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Behind the scenes at the European Championships: Day 4

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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 fourth day.

Zagitova’s teddy bear

If there would be a world record for teddy bears, Alina Zagitova would have won Friday night in Minsk. Among the hundreds of gifts that poured from the stands, a huge “Carmen”-red bear made its way to the ice. Two ice sweepers, at most a third its size, had to take one of its arms each and pulled it over the ice to the other side of the ice rink.

“I’ve not seen it yet; I just saw something red,” Zagitova commented later [she must have been the only one person in the rink not to see it!]. “I’ll take it home of course, but I’m running out of space!”

“Alina and I communicated a lot together, before the award ceremony but also the doping control. We really had fun with that big red bear!” Sofia Samodurova detailed Saturday morning.

MORE: Samodurova surpasses Zagitova for gold at Europeans

Girls move a teddy bear from the ice after Russia’s Alina Zagitova performs in the ladies free skating at the ISU European figure skating championships in Minsk, Belarus, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Ciprès can finally sleep

“I didn’t sleep very well before the free program, because of the jetlag,” newly-minted European pairs’ gold medalist Morgan Cipres admitted after the duo’s historic victory in Minsk.

“When you don’t sleep, the problem is that you think a lot. The experience we had last year, when we dropped from first to fourth, came back again and again. The night after we won, however, I went back to the Internet and watched some of our skating programs of the past. For the first time, I even dared watching the program we had skated in Moscow last year. After I watched it, I could finally go back to sleep.”

The nightmare is finally over!

Success and ubiquity

“It’s not easy to have the Europeans being held at the same time as U.S. Nationals!” Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron’s coach, Romain Haguenauer, said half-smilingly. Probably one of the most successful ice dance schools in the world at the present time, the Montreal school had to set a specific organization for these two simultaneous major championships.

“At U.S. Nationals we have three major teams, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Here we have six teams from various nationalities. In both cases you can’t do with less than two coaches. So Marie-France [Dubreuil] and I are here, while Patrice [Lauzon] and another coach are in Detroit. But that’s sure quite good for the school!” Haguenauer concluded.

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue one step closer to title defense in Detroit

Medal grace

Slavic countries are known for their rich and colored costumes. The three Belarussian ladies carrying the medals, wearing a big brown crown and exquisite embroidered dresses and plastrons, exemplify the wealth of the Belarussian culture.

“It takes about half an hour for us to dress up,” one explained. Half an hour to get ready to present the medals of one’s life, and the centuries of Belarussian culture to the elite of skating.

Green is red

The “green room,” where the leaders are being scrutinized by TV cameras as they are waiting for their competitors’ marks, has been revived in Minsk. Except the green zone is decorated is red, the colors of Minsk. And the room is now open to the end of the mixed zone. Alina Zagitova and Viveca Lindfors were in the green zone as Sofia Samodurova was skating her exhilarating performance and Alexia Paganini fought for a podium finish. Both unlaced their skates and put them back cautiously and slowly. Zagitova dove her head down as the final ranking was posted. Virpi Horttana, Lindfors’s coach, rushed to hug her pupil as Paganini’s marks came up. Lindfors had just won a bronze medal, seven years after Kiira Korpi had won her last European medal for Finland in 2012!

TV… Or skating stars?

During resurfacing breaks, two long lines of spectators usually form in the Minsk Arena: one is going upward, toward Tatiana Tarasova’s TV booth. The other is going downward toward Elena Chaykovskaya. Both are respected coaches.

“But don’t believe that people want an autograph because of the many skating stars they produced,” a noted Russian journalist explained. “Both Chaykovskaya and Tarasova take part in TV shows, like The Ice Age and Skating with the Stars, which Ilya Averbukh [the 2002 Olympic silver medalist] produces. Tarasova is the main judge, so she is highly respected!”

Lambiel’s fan club

Brian Joubert was alongside France’s Laurine Lecavelier as she skated her free program. Friday, he went to the rink wearing a flashy jacket with tiger-like orange sleeves, quite reminiscent to Stéphane Lambiel’s own costume on the Olympic ice of Turin, back in 2006.

“Yeah, that’s it!” Joubert commented: “I’m a big fan!”

I’m sure Lambiel would like to know that his fan base keeps expanding!

First steps

“This is the first time we skate together in such a huge arena,” Louis Thauron, the French ice dancer, said as he and new partner Adelina Galyavieva left the ice after their Rhythm dance Friday afternoon. Galyavieva and Thauron partnered at the end of the season last year.

“Can you imagine? I’m just 1.58 meters [5 feet, 3 inches], and I’m here in the middle of the ice with 15,000 people above my head?” Galyavieva exclaimed. “We are alone in the middle and we have to do the show, it just can’t be described. You feel it when silence greets you before your music starts. And it’s just so overwhelming as your music starts!” Thauron added. “We heard the audience cheer in the step sequence and that gave me so much energy, that it motivated me to give back even more!” He concluded enthusiastically.

MORE: Behind the scenes on Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 at the European Championships

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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