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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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Watch Danell Leyva splash out of American Ninja Warrior

Danell Leyva
NBC
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Triple Olympic medalist Danell Leyva became the latest gymnast to appear on NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” splashing out of the “Leaps of Faith” in the latter portion of the course in the Los Angeles City Finals that aired Monday.

Leyva’s full run can be seen at the 44-minute mark here.

Leyva, a 27-year-old who took all-around bronze at the 2012 London Games and then retired with parallel bars and high bar silver in Rio, was cheered on by 2012 Olympic teammates Jonathan Horton and John Orozco. He previously completed the course at the Los Angeles City qualifier.

Horton has tackled ANW five times, according to the broadcast. Other gymnasts to appear on the show included Olympic all-around champions Nastia Liukin and Paul Hamm and, perhaps the show’s most famous competitor, former Towson University athlete Kacy Catanzaro.

Leyva could still make the Las Vegas finals, according to the broadcast.

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MORE: Japan’s gymnastics team for worlds lacks its superstars

Chinese 13-year-olds go 1-2 at diving worlds; U.S. medal drought ends

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Reminiscent of one of its legendary divers, Chinese 13-year-olds took gold and silver in the women’s platform at the world diving championships on Wednesday. Delaney Schnell rallied for bronze, ending a 14-year U.S. medal drought.

Chen Yuxi and Lu Wei, both born in 2005, tallied 439 and 377.8 points, respectively, in Gwangju, South Korea. China is nine for nine in gold medals with four finals left this week. Schnell, who was in fifth place and 1.2 points back of third going into the last dive, ended up with 364.2.

No U.S. woman had earned an individual world platform medal since Laura Wilkinson‘s gold in 2005. Schnell, 20, was sixth at the 2016 Olympic trials and second at the 2017 World trials before placing 27th at her world debut two years ago.

Back in 1991, Chinese 12-year-old Fu Mingxia captured the world title on the platform. A year later, Fu took platform gold in Barcelona and remains the youngest Summer Olympic champion since 1960. Fu went on to win a Chinese record four individual Olympic diving titles.

Lu and Chen represent the next generation of Chinese female divers following the post-Rio retirements of their role model, Chen Ruolin, and Wu Minxia.

China is such a diving factory that it took gold and silver without the Rio Olympic platform champion, Ren Qian, who is not on this year’s world team. Ren, then 15 in Rio, became the youngest Olympic diving gold medalist since Fu.

China, two years after its least successful diving worlds since 2005, is moving closer to sweeping every gold medal at these worlds. They last accomplished the feat in 2011.

Earlier Wednesday, Chinese Xie Siyi (reigning world champion) and Cao Yuan (reigning Olympic champion) qualified first and second into Thursday’s men’s springboard final.

David Boudia, the 2012 U.S. Olympic platform champion, was a strong fourth in his first major international meet since Rio and switching to the springboard. Rio Olympian Michael Hixon also advanced in the 12th and last spot.

NBC Olympic Researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report from Gwangju.

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MORE: Diving Worlds TV Schedule