AP

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

Leave a comment

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Larry Nassar judge, Olympians back USOC oversight push in Congress

AP
Leave a comment

DENVER (AP) — The judge who sentenced former sports doctor Larry Nassar to prison and a group of Olympians are backing an effort to create a commission to look into the operations of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Michigan Judge Rosemarie Aquilina joined the athletes and Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette in Denver on Monday to announce the planned introduction of the bipartisan bill Tuesday in the House. It mirrors one introduced in January by Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in the Senate, a standard practice in Congress. It would set up a panel of 16 people, half of them Olympians or Paralympians, with subpoena power.

Aquilina urged people to ask their congressional representatives to support the legislation and add their names as co-sponsors. Aquilina said she became involved because this wasn’t a partisan issue, but a “human thing. This is justice for everybody. Isn’t that what judges are supposed to be — about equal justice?”

“It’s troubling for me to hear that money and medals are valued more than the safety of athletes. We have to flip that script,” added Aquilina, who sentenced Nassar to what equates to life in prison. “How is it that the Olympics do not protect their athletes? That’s their company. That’s their bread and butter.”

The latest legislation to establish the commission comes six months after a congressional report in the wake of the Nassar sex-abuse case that recommended a review of the law that governs the USOC and how the USOC can use its authority to more actively protect athletes.

USOC spokesman Mark Jones said in a statement they will “continue to work constructively with both the House and the Senate to create healthy and safe environments for the American athletes we serve.”

Among the panel’s duties would be to evaluate how responsive the national governing bodies of each Olympic sports are to the athletes, and whether the U.S. Center for SafeSport has proper funding to effectively respond to any future reports of harassment and sexual assault. In addition, the panel would review the diversity of the USOC’s board members, its finances and whether it’s achieving its stated goals.

Gardner said he’s talked to former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about serving on the panel. “That’s likely the kind of caliber that we need,” Gardner said.

Olympic champions Nancy Hogshead-Makar, BJ Bedford and Norm Bellingham, along with Paralympic gold medalist Sarah Will were among those in attendance.

“No amount of gold medals are worth putting the health and safety of our athletes at risk,” DeGette said. “When the very body that Congress created to care for our athletes becomes more concerned about winning and protecting a brand than the athletes themselves — it’s time for change.”

Rob Koehler said he believes this will be a big step forward for athletes. He’s the director general of a group called Global Athlete, which is designed to help athletes gain a more represented voice.

“It’s time to make sure there is independent oversight, that the government takes a brave leadership role, not only for the United States but as an example for other countries, that it’s no longer acceptable for sport to self-govern itself,” Koehler said. “It’s all about the athletes. We lose focus of that. This movement is about celebrating athletes’ victories, and the growth potential is there.”

MORE: ‘This is not Burger King’: Nassar request denied by Aquilina

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Luca Urlando breaks Michael Phelps butterfly record

Leave a comment

Luca Urlando, the grandson of an Italian Olympic hammer thrower, appears to be the U.S. successor to Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly.

Urlando, 17, broke Phelps’ national 17-18 age group record in Phelps’ trademark event on Friday night, clocking 1:53.84 at a Tyr Pro Series meet in Clovis, Calif. Phelps’ mark (1:53.93) was set in 2003, when it doubled as the world record. Urlando previously broke high school age group records held by Phelps and Caeleb Dressel in 25-yard pools.

Urlando is now the third-fastest American in history in the 200m butterfly behind Phelps and Tyler Clary. He also ranks third in the world this year behind Hungarians Kristof Milak and Tamas Kenderesi.

But Urlando will not be at July’s world championships as that team was decided in 2018.

Last summer, Urlando was the highest-ranking U.S. swimmer not to make the Pan Pacific Championships team, though it was initially announced that he did make it.

Had Urlando made Pan Pacs and then swum .17 faster there than he did at nationals, he would have made the team for July’s world championships. Urlando went to Junior Pan Pacs instead last summer and did not swim faster than at nationals.

Should Urlando make the Tokyo Games, he is in line to be the youngest U.S. Olympic male swimmer since 2000, when a 15-year-old Phelps made his Olympic debut.

His grandfather, Giampaolo Urlando, threw the hammer for Italy at the 1976, 1980 and 1984 Olympics with a best finish of seventh. He originally was fourth at Los Angeles 1984 before being disqualified for testosterone.

Luca’s father, Alessandro Urlando, holds the University of Georgia school record in the discus. Luca, a rising Sacramento high school senior, is committed to Georgia.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Australian ‘Missile’ retires from swimming