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Behind the scenes at the European Championships: Day 4

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Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Minsk, Belarus to cover the European Championships. This is his behind-the-scenes look at the competition on the event’s fourth day.

Zagitova’s teddy bear

If there would be a world record for teddy bears, Alina Zagitova would have won Friday night in Minsk. Among the hundreds of gifts that poured from the stands, a huge “Carmen”-red bear made its way to the ice. Two ice sweepers, at most a third its size, had to take one of its arms each and pulled it over the ice to the other side of the ice rink.

“I’ve not seen it yet; I just saw something red,” Zagitova commented later [she must have been the only one person in the rink not to see it!]. “I’ll take it home of course, but I’m running out of space!”

“Alina and I communicated a lot together, before the award ceremony but also the doping control. We really had fun with that big red bear!” Sofia Samodurova detailed Saturday morning.

MORE: Samodurova surpasses Zagitova for gold at Europeans

Girls move a teddy bear from the ice after Russia’s Alina Zagitova performs in the ladies free skating at the ISU European figure skating championships in Minsk, Belarus, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Ciprès can finally sleep

“I didn’t sleep very well before the free program, because of the jetlag,” newly-minted European pairs’ gold medalist Morgan Cipres admitted after the duo’s historic victory in Minsk.

“When you don’t sleep, the problem is that you think a lot. The experience we had last year, when we dropped from first to fourth, came back again and again. The night after we won, however, I went back to the Internet and watched some of our skating programs of the past. For the first time, I even dared watching the program we had skated in Moscow last year. After I watched it, I could finally go back to sleep.”

The nightmare is finally over!

Success and ubiquity

“It’s not easy to have the Europeans being held at the same time as U.S. Nationals!” Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron’s coach, Romain Haguenauer, said half-smilingly. Probably one of the most successful ice dance schools in the world at the present time, the Montreal school had to set a specific organization for these two simultaneous major championships.

“At U.S. Nationals we have three major teams, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Here we have six teams from various nationalities. In both cases you can’t do with less than two coaches. So Marie-France [Dubreuil] and I are here, while Patrice [Lauzon] and another coach are in Detroit. But that’s sure quite good for the school!” Haguenauer concluded.

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue one step closer to title defense in Detroit

Medal grace

Slavic countries are known for their rich and colored costumes. The three Belarussian ladies carrying the medals, wearing a big brown crown and exquisite embroidered dresses and plastrons, exemplify the wealth of the Belarussian culture.

“It takes about half an hour for us to dress up,” one explained. Half an hour to get ready to present the medals of one’s life, and the centuries of Belarussian culture to the elite of skating.

Green is red

The “green room,” where the leaders are being scrutinized by TV cameras as they are waiting for their competitors’ marks, has been revived in Minsk. Except the green zone is decorated is red, the colors of Minsk. And the room is now open to the end of the mixed zone. Alina Zagitova and Viveca Lindfors were in the green zone as Sofia Samodurova was skating her exhilarating performance and Alexia Paganini fought for a podium finish. Both unlaced their skates and put them back cautiously and slowly. Zagitova dove her head down as the final ranking was posted. Virpi Horttana, Lindfors’s coach, rushed to hug her pupil as Paganini’s marks came up. Lindfors had just won a bronze medal, seven years after Kiira Korpi had won her last European medal for Finland in 2012!

TV… Or skating stars?

During resurfacing breaks, two long lines of spectators usually form in the Minsk Arena: one is going upward, toward Tatiana Tarasova’s TV booth. The other is going downward toward Elena Chaykovskaya. Both are respected coaches.

“But don’t believe that people want an autograph because of the many skating stars they produced,” a noted Russian journalist explained. “Both Chaykovskaya and Tarasova take part in TV shows, like The Ice Age and Skating with the Stars, which Ilya Averbukh [the 2002 Olympic silver medalist] produces. Tarasova is the main judge, so she is highly respected!”

Lambiel’s fan club

Brian Joubert was alongside France’s Laurine Lecavelier as she skated her free program. Friday, he went to the rink wearing a flashy jacket with tiger-like orange sleeves, quite reminiscent to Stéphane Lambiel’s own costume on the Olympic ice of Turin, back in 2006.

“Yeah, that’s it!” Joubert commented: “I’m a big fan!”

I’m sure Lambiel would like to know that his fan base keeps expanding!

First steps

“This is the first time we skate together in such a huge arena,” Louis Thauron, the French ice dancer, said as he and new partner Adelina Galyavieva left the ice after their Rhythm dance Friday afternoon. Galyavieva and Thauron partnered at the end of the season last year.

“Can you imagine? I’m just 1.58 meters [5 feet, 3 inches], and I’m here in the middle of the ice with 15,000 people above my head?” Galyavieva exclaimed. “We are alone in the middle and we have to do the show, it just can’t be described. You feel it when silence greets you before your music starts. And it’s just so overwhelming as your music starts!” Thauron added. “We heard the audience cheer in the step sequence and that gave me so much energy, that it motivated me to give back even more!” He concluded enthusiastically.

MORE: Behind the scenes on Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 at the European Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the European 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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Vanessa James, Morgan Cipres win European pairs’ title

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Victories often hide impressive stories. For many years France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres had been chasing after a European medal. Two years ago, they had finally won one – a bronze. Thursday night in Minsk an even bigger dream came true, as they won the European crown, ahead of two Russian teams: Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, who had been reigning over pair skating at Europeans for the last two years, and newcomers Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii.

James couldn’t hold her tears for a long while afterwards, going from one interview to the next and crying through her laughs (or was it the contrary?) each time. Cipres was savoring the historicity of the moment.

