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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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Transgender track and field athletes now face same standard that has kept out Caster Semenya

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Transgender athletes will have to reduce their testosterone level to the same level applied to Caster Semenya and other athletes with Differences of Sex Development (DSD), under a new policy enacted by World Athletics (formerly the IAAF).

As with DSD athletes, the threshold for middle-distance runners has been lowered from 10 nanomoles per liter to 5.

“These Regulations have been drafted to align with the Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development) and include updates to reflect current medical standards and the legal framework,” World Athletics said in announcing the latest IAAF Council decisions.

The IAAF claimed a similar basis in medical standards last year when it announced its updated policy on DSD athletes: “No female would have serum levels of natural testosterone at 5 nmol/L or above unless they have DSD or a tumour.”

Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion at 800 meters, challenged that limit in the Court of Arbitration for Sport but lost her case in May. Given a brief reprieve by a Swiss court, she ran the fastest 800-meter time of the year (1:54.98), but a higher court overruled her appeal. She did not compete in the recent world championships.

MORE: Semenya laments lack of support

Another athlete affected by the DSD policy, 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Margaret Wambui, told the Olympic Channel she was struggling to find a new direction after the rule was passed.

“It affected me a lot,” Wambui said. “I didn’t want to train or do anything. …

“Caster has fought for us. She has done her level best. She has tried, but we failed.”

VIDEO: Wambui: “No one chose to be born the way they are”

Transgender athletes have not yet been prominent in international track and field, though controversies have arisen at other levels, particularly in a Connecticut case in which high school athletes filed a Title IX complaint after losing to transgender athletes. The athletes who filed the claim said they were potentially at a disadvantage in terms of earning college scholarships.

The new World Athletics policy insists that its stipulations for transgender athletes are actually generous. “The decision limit also takes into consideration that, for clinical purposes, the Endocrine Society Clinical Practice Guideline for Endocrine Treatment of Gender-Dysphoric/Gender-Incongruent Persons recommends that transgender females should have serum testosterone levels of less than 50 ng/dL (i.e. approximately 1.7 nmol/L).”

But while DSD and transgender athletes face different issues, Semenya and other DSD athletes have set a precedent by withdrawing from competition rather than bring their levels down to the 5 nmol/L standard. In CAS proceedings, Semenya said she experienced regular fevers, night sweats, significant weight gain and constant abdominal pain while taking medication to meet the previous standard of 10 nmol/L.

The International Olympic Committee also put a 10 nmol/L limit in place for both transgender and DSD athletes in 2015. Some athletes have complained that transgender athletes still have an unfair advantage under that policy.

The World Athletics policy also addresses transgender men, granting them permission to take regulated testosterone supplements to bring levels within a typical range for men.

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U.S. men’s volleyball extends medal streak with bronze in World Cup

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With its medal-winning streak in jeopardy, the defending champion U.S. men’s volleyball team beat Egypt 22-25, 25-16, 25-14, 25-13 on Tuesday in Hiroshima, Japan. Poland beat Iran later in the day to slip past the U.S. for silver behind unbeaten Brazil.

The experienced U.S. men have claimed a medal in the last four major international tournaments — gold in the 2015 World Cup, bronze in the 2016 Olympics, bronze in the 2018 world championships and bronze in this year’s World Cup. The men also placed second in the 2019 Nations League and third in the first Nations League in 2018, though the team failed to medal in the last two editions of the World League in 2016 and 2017.

Most importantly for next year, the U.S. men swept their Olympic qualification tournament in August.

Micah Christenson was named best setter of the tournament, as he was in the 2015 tournament and in the 2018 world championships. Middle blocker Max Holt was also named to the tournament “Dream Team.

VIDEO: U.S.-Egypt highlights

The U.S. team’s World Cup started with a five-set loss to Argentina, which went on to finish fifth. The U.S. rebounded to beat Italy, world champion Poland, host Japan, Tunisia and Iran before losing to eventual champion Brazil. Border rival Canada took the U.S. to five sets, but sweeps against Australia and Brazil put the team in position to clinch its medal.

Heading into next year’s Olympics, the U.S. team has several internationally accomplished players. In addition to Christenson’s multiple awards, Matt Anderson was named the best opposite hitter in the world championship and Nations League in 2018, and Aaron Russell was named to the Dream Team in the 2016 Olympics. Russell, playing for Italian team Trentino, also was named MVP of the World Club Championship in December.

The U.S. women’s team also won two medals this year gold in the Nations League, silver in the World Cup and swept its own qualification tournament.

This success comes despite the lack of a professional league in the United States. USA volleyball announced last week it has processed paperwork for 257 women and 82 men to play in foreign leagues for the 2019-20, with more players to follow.

The World Cup is contested every four years, the year before the Olympics. The world championship takes place in even non-Olympic years. Qualification for the World Cup is more difficult — only 12 teams reach the tournament, while 24 teams take part in the world championship. 

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