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Javier Fernandez rebounds to win seventh European title, retires from competition

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Spain’s Javier Fernandez won his seventh straight European crown in Minsk, a feat only accomplished one other time in the history of the sport. No man since Austrian Karl Schaefer – who won eight consecutive European titles beginning in 1929 – has won as many straight titles as Fernandez.

He won the free program ahead of Russia’s Alexander Samarin and Italy’s Matteo Rizzo, surprising third. Russia’s Mikhail Kolyada, who took a commanding lead in the short program, completely missed his program to end fifth overall.

Results: Men’s final at Europeans

“I’m used at comebacks, right?” Fernandez had offered at the post-event press conference after the short program. And seven has always been a lucky charm.

Fernandez still had to overcome a 8.65-point gap to catch leader Kolyada, though. He did far more than that. The “Man of La Mancha,” his program music, did more than defend his chevaleresque honor. He landed two perfect quads, a triple toe and a Salchow, and two triple Axels. He wobbled on the landing of his quad toe, triple toe combination, and his major error came later in his program, when he doubled his planned triple flip, triple Salchow combination.

“I feel amazing,” Fernandez commented, joyful though not relaxed, as he left the ice. “I knew that was going to be my last skate, and I’m super proud to have been able to skate the way I did today. I was confident, I trained great: it was for a short period of time, but the training was efficient.”

Fernandez had about three weeks of practice in the lead-up to Europeans at his longtime training base in Toronto.

The precision of Fernandez’s steps, the density of his transitions, his completely centered spins, his unconditional connection with all audiences of the world during his program gave like a reminder of all of what skating will owe to him. The Belorussian audience was on its feet and sent dozens of gifts to the ice.

Samarin took the ice right before Fernandez, with 0.13 points to spare ahead of the Spaniard after the short. He delivered a strong program, highlighted with a quad Lutz, quad toe and two triple Axels. Samarin was all energy during his routine. His strong jumps, clear long lines and amazing speed embarked the audience after his main elements were completed.

Samarin was so concentrated and tense, he ended kneeling on the ice and knocked it three times with his fist, prior to rushing to his coaches’ arms. He tallied 177.87 points for his free program, a new season’s best, and 269.84 total points, a mere 1.75 points short of the gold medal.

“It is very hard to collect my emotions now and to tell how that was,” Samarin offered as he left the ice. “It was tough emotionally and mentally. I fought for every element in this program. Obviously, you want to be among the leaders and this is a big responsibility. I am endlessly happy that I was able to make not only myself happy, but also my coach.”

Rizzo had taken the ice one hour and 20 minutes before Samarin – with a brand new program to Queen’s music, who replaced his previous Rolling Stones’ medley. He delivered a solid performance, including a clean quad toe, one triple Axel in combination with a double toe, and two triple-triple combinations. The audience became very reactive at the end of it, clapping along to the beat of his music. Rizzo reached a new season’s best for his free program, 165.67 points, the third best of the afternoon. He rallied from 10th place to third overall with 247.08 points.

“It felt very emotional at the end, as I was really giving everything I had inside,” Rizzo said. “We debuted this program two weeks ago, and already I feel much more comfortable with this one.”

France’s Kevin Aymoz experienced a few mishaps, but he managed to give an emotional rendering of his Irrepressibles’ “In this Shirt” program, and to demonstrate that he would be a strong contender to be counted on in the near future. He ended up fourth overall.

MORE: Coach Brian Orser on Javier’s skating legacy

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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At U.S. Open swim meet, teens make a splash with Olympic trials on horizon

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While Olympic and world champions Katie LedeckySimone Manuel and Chase Kalisz notched expected victories at the U.S. Open on Thursday, a trio of teenagers lowered personal bests to further establish their Tokyo Olympic hopes.

At the top domestic meet of the winter, Alex WalshCarson Foster and Kieran Smith each earned runner-up finishes, but their performances stood out in the big picture: looking at June’s Olympic trials, where the top two per individual event make the team.

Walsh, a rising Nashville high school senior, took 2.23 seconds off her 200m individual medley best. She clocked 2:09.01, overtaken by .17 by Melanie Margalis, the Rio Olympic and 2019 World Championships fourth-place finisher.

Full meet results are here.

Walsh moved from fifth-fastest in the U.S. this year to No. 2 behind Margalis, passing Olympic and world championships veterans Ella EastinKathleen Baker and Madisyn Cox. Of those swimmers, only Eastin was also in Thursday’s final.

