totaled 81.37 points.

Guignard and Fabbri took the ice right after Stepanova and Bukin and the ovation they had received. The Italians delivered a lively rendering to their “Miedo a la Libertad” Tango (or “The fear of liberty” in Spanish), earning a level 3 for their step sequence and first Tango section, and a level 4 for all their other elements.

“It’s a very rewarding feeling for us, because we’ve worked a lot for this result,” Fabbri said afterwards. “This was the best rhythm dance of the season and the best score, so it’s great. This motivates us a lot for tomorrow’s free dance. We realize that we can compete with the best couples in the world. We can fight for the important medals.”

MORE: Behind the scenes at Europeans, day 3

As it has been the case since the season started, the key points of Tango Romantica were quite hard to get – and they remained so in Minsk. Only one team, Poland’s Natalia Kaliszek and Maksym Spodyriev, managed to receive a level 4 for both their Tango sections. They are currently standing in fourth place, with 72.87 points.

The last group of ice dancers opened with one of the main favorites, Russia’s Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, and the audience soon rallied to the incredible energy they displayed right away. Too much energy maybe, as Katsalapov fell on his twizzles only half a minute after the start of their program. They will advance to Saturday’s free dance in fifth place, with 70.24 points under their belt, 14.55 points behind the French.

MORE: Papadakis, Cizeron look to new Olympic cycle

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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Simone Biles returns to the gym, going from mental drain to physical pain

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For Simone Biles, this was supposed to be the stretch run of a legendary career.

Instead, she returned to her gym on May 18 with long-term thoughts of waiting 14 months until the Tokyo Olympics. And the immediate aches of a world-class gymnast who just missed nearly two months of regular training.

“After that amount of time off, it kind of sucks because your body hurts and then you get really sore,” Biles said in a pre-recorded ESPNW interview that aired Thursday. “So you just have to get back into the swing of things. But it felt nice to see my coaches, my teammates, and just to be back on the equipment and in the environment.”

In that same Texas gym three months ago, Biles had a far different outlook. One that would have put fear into any gymnast who still harbored ambition of ending her near-seven-year win streak.

“I never felt more ready this early in the season,” she said. “I was so ready for the Olympics to be this year.”

Biles repeated in interviews the last two months that the Olympic postponement to 2021 was devastating. Thoughts zig-zagged: How do I go on another year, at age 23, in a sport recently dominated by (but not limited to) teenagers?

“I’m getting pretty old,” she said in the interview published Thursday. “Will I be at the top of my game?”

Biles proved the last two years — after a year off — that she can win — and comfortably — while not at her best. She grabbed the 2018 World all-around title by a record margin — with two falls. Last year, she became the most decorated gymnast in world championships history. In Tokyo, she can become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around champion, and the only one older than 20, in more than 50 years.

This for a gymnast whose early goal was to earn a college scholarship. Biles did, to UCLA, but had to give it up by turning professional.

“So I’ve exceeded that,” Biles said. “And then I wanted to go to world championships and Olympics, and I’ve been to five worlds and one Olympic Games. So, I’d be more than happy [to walk away].”

After gymnastics, Biles has another goal — to be a voice for foster kids. She was in foster care multiple times before being adopted at age 6 by grandparents Ron and Nellie.

Those plans, along with so much else for Biles and so many others, have been pushed back a full year.

“I was already being mentally drained and almost, not done with the sport, but just going into the gym and feeling tired and being like, OK, I’m going to get my stuff [done], get out,” she said. “We have this one end goal, and now that it’s postponed another [year], it’s just like, how are we going to deal with that? We’re already being drained, and so it’s to keep the fire in the sport within yourself alive.”

MORE: Top U.S. gymnasts disagree with Tokyo Olympic age rule

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2022 Pan Pacific Championships canceled as swimming calendar shifts

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The Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, a quadrennial major international meet, will not be held in 2022 “out of respect for the recent changes to the international sporting calendar,” according to a press release.

The Pan Pacs’ charter nations — the U.S., Australia, Canada and Japan — agreed to the move. The 2026 event will be held in Canada, which was supposed to be the 2022 host.

The decision came after the 2021 World Championships were moved to May 2022, following the Tokyo Olympics moving from 2020 to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The quadrennial multi-sport Commonwealth Games — which includes Australia and Canada, but not the U.S. or Japan — are scheduled for July 27-Aug. 7, 2022.

“Organizing a third major championships in that window presented several challenges,” according to the Pan Pacs release.

Pan Pacs mark the third-biggest major international meet for U.S. swimmers, held in non-Olympic, non-world championships years.

MORE: Caeleb Dressel co-hosts a podcast. It’s not about swimming.

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