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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World champion wins doping case citing bodily fluids from boyfriend

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — A world champion canoeist won a doping case Monday after persuading a tribunal that her positive test was caused by bodily fluid contamination from her boyfriend.

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) ended its investigation into 11-time world champion Laurence Vincent Lapointe, who tested positive for a steroid-like substance in July. She faced a four-year ban and could have missed her event’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games.

The Canadian canoe sprint racer and her lawyer detailed in a news program that laboratory analysis of hair from her then-boyfriend showed he was likely responsible for a tiny presence of ligandrol in her doping sample.

“The ICF has accepted Ms. Vincent Lapointe’s evidence which supports that she was the victim of third-party contamination,” the governing body said in a statement, clearing her to return to competition.

The legal debate is similar to tennis player Richard Gasquet’s 2009 acquittal in the “cocaine kiss” case. The Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted Gasquet’s defense that kissing a woman who had taken cocaine in a Miami nightclub, after he had withdrawn injured from a tournament, caused his positive test.

The 27-year-old Vincent Lapointe was provisionally suspended for almost six months and missed the 2019 World Championships, which was a key qualifying event for the Tokyo Olympics. American 17-year-old Nevin Harrison won the 200m world title in her absence.

She can still qualify for the Olympic debut of women’s canoe sprint events with victory at a World Cup event in May in Germany.

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U.S. women’s soccer team begins Olympic qualifying, which should rest on one match

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The U.S. women’s soccer team has never been in danger in Olympic qualifying, but that doesn’t change this fact: It must win on Feb. 7 to reach the Tokyo Games.

The CONCACAF tournament begins Tuesday in Houston, where the world champion Americans face world No. 72 Haiti. The last two group games are against No. 68 Panama on Friday and No. 37 Costa Rica on Feb. 3. The top two nations from the group advance to Feb. 7 semifinals.

The U.S. roster, with 18 of its 20 players coming from the 2019 World Cup team, is here.

Since CONCACAF qualifies two nations to the Olympics, the semifinals are the deciding games.

Should the U.S. win its group, it would face the runner-up from the other group in a winner-goes-to-Tokyo match. The other group (world ranking):

Canada (8)
Mexico (37)
Jamaica (53)
St. Kitts and Nevis (127)

Chaos could result in the unlikely event that either the U.S. or Canada finishes second in its group, and the two North American powers play a semifinal.

The U.S. is undefeated in Olympic qualifying history, since the tournament format began in 2004 — 15-0 with a goal differential of 88-1 (not counting matches played once they’ve already clinched qualification). The lone goal allowed came in a group-stage match in 2008, when the U.S. was already assured a spot in the semifinals.

Still, the U.S. knows the feeling of one poor outing in an important match. In 2010, it lost to Mexico in a winner-to-the-World Cup match. The U.S. was forced to win a last-chance, home-and-home playoff against a UEFA team — Italy — for the last spot in the World Cup.

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