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Figure skating season begins in France

Joubert, Delobel dominate storylines at season's start

Isabelle Delobel and partner Olivier Schoenfelder plan to resume training for the Olympics as soon as Delobel is up to it.
Isabelle Delobel and partner Olivier Schoenfelder plan to resume training for the Olympics as soon as Delobel is up to it. (Getty Images)

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By Jean-Christophe Berlot, special to icenetwork.com
(09/14/2009) - There were two hot topics in Orléans this past weekend as the elite skaters of France gathered for their first competition, the French Masters. Brian Joubert was supposedly unveiling his new free program, crafted by former ice dancing world champions Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski. The other subject that got tongues wagging was Isabelle Delobel's baby, which was expected to arrive during the competition.

Though both stories gained a lot of steam, and The Masters, allowed for a valuable review of French figure skating on the eve of the upcoming Olympic season.

Joubert's new program
Many were wondering about Joubert's new free program.

"Finally, this is a winning program," one international judge present in Orléans commented after seeing it.

Joubert's 2008-2009 season ended in turmoil, as he cut ties with former coach Jean-Christophe Simond and decided to train again with Laurent Depouilly, who had helped him win his first European Championship in 2005. Many then wondered how Joubert could renew his repertoire and undertake the necessary changes to his skating style.

"We decided to keep last year's short program," Joubert explained. But Joubert will be skating a new free skate this season. After long discussions, the team finally decided to ask Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski to help him build what should be his Olympic free skate.

Joubert missed his quad in both the short and free programs in Orléans, and he lost to 2008 Junior Grand Prix Final winner Florent Amodio. His showing, however, reassured federation experts and judges.

"I am well aware that there is still a lot of work ahead of me," Joubert said. "Yet I am on track. And I love this program."

Delobel's baby is still on its way
"Is the baby there yet?" Pernelle Carron, one of Delobel's best friends and a teammate in Lyon, did not hesitate to ask.

No, Delobel's baby was not showing up yet. Olivier Schoenfelder, Delobel's on-ice partner, was in Orleans to commentate the competition for a television sports channel (Schoenfelder is also studying journalism). He also agreed to comment on the duo's own situation for icenetwork.com.

"Isabelle kept training until an advanced stage", he explained. "She stopped around seven-and-a-half months of pregnancy." In the second half of July, both of the duo's new programs were ready. Schoenfelder trained with Delobel until she had to stop, after which he started training by himself again. Schoenfelder had already endured such a period of training alone earlier this year, when Delobel injured her shoulder at the Grand Prix Final.

Many experts were concerned about Delobel's pregnancy itself and the weight she might have gained. Schoenfelder was reassuring on this point.

"Isabelle's pregnancy went really well, and this is quite a chance. She did not gain much weight, and after she stopped training, she went to the Alps, [with her husband Ludovic Roux, a skiing coach] and I know she was really careful there. Now the main thing is that birth itself goes well". In fact, the time Delobel needs to recover prior to coming back to the ice will depend heavily on how the baby is born.

Men
Four men are in contention for the two Olympic berths France has. Joubert has already qualified for one, but Yannick Ponsero, Alban Préaubert and Amodio have just three months to grasp the other.

Ponsero finished fourth at the 2009 European championships. He has worked on his amplitude and keeps improving on his consistency. In Orléans, he had trouble with both of his programs, and his trademark quad Salchow eluded him.

"He is working so much," his choreographer Claudie Lucine said sadly.

"I train mentally also every day," Ponsero assured.

Préaubert, who is the most experienced internationally of the three, seems to have gone back to his humorous style, at least in his short program to "William Tell's Overture," where he portrays a horse rider. Préaubert's free program is quite different, however.

"I skate my free program to rock 'n roll, which is quite unusual in the men," he explained. "I am a big fan of the Rolling Stones, and my parents have the complete edition of their works. I went to see them in their last tour, and I felt their music would set fire to the rink!"

Préaubert finished third in Orléans, just ahead of Ponsero. Amodio, who won the Junior Grand Prix Final last December, worked with a choreographer for the first time in his career. Alexander Zhulin and Stanick Jeannette, a former European medalist, devised his two programs.

"Here I am, just brand new to this competition. I am here without any objective, simply to skate my two programs as well as possible," he said earlier. His victory proved that he was on the right track.

The upcoming Grand Prix events should provide good indication about which of the three will skate in Vancouver next February.

Ice Dancing
Along with the men's competition, ice dancing is traditionally the field where French skating is at its best.

The sport, however, had to endure something of a tsunami at the end of last season. In addition to Delobel's pregnancy, the third-ranked team of Carron and Matthieu Jost decided to split. The duo had just wrapped up a credible ninth-place finish in Los Angeles when Carron announced to Jost that she would not be skating with him anymore.

So the Carron-Jost couple gave birth to two new pairs, as both Carron and Jost are now skating with new partners. Neither team, however, can qualify to compete in the upcoming Olympics, as neither Carron nor Jost's new partners are of French nationality.

Carron teamed up with Lloyd Jones, a 20-year-old ice dancer from Great Britain. The duo devised their programs themselves.

"We had hoped that Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon [who came to Lyon last June to create Delobel and Schoenfelder's free dance] could help us as well", Carron explained. "Yet we did not have the budget for it, so we decided to create our routines ourselves. So it is like our babies!"

"Indeed," Romain Haguenauer, who coaches Carron and Lloyd in Lyon explained, "We have given them only a little help. They have done most of the work themselves. This way, it reflects their own personality, which helps them a lot, as a starting couple, especially since Lloyd still has limited experience."

Jost paired with Olga Orlova, a Russian skater who had been training with Nikolai Morozov in the USA for the last four years.

"I was in contact with Morozov at the time when Pernelle announced that she was leaving me," Jost recalled. "So I knew that Olga was by herself. Two hours after we met, our legs were matching, it was incredible. I have to admit that Olga is taller and more powerful [than Carron], so actually it is easier to skate together".

Meanwhile, Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat have been training actively. After taking fifth place at worlds in Los Angeles last March, they skated in the French and Japanese skating tours and returned to Moscow to create their new programs. Last summer they spent a month in Epinal, in the east of France, with their coach, Alexander Zhulin. Both of their programs were entertaining, creative and highly technical.

"Our work has given us more amplitude and maturity, and we wanted to show it in our programs. The ones we created with Sasha [Zhulin] should help us prove it", Péchalat explained.

They displayed renewed amplitude and confidence in Orléans and proved that they are the clear leaders of French ice dancing in the absence of Delobel and Schoenfelder.

The French skaters are now preparing for the Grand Prix season, which will open in just a month with the Eric Bompard Trophy in Paris.