Walsh joined her younger sister, Gretchen, in Olympic qualifying position based on 2019 times. Gretchen, 16, ranks fourth in the U.S. in the 100m free this year. The top six in that event at trials are in line to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool.

The Walshes could become the third set of sisters to make the same U.S. Olympic swim team, and the second to do it in pool swimming after Dana and Tara Kirk in 2004.

Foster, 18, continued his ascent Thursday in taking second to Kalisz in the men’s 200m IM. The world junior champion lowered his personal best in the prelims and the final, getting down to 1:57.59. Foster passed Ryan Lochte, who is nearly twice his age, in Thursday’s final and in the 2019 U.S. rankings. Only Kalisz and Michael Andrew have been faster among Americans this year.

Foster is trying to become the youngest U.S. Olympic male swimmer since 2000, when a 15-year-old Michael Phelps made his Olympic debut. Foster, who has been breaking Phelps national age-group records since he was 10, committed to the University of Texas in March 2018, two years before he graduates high school in Ohio.

Then there’s Kieran Smith, now a prime candidate to fill a huge void in the 400m freestyle. Zane Grothe is the only American ranked in the top 20 in the world this year.

Smith, a 19-year-old from the University of Florida, took 2.29 seconds off his lifetime best on Thursday to jump from outside the top 10 to No. 2 in the U.S. on the year. Smith was already ranked No. 2 in the country in the 200m free.

Two more runners-up in the 50m freestyles — Erika Brown to Manuel and Zach Apple to Brazilian Bruno Fratus — lowered personal bests to move to No. 3 in each U.S. ranking list this year.

The U.S. Open continues Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. ET with live coverage on NBCSN and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

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Nathan Chen distances Yuzuru Hanyu in Grand Prix Final short program

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A brilliant Nathan Chen outscored a flawed Yuzuru Hanyu for a fourth straight head-to-head program, taking a 12.95-point lead at the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy, on Thursday.

Chen, the two-time reigning world champion, tallied 110.38 points going into Saturday’s free skate. He landed a quadruple Lutz, triple Axel and quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination.

It’s the highest short program score in the world this season, leading the American to say “wow” in the kiss-and-cry area. His coach, the often-gruff Rafael Arutyunyan, banged his knee against his pupil’s.

Hanyu, the two-time reigning Olympic champion, hit a quadruple Salchow and triple Axel but then stepped out of a quad toe landing. He therefore failed to include a required jumping combination and ended up in second place.

“I wanted to do a great performance and do a good competition against [Chen], but that didn’t happen this time,” Hanyu, who was without longtime coach Brian Orser, or any other coach, said through a translator. Hanyu said Orser was busy last week, so he chose to use his lone accreditation on another coach who had travel delays.

Hanyu is not out of title contention. His world-leading free skate score this season is 16.61 points better than Chen’s best free skate from the fall Grand Prix Series.

Chen is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics, but this is just his second head-to-head with Hanyu in that span. Chen defeated Hanyu at March’s world championships, where the Japanese megastar was likely affected by an ankle injury.

After Thursday’s program, Chen repeated what he said before the competition: he still feels like he’s chasing Hanyu.

“Yuzu is like the goat, he’s the greatest of all time, really,” Chen said. “So, to have this opportunity to be able to share the ice with a guy like that, someone that I’ve looked up to for a long time, someone that I’ve watched grow up through the junior ranks when I was like a baby, it’s really cool to be able see him now. It’s really cool to even just be able to see him person.”

The Grand Prix Final, the biggest annual event outside the world championships, continues Friday with the rhythm dance, women’s short and pairs’ free skate. A full TV and live stream schedule is here.

Earlier in pairs, Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong took their first step toward a first Grand Prix Final title. The Olympic silver medalists tallied 77.50, leading Russians Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy by .85 going into Friday’s free skate.

Sui and Han were imperfect, with Sui putting her hand down on a throw triple flip landing. They are undefeated in this Beijing Olympic cycle and own the world’s top total score this season.

The U.S. failed to qualify a pair for the six-team Final for the 11th time in the last 12 years.

Grand Prix Final
Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 110.38
2. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 97.43
3. Kevin Aymoz (FRA) — 96.71
4. Dmitriy Aliyev (RUS) — 88.78
5. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 81.32
6. Jin Boyang (CHN) — 80.67

Pairs’ Short Program
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 77.50
2. Aleksandra Boikova / Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS) — 76.65
3. Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS) — 75.16
4. Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS) — 71.48
5. Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN) — 69.67
6. Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro (CAN) — 67.08

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