France readies for European Championships

Brian Joubert.
Brian Joubert. (Getty Images)


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By Jean-Christophe Berlot, special to
(01/09/2008) - Just like in any other skating country, Christmas meant the turning point of the season for all the elite skaters of France. After a rather convincing Grand Prix Series during the fall, the French team took advantage of the Christmas break to rest, practice and prepare for the international events to come.

French team Christmas Special

The ski resort of Courchevel, in the French Alps, has always had a flair for glamour. A favorite venue for industrial, financial or political wizards and high rise managers, the village has always organized winter sports events of national interest. The now traditional Skating Christmas gala has become one of them. All the elite French skaters perform in front of a massive live crowd, and millions of TV viewers.

This year was no exception, with most current French skating stars displaying their talent. Brian Joubert, Yannick Ponséro, Alban Préaubert, Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder gave their audience a strong flavor of how prepared they are just three weeks before their first major international championship of the season: 2008 European Championships.

Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat were missing in Courchevel, as Bourzat was undergoing surgery for a torn meniscus. The duo has now resumed their training program, and should be ready to compete in Zagreb.

French team for the European Championships announced

Joubert, Ponséro and Préaubert will represent France in the men's category. Gwendoline Didier will make the trip to the European Championships for the first time in her career. Delobel and Schoenfelder, Péchalat and Bourzat, Pernelle Carron and Mathieu Jost, all training in Lyon with Muriel Boucher Zazoui, will try to retain France's three spots in ice dancing.

The newly crowned French national champions for pairs, Adeline Canac and Maximin Coia, will however miss the championships, as Canac broke her sternum. "She must have fractured it some time ago," Jean-Roland Racle, who coaches the pair regularly, stated. "The other day, we had planned a tough training session. Adeline did not even fall at all. But their moves and exercises must have broken her sternum for good." Mélodie Châtaigner and Medhi Bouzzine will be the only French representatives in pairs.

The newly elected President of the French Federation, Didier Gailhaguet, has organized a two-day training session in Paris for all the figure skating competitors at the end of this week. The ice dancers, who train together all year long in Lyon, will however not join them.

French skaters export themselves well: Samuel Contesti becomes the new Italian champion.

Examples of foreign skaters deciding to represent France have been numerous in the past. Marina Anissina, who won an Olympic gold medal with Gwendal Peizerat for France in 2002 (in ice dancing) was already a world-class dancer in Russia. Earlier, Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay (also in ice dancing) had emigrated from Canada to win their world and Olympic medals under the colors of France. Yet no one had done the opposite movement in the recent past. This year has seen two French skaters ready to represent other countries: Samuel Contesti in the men's category, and Jérôme Blanchard in pairs.

Samuel Contesti was ranked second in France two seasons ago, right behind Joubert. In the fall of 2005, he had defeated Frédéric Dambier both at the Eric Bompard Trophy and at the French Nationals. Yet Dambier had managed to get the second spot of the French team for the 2006 European Championships, and the following Olympic Games; giving Contesti's young career a cruel stop. Since then, Contesti has recovered and rebuilt his motivation. Last spring he elected to skate for Italy, where he hopes the political issues he faced in 2006 will never occur again. Contesti just won the men's title at the Italian National Championships and is now ready to make his European comeback in two weeks.

And Jérôme Blanchard is ready for results in Russia

Another French skater has also chosen to work abroad. Jérôme Blanchard had won the French nationals in 2003 with his partner, Sabrina Lefrançois. Lefrançois and Blanchard were ranked fifth in Europe in 2001, and sixth in 2003. The duo was, however, always hampered by Lefrançois's health problems, which finally forced her to quit her skating career. Blanchard spent the following years trying to find another partner in France. After several unsuccessful trials, he decided to quit skating and work for a modeling agency. Then, in 2006, he called world and Olympic coach Oleg Vassiliev and decided to work with him.

Vassiliev is actually impressed by his new protégé. "Jérôme is a good skater. He has the technique. Actually, I do not give him much in terms of skating technique. I give him in training technique. He is a worker. Actually, he is more Russian than French in that respect: he is not as loose [laugh]! When we have a 75-minute training session, he goes from the first to the 75th minute and executes 100% of the plan."

Blanchard has been paired with Valeria Vorobieva, a former singles skater. They have been together for more than six months now. Vassiliev is quite enthusiastic: "They have already everything -- death spiral, lifts, throw jumps, spins... She was skating singles before. Jerôme has been very helpful and patient. He took the time to explain to her.

"We are now trying to help him become a Russian citizen. The French Federation did not agree to release him, which would have been the easy way, so we need to do it a harder way. The Russian Federation President, Valentin Piseev, could see the couple skate together and is now very helpful." Yet Russian bureaucracy added to French bureaucracy seems to be quite difficult to overcome. Blanchard and Vorobieva could not participate in the Russian Championships officially, so as "not to offend the French Federation," whose new elected President might help solving the case.

Yet the duo is ready to perform and get results. It takes so much more than skating to become a recognized champion.

With Contesti representing Italy in Zagreb, there should be one more French skater at the European Championships than the French team has official spots. And there might be even more French skaters at international championships in the years to come, albeit not skating for France!