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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.

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Alina Zagitova leads European ladies’ short program

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Just one year ago, a newcomer to the senior ranks stole the show at the Europeans, winning her first European title over her teammate, double world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva, who was coming back from an injury.

One year later, the small girl had the poise to come back with an Olympic gold medal under her belt, ready to fight again: Alina Zagitova didn’t lose much time after her Olympics. Again, she proved that she was the queen of Europe, winning a clear victory in the short program Wednesday afternoon in Minsk, Belarus. Two of the top three skaters, Russia’s Sofia Samodurova and Swiss Alexia Paganini, are newcomers to the top of European ranks.

Results: Ladies’ short program

Skating first of the final group, Zagitova landed her opening triple Lutz, triple loop combination, although less stellar than her morning practice. Her triple loop was deemed underrotated. Her program, set to “The Phantom of the Opera,” was exquisitely devised, however. She amassed the best artistic score of the day, 36.40 points, and 75.00 points overall.

“We’ve discussed with my coaches and we decided that I needed to develop personally,” Zagitova said during the post-event press conference. “That led to indeed a complex musical composition. I must say that at first, it was difficult to live in the moment, while being fully aware of the character I had to represent. We talked a lot with my coaches and they helped me understand who I had to embody. It’s become much easier now.”

Samodurova’s program, which she skated to Nyah, from Mission Impossible II, may not have been as complex as Zagitova’s, but her technical mastery was superlative. Samodurova’s rotation was fast and precise. Her triple flip, triple toe combination garnered 11.24 points on its own. Samodurova received the best technical score, 39.25 points, 0.60 point ahead of Zagitova’s, and 72.88 points overall, a new season’s best.

“I don’t know how that happens. I just jumped and that was it!” she laughed afterward.

“The secret here is to show the best skating, whatever the results,” she added. “You should come here with only positive emotions about your performance”.

A crop of Russian flags rose from the stands as she ended her routine, as if Russia already had found an alternate queen ready to take over.

Many thought that the competition could lead to a Russian sweep again, but Stanislava Konstantinova, the third Russian woman, lost her chance twice. Once, when she doubled the opening Lutz of her planned triple Lutz, triple toe combination. And then, when she fell at the end of the triple flip, triple toe she went for at the end of her program instead.

No Russian sweep this time – but an incredibly strong duo took the lead of the championship. Samodurova will advance to the free program some 7.22 points ahead of third placed, Paganini.

Paganini was the last skater to take the ice. Her program to “Yo Soy Maria” was as crisp and lively as her music was powerful and slow. Paganini amassed 65.64 points, cracking her season’s best by some 2.21 points.

“I really worked hard to get the level of each element to maximize my points,” she said.

It worked quite well, as all of Paganini’s elements earned a Level 4.

Just .03 point behind Paganini, Finland’s Viveca Lindfors, provided the sensation of the day. Europe will have lots to say on the global stage!

NBC Sports Gold’s “Figure Skating Pass” will live stream every program from Minsk continuing on Wednesday with the pairs’ short program.

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.

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Behind the scenes at the European Championships: Day 1

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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 day after the competition.

Spanish sunshine

Tuesday’s plane from Frankfurt, Germany to Minsk, Belarus was crowded by Spanish fans, judges and Spain’s own Javier Fernandez’ family. Famous coach Pasquale Camerlengo and his team, Robynne Tweedale and Joseph Buckland, were also onboard, but they were exhausted by the long trip they took from Detroit, with a five-hour connection in between through the night.

Europe and the skating world have been converging on Minsk, this week’s other skating capital of the world – besides Detroit, of course, with U.S. Championships heating up. A new quadrennial is starting, and skating’s doors are wide open.

Skating international aura

Skating has remained one of the favorite sports in Russia and Belarus. Monday night, as their plane landed in Minsk, France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the four-time world champions in ice dance, were greeted by five cameras as they passed the exit gate of Minsk International Airport. They were interviewed right away. No time to waste.

Multi-Euros

All four reigning European champions are in Minsk to defend their title. Altogether they amassed 13 tittles through their careers. Spain’s Fernandez has already six gold medals under his belt, while Papadakis and Cizeron have four, also in a row. Russia’s Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov have two, and Alina Zagitova, who is the only Olympic gold medalist of the field, has just one. Far gone is the time when the top skaters of an Olympiad ended their competitive career right after the Games.

And yet, the oldest male skater on the ice will be Italy’s dancer Marco Fabbri, who will turn 31 in two weeks – which is far from being old. Will Europe show a renewal of the guard, on the eve of this new quadrennial?

Disclosing skating’s best kept secrets

“What we’re looking for is effortless skating,” renowned judge and ISU Single and Pair Skating Technical Committee Yukiko Okabe, from Japan, mentioned before the competition started. “We like to see a program that seems effortless. We don’t like it when skaters have to push hard to skate.”

Papadakis and Cizeron have made effortlessness one of their trademarks. The way they glide and fly over the ice turns each one of their programs into a magical moment for all spectators in attendance. That came to a rare exception Tuesday night in Minsk, during the team’s first practice session in the main rink. Cizeron tumbled in the middle of a step sequence, as he was carrying Papadakis. Both fell, she on her back. No one was hurt, but their fall suddenly unveiled the extreme difficulty of their steps and postures. Only when you fall do you realize how high you were.

European marathon

Ladies and their officials have embarked into a marathon day again in Minsk, like only European Championships can provide. They started their practice session at 7:30 a.m., and the 36 competitors will skate their short program until 5 p.m. local time. Russia’s Olympic gold medalist, Alina Zagitova, displayed a flawless run-through, highlighted by a crystal-clear triple Lutz – triple loop combination.

Latin music forever

The last group of ladies short program sounds like a medley of the Latin musical repertoire: Russia’s Stanislava Konstantinova skated to “Malaguena,” Russia’s Sofia Samodurova skated to Nyah’s Flamenco, and Switzerland’s Alexia Paganini performed to Piazzola’s “Yo Soy Maria.” Does Javi’s effect strike again?

And that the end…  

Italy’s Matteo Guarise and his on-ice partner, Nicole Della Monica, have long been crowd favorites. This year they have reached new heights, winning a silver medal at each of their Grand Prix assignments and qualifying for the Final (they placed fifth).

“We tried to make something different from what we usually do,” Guarise explained after he left the ice of his morning practice. “I think it suits us well, though. We feel really well prepared for this Championship,” he added. The Italian champion, who once was a roller skate champion, and his partner, have kept on raising the ladder of success in ice skating.

“We’re like turtles!” he said. “You know turtles: they push hard, they go slow, but they go everywhere!”

And in the fable, the turtle wins.

MORE: How to watch Europeans, streaming schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships and 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!