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Madison Chock, Evan Bates back on Grand Prix circuit with ‘new power’

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GRENOBLE, France – Madison Chock and Evan Bates have always been known for their mastery of edges, their footwork, and sheer generosity they display on the ice. Since they arrived in their new training base in Montréal some 18 months ago, they have developed a new charisma and interpretation skills, which give each of their performances an enhanced intensity, impact, and visibility.

How did they achieve such a transformation?

“I don’t know! The charming of the snake maybe?” Chock suggested with a laugh after their “Egyptian snake” themed free dance in at Grand Prix France, where the couple earned silver a silver medal.

The “charming” is efficient: one could even argue there has been a complete change of style for the team, who is now much more consistent and powerful than it used to be. That change was obvious from their rhythm dance and confirmed by their free dance during their first Grand Prix outing of the season.

“That may be due to our evolution as performers, more than [as] athletes,” Bates added. “Performing has become our new motto: at the point we are in our careers, it’s more about the performance than about the technicalities. Our free program is a good example of this. Now we are more focused on our story, on the energy of the program, on the connection between the two of us. It’s a good a mindset to have, and it has changed our skating.”

Managing such a transformation is not easy, at a point in their career when most skaters just capitalize on their names and past performance. After all, Chock and Bates have been Olympians together twice already (in 2014 and 2018), they have won medals at two world championships (silver, 2015; bronze, 2016) and at two Grand Prix Finals (silver in 2014 and 2015). And they claimed gold at Four Continents in 2019.

“They allowed us to put them in discomfort, so that we could help them crack the mold they were in,” explained Marie-France Dubreuil, who coaches them with Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer in Montréal.

“We’ve always been willing to keep learning and improving – in our sport, but that applies also to all the aspects of our lives,” Chock confirmed.

“There is a new dynamic between the two of them,” Haguenauer added.

“And even a new power,” Dubreuil continued. “At one point, when [Chock] was injured, I saw [Bates] skate by himself and I was struck to see how powerful he was when he was by himself. As if he was re-training himself when his partner was with him. Evan is tall, powerful. We tried to help him be more aligned with his blade-to-ice contacts, more controlled. Both are hyper-elegant. So, we tried to free the machine and let it go.”

“Since we’ve arrived in Montréal, we have become more dancers, and less skaters,” Bates added. “This is also what you see from [training partners] Gabriella [Papadakis] and Guillaume [Cizeron]. They can be on skates and they could be off skates, and they would still be just as beautiful. They transcend the ice.”

Part of the impact of Chock and Bates’ performances is due to a renewed set of interpretation skills, something the school in Montréal has also been known for.

“Madison has always been a great performer,” Bates acknowledged. “I am working not to be only the guy next to her, or who is presenting her. It’s more our couple now, a man and a woman on the ice. It’s so natural for her to drive everybody’s eyes. But at the same time, it’s also a big responsibility for me to skate with someone who is so talented.”

“Of course, the choreographic work is paying off,” Dubreuil explained. “For us every movement has to bear a meaning. A movement is not there to fill the music, but to bring to it.”

That’s also a part of Chock and Bates’ transformation: embodying each of their movements.

“A lot of it is a feeling,” Bates explained. “When we are choreographing, some things work and some don’t. Those things that come to us naturally, that’s where the movement becomes authentic.”

“Also, every program evolves with time,” Chock added. “It changes with the speed and more complex elements you add on through the season. Gestures have to come from a very genuine place within us. When a movement comes organically, it becomes clear that it needs to be in the program.”

The transformation of the team should also be highly visible in Chongqing, China, where they are due to compete this weekend for Cup of China, just one week after Grand Prix France.

“Doing two Challenger Series earlier in the season [they won both the U.S. Classic and Finlandia Trophy] was a good thing for us,” Bates offered. “Our two programs are now in place.”

Their new style is, too. For the better.

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As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season 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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Maria Sharapova appears set to miss Tokyo Olympics

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Maria Sharapova, who would have a difficult time qualifying for the Olympics next year, committed to play an event in California the week of the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova is scheduled to play World Team Tennis matches in California during the Olympic tennis events in late July, according to a press release. Sharapova’s longtime agent hasn’t responded to a message seeking confirmation that she is ruling out the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova, 32 and the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, was barred from the Rio Games due to her 15-month meldonium suspension in 2016 and 2017. That alone could rule her ineligible for Tokyo, given the World Anti-Doping Agency’s sanctions against Russia on Monday.

Sharapova is ranked No. 131 after a season shortened by shoulder surgery. She would have to be among the top four ranked Russian women after the French Open in June for possible automatic Olympic qualification. She is currently the 14th Russian.

Olympic eligibility rules include minimum participation requirements in Fed Cup, which Sharapova hasn’t done in this Olympic cycle, though exceptions can be made.

