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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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Justin Morneau nixes Olympic baseball qualifying return

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Justin Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP with the Minnesota Twins, was taken off Canada’s Olympic baseball qualifying roster before he would have played his first competitive game in more than two years.

Morneau, 38, experienced an unspecified setback in training and was replaced on Canada’s roster for next month’s Premier12. The global tournament marks the first opportunity for many world baseball powers to qualify for the sport’s return to the Olympics.

Morneau never played in the Olympics before baseball was cut from the Games after 2008; active MLB players have never competed in the Games. But he was on Canada’s roster at all four World Baseball Classics from 2006 through 2017.

At November’s Premier12, the top nation from North and South America will qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Japan and Israel are already qualified. Those that do not qualify will get another chance next year.

Morneau could become the second Major League Baseball MVP to play Olympic baseball as a medal sport. The other was Jason Giambi, who made the U.S. team in 1992, the same summer he was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Athletics.

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MORE: Joe Girardi replaced as U.S. baseball manager by World Series champion

Kolohe Andino is first U.S. Olympic surfing qualifier; Kelly Slater faces last chance

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Kolohe Andino is the first American to qualify for surfing’s Olympic debut, which leaves one spot left for 47-year-old Kelly Slater to chase at the final contest of the season.

Andino, a 25-year-old Californian whose first name means “rascal” in Hawaiian, clinched his place in Tokyo on Friday at the penultimate stop on the World Surf League Championship Tour in Portugal. He is ranked fifth in the world, trailing a trio of Brazilians.

One more American man will join Andino on the Olympic team. It will be one of Slater, the 11-time world champion, John John Florence, the 2016 and 2017 World champion, and rising 22-year-old Hawaiian Seth Moniz.

Slater was handed a golden opportunity to qualify when Florence announced in early July that he tore an ACL for the second time in 13 months. Florence had won two of the first five events this season.

Slater has been chasing the sidelined Florence in the standings ever since. But it has not been easy.

Slater hasn’t made the quarterfinals in any of his last seven contests going into December’s finale — the prestigious Billabong Pipeline Masters on the North Shore of Oahu.

“Ninth place, to me, used to be a pretty awful result. I’m used to at least a quarterfinal on for most of my career,” he said in July, noting a back injury. “I’m not horrified by my results, but I’m also not surprised. Maybe other people are because everyone focuses on my age and that kind of thing. It’s not like I’m going to all of a sudden forget how to do this thing, you know?”

Slater, who won the Pipe Masters seven times between 1992 and 2013, must reach the quarterfinals at this year’s event to have any chance of passing Florence to qualify for the Olympics.

Complicating matters: Florence said in August it was his “goal to get better for Pipeline in case I have to come back and compete and gain points,” according to ESPN.com. If Florence does return for the December contest, and makes the quarterfinals, Slater could only pass him with a victory.

Moniz goes into the finale ranked one spot behind Slater, meaning he, too, can grab that second and final Olympic spot with a win or a runner-up.

Slater, who turns 48 on Feb. 11, would be the oldest U.S. Summer Olympic rookie competitor in a sport other than equestrian, sailing or shooting (or art competitions!) in the last 100 years, supplanting Martina Navratilova, according to the OlyMADMen.

MORE: Top U.S. surfer has links to Egg McMuffin, Guinness World Record holder

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