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Next generation ice dancers Alexandra Stepanova, Ivan Bukin on the rise with unique parental perspective

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Russia’s Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin were long-considered up-and-coming ice dancers. But they’ve been on the rise, most recently winning the silver medal at the European Championships. The couple sat down with NBCSports.com/figure-skating with their coaches, Alexander Svinin and Irina Zhuk, to discuss their struggle to embody emotions beyond their natural camaraderie, how the team managed to overcome their Olympic ban in 2018, and the perspective Bukin has from his father, a champion ice dancer 30 years ago.

“We are not a couple in real life,” Stepanova explained. “But we need to make people believe it’s real love.”

At the European Championships in Minsk, Stepanova and Bukin won far more than their third European medal: it was their first silver, and they positioned themselves as a leading ice dance team, this time with a real senior posture.

The team may have come of age this season. For many years, Stepanova and Bukin have stepped at the same pace, both on and off the ice. You could see them walk and talk and smile at each other in every competitive rink, always together, even during warm-up and stretching. Watching them, you would easily have considered them as two good teenage friends walking along.

This year, they started embodying something like passion into their routines, especially for their rhythm dance, a Tango Romantica. That couldn’t be taken for granted for this most charming team.

“It has been such a hard work,” Bukin confirmed smilingly. “It took us lots of energy, the whole day, the whole night, in our brain, during training and after training. It was a huge job, trying to grow up and to feel the dance.”

“It really has been the best part of our work, and we are grateful that you noticed the change: it shows that our work has paid off,” Stepanova added.

“No, it’s not been easy for them,” Svinin, who has been coaching them for the last 12 years with Zhuk, explained. “Alexandra and Ivan made their way from juniors and seniors. We knew each one of them very well when they started together, of course, but they had to learn one another very well, too. They’ve been working very hard – on the ice, on the floor.

“They have grown up a lot, their mentality has evolved as well. They improve year after year. Of course, they grow technically through the things we ask them to do, but also because they grow in their minds.

“These last seasons, they’ve learnt to bring a feeling between them. They can always miss an element. But they need to breathe together. That requires a lot of work with their choreographers and us. It’s a question of energy between them, of romanticism, of chemistry.”

One year ago, the team was left desperate, as the International Olympic Committee denied them the right to compete at the PyeongChang Olympics, following the Sochi Russian doping scandal.

“We never understood. We were in complete shock,” Svinin recalled. “Alexandra and Ivan had not even participated in the Sochi Olympics. All their doping tests were always negative. We were together, and we talked a lot together many times.

The president of the Russian Federation called the coaching team to announce the news, but they were out of town at another competition. The coaches called Stepanova and Bukin’s parents because they knew the team needed support. They spent two days together.

“They received so much [support],” Svinin said. “From around them, but also from the external world. So many people, champions, coaches – even those of teams we compete against – wrote and signed letters. Still we got no answer to our request to reinstate them.”

“And then what can we do?” Zhuk added. “Altogether we decided to [look] forward to the next Olympics. We’ll fight! We’re not at the end of the journey, we are just at the beginning.”

An interesting event may take place in the months and years to come. Stepanova and Bukin’s path may meet that of Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko, an American up-and-coming dance team. In January, they placed fifth at the U.S. Championships and in 2018 they were the junior national champions.

Ponomarenko is the son of Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, who won the ice dance gold medal in Albertville in 1992. While Bukin’s father, Andrei Bukin, was the Olympic gold medalist in Calgary, in 1988, with Natalia Bestemianova. Both fathers fought hard in those years.

“We are extremely proud that Ivan’s father was a great champion in his time,” Stepanova offered with a radiant smile. “Now he finds the time to visit our training sessions and offers some help.”

“It’s so funny!” Bukin added. “Now Carreira and Ponomareko are reaching [the senior] level, and it’s so funny to think that his father competed against mine, and now we are going to be able to compete together.”

“It’s nice to foresee that the two sons will soon connect again – Andrei’s son and Sergei’s son fighting on the same ice,” Svinin said. “We like it. We’ll see how it goes in the next seasons.”

“Natalia is helping us very much. Andrei helps, too,” Zhuk added. “Sometimes they put a small thing in their programs or practice. They give them love and support. They transmit the Olympic power! [laughing]. That’s what we want for them!”

“The two fathers have chosen a different life,” Svinin recalled. “One father [Bukin] remained in Russia, one [Ponomarenko] went to the United States. Sergei, Andrei and I were real friends. Except at competitions, where we fought hard. But besides that, we were friends in Moscow. At the Olympics, in 1984 in Sarajevo, we were even sharing the same apartment, the three of us plus two other Russian skaters. It was a good time. Seeing the next generation is life. And it’s good.”

Polina Lakhtsutko, from Belarus, kindly assisted with Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin’s interview and interpreted their comments.

MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron look to new Olympic cycle

As a reminder, you can watch the world 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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Noah Lyles raises black-gloved fist, wins 200m in Monaco

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Noah Lyles said he had plans going forward to make statements, beyond his rapid sprint times. He did that in Monaco on Friday.

Lyles raised a black, fingerless-gloved right fist before getting into the blocks to win a 200m in his first international race of the season, conjuring memories of the famous 1968 Olympic podium gesture.

He clocked 19.76 seconds, leading a one-two with younger brother Josephus. Full results are here.

“As athletes it’s hard to show that you love your country and also say that change is needed,” was posted on Lyles’ Instagram, along with hashtags including #blacklivesmatter. “This is my way of saying this country is great but it can be better.”

Lyles, the world 200m champion, also paid respect to 1968 Olympic 200m gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos three hours before the race.

He tweeted an iconic image of Smith and Carlos raising their single black-gloved fists on the medal stand at the Mexico City Games. Thirteen minutes earlier, Lyles posted an Instagram Story image of his socks for the meet — plain, dark colored.

Smith and Carlos wore black socks without shoes on the podium to signify endemic poverty back in the U.S. at the time.

Lyles is known for his socks, often posting images of colorful pairs he wears before races, themes including Speed Racer, R2-D2 and Sonic the Hedgehog.

“We are at the point where you can’t do nothing anymore,” Lyles said Wednesday. “There aren’t any rules set out. You’re kind of just pushing the boundary as far as you can go. Some people have said, even if there were rules, they’re willing to go farther than that.”

MORE: Noah, Josephus Lyles take 4-year journey to Monaco

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Joshua Cheptegei breaks 5000m world record in Monaco

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Ugandan Joshua Cheptegei broke a 16-year-old world record in the 5000m by nearly two seconds, clocking 12:35.36 in Monaco on Friday.

Cheptegei, the 2019 World 10,000m champion who reportedly needed 80 hours to travel from Uganda for the Diamond League meet, took 1.99 seconds off Ethiopian legend Kenenisa Bekele‘s world record from 2004. Bekele is also the 10,000m world-record holder and the second-fastest marathoner in history.

“It took a lot of mind setting to keep being motivated this year because so many people are staying at home, but you have to stay motivated,” Cheptegei said, according to organizers. “I pushed myself, I had the right staff with me, the right coach.”

Cheptegei, 23, came into Monaco as the 73rd-fastest man in history with a personal best of 12:57.41. But he declared before the meet that the world record was his goal, given he had no Olympics or world championships to peak for this year.

“It is very difficult to run any world record,” was posted on the Instagram of Bekele, who is part of the NN Running Team with Cheptegei. “Congratulations to my teammate [Cheptegei].”

Full Monaco results are here. The Diamond League next moves to Stockholm on Aug. 23.

In other events Friday, Noah Lyles easily won a 200m after raising a black-gloved first before the start. More on Lyles’ gesture and victory here.

Donavan Brazier extended a year-plus 800m win streak, clocking 1:43.15 and holding off countryman Bryce Hoppel by .08. Brazier won his last seven meets, including national, world and Diamond League titles in 2019, when he broke a 34-year-old American record.

Olympic silver medalist Orlando Ortega of Spain won the 110m hurdles in 13.11 seconds, overtaking world champion Grant Holloway. Holloway, who won worlds in 13.10 last autumn, finished fourth in 13.19.

Timothy Cheruiyot followed his 2019 World title by clocking his second-fastest 1500m ever. The Kenyan recorded 3:28.45, holding off Norwegian 19-year-old Jakob Ingebrigtsen, who set a European record of 3:28.68.

Sifan Hassan, the world’s top female distance runner, dropped out of the 5000m with two and a half laps left while in the lead pack. Two-time world champion Hellen Obiri won in 14:22.12, surging past Ethiopian Letesenbet Gidey on the final lap.

Karsten Warholm ran the joint eighth-fastest 400m hurdles in history, a 47.10 against a field that lacked rivals Rai Benjamin and Abderrahman Samba. Warholm, the two-time world champion, ranks second in history with a personal best of 46.92, trailing only American Kevin Young‘s 46.78 from the 1992 Olympics.

American Lynna Irby won her Diamond League debut with a 50.50 in the 400m. Irby, the second-fastest American in 2018, failed to make the 2019 World team. On Friday, she beat Wadeline Jonathas, the top American in 2019.

Pole vault world-record holder Mondo Duplantis needed three tries to clear 5.70 meters, then won with a 5.80-meter clearance (and then cleared six meters). Duplantis, whose mom drove his poles 25 hours from Sweden to Monaco, brought the world record to 6.18 meters in February.

American Sam Kendricks, two-time reigning world pole vault champion, did not compete because his poles did not arrive.

MORE: Noah, Josephus Lyles take 4-year journey to Monaco

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