Sharapova’s passion for the Olympics is well documented.

She carried the Russian flag into the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and carried the Olympic flame into Fisht Stadium at the Sochi 2014 Opening Ceremony, where she worked for NBC Olympics.

“It was the one thing that my parents allowed me to watch on TV late into the evening was the Olympics,” Sharapova said in 2017. “I grew up watching figure skating and hockey and a little bit of tennis. … Just capturing the Opening Ceremonies and seeing all the countries and the little hats that they wore, and I, as a little girl, I just imagined that maybe it would be me. But I never, ever thought that I would be carrying the flag.

“I received that [flag] honor in a text message, which is a very Russian way of communicating. I originally thought it was a joke, a big fat joke. Then I showed it to my mother, and she [said], no, they probably wouldn’t joke like that.”

In February 2016, Sharapova entered a Fed Cup tie, despite saying she was injured, in order to receive Olympic eligibility. One month later, her failed drug test was announced.

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Russia banned from Olympics, world champs for 4 years; athletes could compete as neutrals

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Russia is banned from the next two Olympics and other major sports events for four years, though its athletes could still compete without representing the country if cleared by anti-doping authorities.

Russia’s hosting of world championships in Olympic sports also face being stripped after the World Anti-Doping Agency executive committee approved a full slate of recommended sanctions for tampering with a Moscow laboratory database.

Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in major events — including world championships — only if they are not implicated in positive doping tests or their data was not manipulated, according to the WADA ruling. “In this circumstance, they may not represent the Russian Federation,” according to a WADA release.

“While I understand the calls for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes whether or not they are implicated by the data, it was the unanimous view of the CRC [compliance review committee], which includes an athlete, that in this case, those who could prove their innocence should not be punished, and I am pleased that the WADA ExCo [executive committee] agreed with this,” WADA CRC chairman Jonathan Taylor said.

There are 145 unnamed athletes within WADA’s “target group of most suspicious athletes” from 2012-15 who would not be allowed to compete at the Olympics, Taylor said, adding that it’s possible those names will be made public. About one-third of them are still active.

Russia’s anti-doping agency can appeal the decision within 21 days. Russia previously signaled it would appeal the ruling.

“The decision will come into effect only when it becomes final ie when either RUSADA accepts it or it is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” a WADA spokesperson said in an email.

Russia avoided blanket bans for the Rio and PyeongChang Olympics after a state-run doping program was exposed by media and WADA investigations after Russia hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Approved Russian athletes competed as neutrals — “Olympic Athletes from Russia” — including in team sports in PyeongChang. Those Russians combined to earn two gold medals (figure skater Alina Zagitova and men’s hockey) and 17 overall, compared to the leading 33 Russia earned at the Sochi Olympics before medals were stripped for doping.

“Will Russian athletes be accepted as Olympic Athletes from Russia?” during the ban, Taylor said. “No, they are neutral athletes, which means not representatives of any country. Not representatives of Russia.”

Going forward, “they cannot use the name of the country in the name of the team,” WADA president-elect Witold Bańka told The Associated Press.

Two of the 168 Russians who competed in PyeongChang failed drug tests and were punished for doping.

More recent evidence shows that Russian authorities tampered with a Moscow laboratory database to hide hundreds of potential doping cases and falsely shift the blame onto whistleblowers, WADA investigators and the International Olympic Committee said last month. “Flagrant manipulation” of the Moscow lab data was “an insult to the sporting movement worldwide,” the IOC said last month.

“Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order … but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial,” WADA president Craig Reedie said.

Russia will be allowed to participate in the Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland, that open Jan. 9.

WADA’s inability to fully expel Russia from the Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Games frustrated the doping watchdog’s vice president.

“I’m not happy with the decision we made today. But this is as far as we could go,” said Linda Helleland, a Norwegian lawmaker who serves on WADA executive committee and has long pushed for a tougher line against Russia. “This is the biggest sports scandal the world has ever seen. I would expect now a full admission from the Russians and for them to apologize on all the pain all the athletes and sports fans have experienced.”

Although the IOC has called for the strongest possible sanctions, it wants those sanctions directed at Russian state authorities rather than athletes or Olympic officials.

“To allow Russia to escape a complete ban is yet another devastating blow to clean athletes, the integrity of sport and the rule of law,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement. “And, in turn, the reaction by all those who value sport should be nothing short of a revolt against this broken system to force reform.”

Russia’s Olympic champion women’s handball team is currently competing at the world championships in Japan. Its next match is Tuesday against Montenegro. Russia has been the scheduled host for the world luge championships in Sochi in mid-February.

The “major sports” events that fall under WADA’s sanctions do not include European Championships or other non-world championships events such as tennis’ upcoming Australian Open.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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TIMELINE: Russia’s recent history of sports doping