Results: Pairs’ final

Nothing had to be taken for granted, however. One year ago, James and Ciprès were also standing in first place before the free program, but a sub-par free put them in fourth overall, 0.01 points short of the podium.

Thursday, it could have been the same.

James had to struggle to hold on to their side-by-side triple toe, double toe, double toe combination. She had landed her triple toe quite leaning toward the front, but her flexibility and balance allowed her to catch her take-off position to launch the two following jumps, right in synch with her partner. The team even received a positive GOE (+0.78 point) for that combination, which proved to be the determining factor of the evening.

James put a hand while landing their side-by-side triple Salchow, but their throw triple flip and huge final Salchow were brilliant. Their lifts were particularly impressive, both athletic and intertwingling innovative positions, with interesting transitions from one to the next.

The Belarussian audience gave them a spontaneous standing ovation, and they had to remain on the ice for several minutes before leaving to the kiss and cry. They received 149.11 points for their free, a new season’s best, and 225.66 points overall.

“It’s an amazing feeling for us to be standing here tonight,” Cipres said.

“It’s a dream come true. We’ve dreamt of that forever,” James continued.

“It was not easy today, and we really had to fight for it. We’ll keep going to hopefully win more titles,” Cipres added.

Tarasova and Morozov also had a brilliant skate, as powerful and polished as only they can stand up to. Their music, Balmorhea’s “The Winter,” opened on silence gently punctuated by piano notes. Tarasova and Morozov’s power and charisma were enough to fill the empty space and make it live before the actual music started building on. They also beat their season’s best by 3.44 points, but that was not enough.

Rather amazingly, their only major mistake came on the same element the French had been struggling with right before. Tarasova landed the opening triple toe of their side-by-side combination, but missed the second one and came back too late for the last element. That element cost them a lot. It was a downgraded triple toe + combo, only earning them a mere 0.74 points, compared to the 7.58 points the French had received for the element.

Boikova and Kozlovskii had opened the last group. They appeared more tense than in their short program, and they also struggled with that same triple toe, double toe, double toe combination, which he interrupted at the landing of the first jump. Their usual energy came back after their throw triple loop. Their jumps were as lively and joyful as their Nutcracker music thereafter.

“We are physically and emotionally exhausted tonight, as this was the first major championship of our career. We are thinking of the other team which should have represented our country, so we really felt that we needed to stand on this podium,” Kozlovskii stated, referring to the absence of Natalia Zabiiako and Alexander Enbert.

Italy’s Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise also had a great skate, marred with just a few mishaps, but they couldn’t hold to the third place they had won in the short. They ended up fourth.

MORE: Behind the scenes on the second day at the European Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the European 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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James, Cipres ahead of pairs’ field at Europeans

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They entered as one of the favorites and left the ice in first place: France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres won the short program of the European Championships in Minsk, 2.65 points ahead of second place Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov from Russia, and 2.85 points ahead of Italy’s Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise, who are standing in third before Thursday’s free skate.

Results: Pairs’ short program

Many thought that Russia’s Alexandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii, who had skated earlier in the evening, would shake up the podium. They are standing in a close fourth position, 1.12 points behind the podium.

Skating first in the last group, James and Cipres fulfilled the contract they had made for the day: emerge in first, after the flaws they experienced earlier in the season with that same short program. The performance they delivered was flawless, from their opening triple twist to a perfectly synchronized side-by-side triple toe and ample throw triple flip. Their lift was particularly impressive, as they moved from one intricate position to the next with an incredible flow. They received a +1.75 points GOE (Grade of Execution) for it. Most of their other elements were rated above 1.0 points.

“We needed to change a few things to gain more speed, when we need it through the program, especially after the twist,” James explained.

“We made adjustments with Guillaume [Cizeron, who choreographed their program] during Christmas, and he found the way to overcome our problems,” Cipres added.

“We’re very happy we made these changes,” James offered, “but we need to keep going!”

Cipres reminded everyone jokingly: last year, the team had dropped from first to fourth after the free.

The Grand Prix Final gold medalists cracked their season’s best to amass 76.55 points for their short program.

Tarasova and Morozov succeeded the French team on the ice. They returned to the spectacular program to Sergei Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto they skated to last season, and displayed the unique and amazing power they have to offer. Their triple twist was incredibly high, and their throw triple flip was impressively ample. Tarasova underrotated the triple toe of the pair’s side-by-side combination. The crowd quickly understood that the hope of a superlative program had eluded them. They nonetheless garnered 73.90 points, with an artistic mark up-to-par with that of the French team (35.40 points for the Russians, and 35.40 points for the Russians).

“Going back to last year’s program was our common decision,” Tarasova explained.

“It’s more impressive, more powerful in terms of skating, it includes good transitions and great speed. Everything in this program is bigger than in the previous one. It allows to show the strong side of our team,” Morozov added.

Della Monica and Guarise took the ice after the Russians and delivered a beautiful and inspired routine to Joe Cocker’s “Never Tear Us Apart.” Their side-by-side triple Salchow was in perfect synch, and Della Monica landed her throw triple flip in full speed and control.

“We push every day at our maximum,” Guarise emphasized after the competition was over. “Our coaches keep telling us ‘stronger, faster, stronger, faster, push, push, push’ … And we keep falling and falling. And then one day comes and you manage to stay on your feet. From then on you start to show good skating, and also your emotions. That’s the only way we know!”

Boikova and Kozlovskii certainly put the strongest energy into their program, at a level only the Italians could match. They amassed 72.58 points, a new season’s best for the fourth-place team.

MORE: Behind the scenes at the European Championships: Day 1

As a reminder, you can watch the European 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!