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Mother of French skating celebrates 100th

Vaudecrane's influence on sport still felt today
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One cannot recount French figure skating history without including Jacqueline Vaudecrane, who was honored at the 2013 Trophée Eric Bompard. -courtesy of the French federation, all rights reserved

The list of her skating pupils looks like a "Who's Who" of French ice skating. She taught most of them for nearly four decades and never really left the ice between her seventh birthday and her 90s. Jacqueline Vaudecrane turns 100 years old Nov. 22. About 20 of her international skating protégés decided to reunite in her honor Saturday at Trophée Eric Bompard.

Vaudecrane was a skating champion in her own right. She started skating in 1920, when she was 7 years old, at the historical "Palais de Glace," the famous rink at the bottom of the Champs Elysées.

"Pierre and Andrée Brunet took me under their wing," she recalled. "My dad was the publisher of the first business paper of that time in France, and my mom was the editor of a leading fashion magazine here. I thought I would become a fashion designer myself. Life had another storyline for me," she said.

The Brunets would soon reach their world and Olympic fame, as they won a bronze medal at the first Olympic Winter Games in 1924 and then gold medals in 1928 and 1932, the latter coming in Lake Placid. They taught Vaudecrane, who was 12 years younger than they were, and took her along, from Chamonix to St. Moritz and Davos in Switzerland.

"We had to skate outdoors then," Vaudecrane remembered. "Pierre wanted us to practice before the sun would be rising, so that the ice would not be melted. Sometimes it was -30°C!"

Vaudecrane won the French national championships in 1937 and '38.

"Then in 1939, the French federation decided to open the competition to foreign skaters, just like they did in tennis with the French Open," she said. "I finished second that year; I was the first French, but I lost to a Belgian competitor. I was so mad that I decided to quit all at once. That's when I decided to become a coach."

There was no skating coach at that time in France. The Brunets had left for Toronto, Cleveland and later New York, to establish their own school of skating, where they taught several world and Olympic gold medalists, including Carol Heiss and Scott Hamilton, among (many) others.

European skating was dominated by the Richmond School, near London, where Jacques Gerschwiler and Arnold Gerschwiler were coaching the best of Europe. Vaudecrane recalled how she took her best pupil of the time, Jacqueline du Bief.

"Gerschwiler told me that no girl would ever land a double Lutz," she said. "I told him, 'No one? Then Jacqueline will.' "

In 1952, at the world championships, du Bief landed her double Lutz and won the title. Du Bief became an icon in her days, so talented she was. Her free program at the 1952 Olympics will remain as one of the best moments in figure skating history.

"I was alone on the ice in that stadium. It was me and the audience and my skating under the stars," she said.

Du Bief has remained Vaudecrane's best friend over the years.

"When you share only skating with your coach, of course you can't maintain a strong relationship after you stop competing," she explained. "But with Jacqueline, we were sharing far more than skating, and so our relationship became more and more of a real friendship. Even today I keep calling her every morning."

When asked what her best memory was, a few days ago, Vaudecrane was quick to answer: "Alain's victory!"

After du Bief, Vaudecrane coached two young fellows both named Alain: Alain Giletti and Alain Calmat. The former won the world championship in 1960, in Vancouver. The latter won his world gold medal in Colorado Springs, in 1965. At the same time he was competing, Calmat was embarking on his medical studies. In the late 1980s, he even became the minister of sports in the French government.

Vaudecrane was very keen on skating figures, but she was also deeply interested in costume designs and music.

"Can you imagine that I was blamed by the French federation once, because I had ordered a red costume for Alain Calmat?" she recalled.

At that time, most skaters were skating in black suits.

After the two Alains, Vaudecrane coached Patrick Péra, who won two Olympic bronze medals, in Grenoble (1968) and Sapporo (1972). Péra is now a successful private banker in Milan, from where he traveled to meet his skating friends in Paris for that special event.

Calmat, Giletti, Péra and several others were sent to the U.S. by the French federation to train with Pierre Brunet in New York. That created a long-lasting tie between today's French coaches and officials and American ones. Incidentally, Mary Lynn Gelderman, who coaches Samantha Cesario (fourth at Trophée Bompard), was also a student of "Monsieur Brunet," as they used to call him. Since the Brunets taught most of Vaudecrane's students in New York, she was quite surprised to see her former training colleagues in Paris!

Vaudecrane was also quite active in ice dance. At the time of her youth, ice dance was just a glamorous complement to any figure skating activity. Everybody did dances. When the ice dancing sport was established by the ISU (International Skating Union) in the early 1950s, Vaudecrane's school welcomed the first French champions, Christiane Guhel and Jean-Paul Guhel, who won a European gold medal in the early '60s, and Brigitte Martin and Francis Gamichon, who also medaled at Europeans.

"Can you believe that I am going to turn 100 in just a few days?" she said.

Vaudecrane has some difficulty hearing, but she can certainly remember and talk.

"She surely has kept her strong personality!" du Bief said.

The Grande Dame did not make the trip to Paris (she now resides in the south of France), but surely she could hear the turmoil her former students caused at her reunion.

"They were just impossible to discipline!" a laughing 1964 Olympian Robert Dureville said afterward.

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