Decision time looms for pair Savchenko, MassotNewly formed team awaits word on whether it will receive German funding
All of Germany rejoiced when its squad defeated archrival France in the FIFA World Cup quarterfinals to advance to the semifinal, where it routed Brazil. Now, the team may be on the brink of its fourth championship and first since 1990.
Another Germany-France face-off is in the offing: new pair Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot must choose which country they will represent in international competition. The decision, though, is out of their hands.
On July 18, a commission appointed by Germany's interior ministry will rule whether the pair's coach, Ingo Steuer, can receive public money for his work. (The former East German, who won the 1997 world pairs title with Mandy Wötzel, worked for the Stasi secret police as a youth, an association that has prevented him from receiving government funding for many years.) If Steuer is denied the money, Savchenko and Massot will compete for France.
Things came to this pass because Savchenko's former partner, Robin Szolkowy, retired after the couple won a fifth world title in Japan in March. It was the final highlight of their glorious 11-year career, which also included Olympic bronze medals in 2010 and 2014.
Szolkowy, who turns 35 on July 14, had long planned to end his competitive career after the Sochi Olympics. The 30-year-old Savchenko had other ideas. Neither she nor Steuer could give up the dream of Olympic gold, and Savchenko quickly teamed with Massot, a 25-year-old Frenchman.
After Savchenko and Szolkowy gave two farewell performances in their hometown of Chemnitz, Germany, this spring, Szolkowy and his longtime girlfriend vacationed in the U.S. In late June, he made the transition to coaching in Oberstdorf, where Michael Huth, the longtime coach of Carolina Kostner, organizes an annual summer camp.
Massot was an obvious candidate to be Savchenko's new partner, as he and former partner Daria Popova had previously trained under Steuer for two years.
"Aliona and I chose Bruno as her new partner because we saw that he is willing to work hard and is ambitious," Steuer said. "He is some inches taller, and also stronger than Robin. He can throw Aliona better and further."
"Because he is just 25 years old, he is young enough to keep working for four years," Steuer continued. "It is a realistic goal to say we want to fight for an Olympic gold medal in 2018."
A recent visit to Chemnitz showed the new pair is progressing well. Steuer, who is usually not a great friend of the media, allowed several reporters and a local TV station to film practices and conduct interviews.
"After practicing for one week, I had the feeling that we have worked together for years," Massot said.
Yu-Na Kim and her management company invited the new team to take part in three of the "All That Skate" shows in early May in South Korea. Originally, the invitation was for Savchenko and Szolkowy.
"When the Koreans asked, we grit our teeth and got on with it," Savchenko said.
The shows were a big success; not only did the new team raise training money, but it showed off a strong throw triple Salchow, good lifts and enormously high double twists.
"We want to show elements which no other pairs, or almost no other pairs, have ever shown, like different quad throws," Massot said. "Plus, I have to learn more difficult choreography."
The German interior ministry's decision will also impact where Savchenko and Masso train. The Chemnitz rink is a public facility and will not donate free ice time to a non-German couple. Steuer is fielding several offers, and may move to France, Florida or Toronto.
"One offer is a contract which runs for four years; it is like [an annuity] for me," Steuer said. "I would like to stay in Chemnitz because this is my hometown; I have family here. I am hoping for a compromise because I want to coach the pair for Germany until an Olympic victory in 2018."
Competing for France would add a third citizenship to Savchenko's passport collection. Competing for Ukraine, she won the 2000 world junior title with Stanislav Morozov. She, too, would prefer to skate for, and live in, Germany.
"We recently were in France for a few days and trained in Bruno's former rink in Caen," she said. "The training conditions and the rink in Chemnitz are much better. This is another reason why I would prefer to stay in Germany."
Massot would prefer to compete for France but emphasized that he would accept the decision either way.
"It is my dream to win medals at the big championships and the next Olympic Games," he said. "With Aliona, this is possible, for whichever country."
The Gailhaguet effect
Even if the interior ministry decides in Steuer's favor, there are obstacles. The president of the French skating federation, Didier Gailhaguet -- who last month fought off a challenge from Gwendal Peizerat to gain re-election -- told German skating officials at the recent ISU congress that France may not release Massot to compete for Germany. This means the pair would have to wait two years before it is allowed to compete for Germany.
German officials, on the other hand, seem willing to release Savchenko, if the interior ministry rules Steuer cannot be paid. In that case, the skaters would sit out only the 2014-15 international season.
Either way, the skaters will leave Chemnitz at the end of July, when the rink closes for the summer. They plan to go to Coral Springs, Florida, to train with John Zimmerman's group. While there, Steuer also plans to work with U.S. skaters, including Zimmerman's top pupils, 2013 world junior champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier. When they return to Chemnitz in September, they will announce their decision: Germany or France.
It's clear which way Steuer is leaning.
"If we can compete for Germany, we would even accept a waiting time of two years," he said.