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Vanessa James, Morgan Ciprès mark sport with innovative and rewarding lifts

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Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès were the first French pair to win the European Championships since 1932, and the first non-Russian team to claim gold there since 2011.

The pair also won the prestigious Grand Prix Final title in December in their first appearance at the event.

Now, they could be well on their way to what would be their first-ever world title in March. They’ve stood on the podium at Worlds before; last year, they earned a bronze. But could a world title for James and Ciprès spur their retirement?

They sat with NBCSports.com/figure-skating following their European Championship victory to contemplate such a question.

One year ago, you mentioned that you wanted to retire after the Games, especially if you won one Olympic medal. Where do you stand now?

Ciprès: We would definitely have retired if we had won an Olympic medal [laughing]. We are very happy of the decision we made to be on the ice again this year. We had an amazing start of the season. We won the Grand Prix Final, which was amazing. It was our first Final and we were really happy to be there and win with a big fight in the long program. Our European title was also an accomplishment for us. We may have felt old, but now we’re young winners! As sportsmen we want more. We’ll keep going… Until there’s no more!

James: It’s always difficult for any athlete, physically, mentally and emotionally, to give everything you have and not to get the results you were aiming at. Winning like this can continue for four more years without any problems [laughing]! I’ve not done all this stretching for stopping now. But we’ll take it one year at a time.

What is the creative process for your lifts? What drives you to be creative and make them special?

James: First, I work a lot on flexibility with a rhythmic gymnastics coach. It’s not easy, when you are 31 years old. She also helps me strengthening my back.

Ciprès: I go with her sometimes [smiling]… To encourage her!

James: We also work on extensions and on our body lines, so that they don’t look like broken lines during the lifts. We aim at presenting extended legs during the lifts and landings, even when I hold my foot above my head: the other leg shall be extended. So that’s a different perspective from what we were used to.

Ciprès: I must emphasize Vanessa’s imagination and research capacities. She’ll go look on the Internet from gym, circus, roller skating or any other field. We discuss what she found, and try when time permits. I did bring our final lift, the one when I hold her in lunge position. But she brought the lift on an outside spread eagle. That one is really difficult for me. It requires a lot of energy and control. She also created the choreographic sequence, when I hold her on an inside edge.

James: I thought that it would be neat if we could do that, but I didn’t want it to be counted as a lift. I tried with Morgan, then with John [Zimmerman, their coach], and it was so cool! So, we included it in the choreographic sequence.

Ciprès: At first that one would take me as much energy as a real lift! Now it’s almost a moment of rest in the program – well, almost.

It seems that pair skating is taking a lot from ice dance – positions, transitions, steps… Is it a trend you are pursuing yourself?

Ciprès: We get a lot of inspiration from ice dance, it’s true. But ice dance gets a lot of inspiration from us as well, most notably in lifts! They are doing more and more acrobatics, and a lot comes from us pairs. May I tell you? At French Nationals, two dance teams came to me and asked me to teach them one of our lifts! They’ll have to deserve it, though! [smiling]

Some years ago, you said that you wanted to push the sport through more difficult jumps, like quad Salchow or triple-triple side-by-side combinations. Now you’re pushing the sport with lifts?

Ciprès: Indeed, we wanted to mark the history of our sport with our attempts of the riskiest elements. The other day Vanessa saw another competitor landing a throw jump with her arms over her head. That’s something we started, and we have to take it as a compliment. Actually, keeping the quads off means also less risk of injury. Landing quads day after day in practice was physically exhausting and very risky.

What do you think will determine victory at Worlds?

Ciprès [straight-faced]: What will be done on that day. We’ll have to do it.

James: One key factor will also be in the evolution we make in our programs until then. They need to evolve constantly. When we skated our programs at Autumn Classic, early in the season, we had good feedback. But these programs have been intensified so much since then. At each competition we’ve come up with better elements and increased transitions. We need to continue on that trend. I’m sure all our competitors will be in great shape in Japan, whatever can be heard now. We’ll have to be better anyhow.

Ciprès: The main difference now is that we concentrate on ourselves much more than on our competitors. The game before was to see how we could get one point over them. That’s over: we come up with what we need to be the best.

MORE: Jason Brown didn’t think he’d make PyeongChang without a quad, sees season as stepping stone

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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Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Last season, Nichols became the first woman to repeat as NCAA all-around champion in 12 years.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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MORE: Athletes warily embrace progress as USA Gymnastics evolves

Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

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Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

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