Three U.S. ice dance teams train together in Montreal
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Montreal coaches on what makes American ice dance teams great

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“Sometimes it’s hard to see them compete against one another,” Marie-France Dubreuil said as she watched her pupils at the French leg of the Grand Prix season in November.

The top three U.S. ice dance couples train at the Montreal school that she manages with Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer: Madison Chock and Evan Bates, 2015 U.S. champions; Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, two-time U.S. champions and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who made their first nationals podium last year.

They are again the medal favorites at this week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, N.C., after which the three-couple team for March’s world championships will be named. It’s quite rare, in any country, for the top three teams in one discipline to share coaches.

“They are very different from one another,” said Lauzon, who with Dubreuil earned world silver medals in dance for Canada in 2006 and 2007. “I don’t compare them. That’s one of the bases of our coaching. Each team competes against itself. Our goal is to try finding the best version of each one of them. We work on both their qualities and their faults.”

The Montreal school swept the podium at December’s Grand Prix Final — France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron followed by Chock and Bates then Hubbell and Donohue. Montreal has seemingly become the place to be in ice dance.

The third American dance couple, Hawayek and Baker, qualified for their first Grand Prix Final last year in their first season under Dubreuil, Lauzon, and Haguenauer.

“Kaitlin and Jean-Luc need to take their own place,” Haguenauer said. “They are an atypical dance team. They may be less tall than other teams, but the way they cover the ice is just as brilliant. it’s amazing. We’re working to bring them to their very best level: you know, excellence is made of details. Our sport judges dancing and skating, but also the aesthetics and the impression skaters radiate on the ice. Those impact directly a performance.”

As Hawayek and Baker moved to Montreal after the 2017-18 season, so did Chock and Bates. They joined the Montreal school during 10 months away from competition, as Chock was recovering from an ankle injury that required surgery.

This season, Chock and Bates had their best Grand Prix results in four years. They could become the first skater, pair or dance couple to go five or more years between national titles since the 1920s.

“[Chock and Bates] allowed us to put them in discomfort, so that we could help them crack the mold they were into,” Dubreuil said. “Evan is tall and 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.”

Bates continued the metaphor in an interview with NBC Olympics Research.

“I think it’s one of those instances where you bang on the glass ceiling for a while and then it finally breaks and then you get through,” he said regarding the duo’s success since their move. He also called the fact that they were headed to Greensboro for nationals, the site of their championship title in 2015, “poetic.”

When Hubbell and Donohue moved to Montreal in 2015, Dubrueil said the aim was to make them look “classier and more sophisticated.” They went from finishing third or fourth at four straight nationals to earning world championships medals in 2018 (silver) and 2019 (bronze).

“When you see their results, they’re always at the top after they’ve been down,” Haguenauer said. That was the case after worlds in 2016, or after the Olympics. When things are going too smoothly, they have more difficulties.”

Hubbell said in a media teleconference last week this season is different from others because they spent more of the summer “brainstorming” their programs. They also waited longer to debut than in previous seasons.

“This year is a very competitive season with a lot of teams that seem to be all chasing after those top spots,” she added. “We worked quite hard before [December’s Grand Prix] Final knowing that everybody would skate really great performances. We wanted to make sure to end up on the podium. It was great to be up there. It was the first time we’ve been able to share an entirely [Montreal-coached] podium at a major event. That’s a really special feeling for everyone on the team.”

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

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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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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Kenya’s best to race Norway’s best on different continents in June track meet

Ingebrigtsen, Cheruiyot
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Kenya’s top 1500m man is expected to run with a team in Nairobi. Norway’s fastest will be together at a stadium in Oslo. The two contingents will face off in a virtual 2000m team event during the June 11 Impossible Games, the most significant track and field meet since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Organizers of the meet held in Oslo, typically part of the top-level Diamond League circuit, are billing the Norwegian team to include all three Ingebrigtsen brothers — Henrik (2012 European champion), Filip (2017 World bronze medalist), and Jakob (second-fastest in the world in 2019).

The Kenyan team is “Team Cheruiyot,” named after world champion Timothy Cheruiyot, though organizers did not confirm in a press release that Cheruiyot will be part of the squad that races. Later, World Athletics reported that the Kenyan team will include Cheruiyot, plus 2017 World champion Elijah Manangoi.

In the 2000m competition, each team will have five runners. The winner will be the team with the best overall time for three runners, which sounds similar to long-track speed skating’s team pursuit.

Again, the Kenyans will be racing in Nairobi. The Norwegians at the Bislett stadium. A broadcast stream will be a split screen.

“This will be the first virtual race at such level in the history of athletics,” according to a press release.

Also, Therese Johaug, the reigning World Cup overall cross-country skiing champion, will run a 10,000m on the track, organizers announced Tuesday.

Johaug, 31, is one of the world’s dominant athletes. Last season, she notched 20 World Cup victories, 17 more than any other woman. She did so after being banned from the PyeongChang Olympics after testing positive for a steroid found in a cream given to her by a team doctor to treat sunburned lips.

Johaug also has some distance-running credentials. Last year, she won the Norwegian national title in the 10,000m, clocking 32:20.86 to rank 88th in the world. The Olympic qualifying standard is 31:25.

Also slated for the June 11 meet with limited athletes and no fans in the stadium: world 400m hurdles champion Karsten Warholm of Norway, the top two ranked pole vaulters in history — Swede Mondo Duplantis and Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie — and world discus champion Daniel Stahl of Sweden.

Duplantis is expected to be at the Oslo stadium, while Lavillenie will pole vault remotely from his home in France. Warholm was announced last month to race the 300m hurdles, eyeing the fastest time in history in the non-Olympic event, in a solo race.

This year’s Diamond League season has been readjusted to start in August.

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