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Four Frenchmen battle for two Olympic spots

French nationals could decide who goes to Vancouver

Brian Joubert proved he was still a force to be reckoned with at the French Masters.
Brian Joubert proved he was still a force to be reckoned with at the French Masters. (Getty Images)

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By Jean-Christophe Berlot, special to icenetwork.com
(12/11/2009) - As everyone knows, the Three Musketeers of Alexandre Dumas' famous novel were in fact four (Athos, Portos, Aramis and D'Artagnan). Today's French male skating is about the same, with Brian Joubert as the leader, Alban Préaubert and Yannick Ponsero as the perennial "best enemies" and Florent Amodio as the new comer. Two of them only will be selected for the Olympic Games. French nationals, to be held in a little less than a week in Marseille, should be one of the main milestones on the road to Vancouver.

Amazingly enough, Joubert was already declared qualified by the French Federation last summer, in order to let him focus more on his preparation than on his selection.

Joubert's goals are clear.

"If I can grasp any competition and victory," Joubert said, "I will take it. If I can keep my European title, I will. Yet it is not my goal for this season. I want to be 100 percent at the Games, not before."

Joubert's early season was by not his best by far, with a fourth-place finish at the Trophee Eric Bompard and a gold medal at the NHK Trophy. He injured himself two weeks ago while rehearsing his triple Lutz. His foot was successfully operated on the next day. Ligaments had to be repaired, but his bones were not hurt, so Joubert hoped to come back rapidly to the ice. He nonetheless had to withdraw from the ISU Grand Prix Final. He resumed training earlier this week.

"I am landing triples -- Salchow and toe loop mainly -- without any problem", he said. "I am a bit more reluctant on the loop. Yet, obviously, I am not trying the Lutz or the flip," he added.

It is still unknown if Joubert will withdraw from the French championships, but he should at least be in the stands in Marseille to watch his colleagues.

Amodio is by far the lesser known of the four, yet he is also the one to watch. Amodio has reached international fame only on the Junior Grand Prix so far. Last season, he won one ISU Junior Grand Prix (Sheffield) and the Final. He did not fare nearly as well at Junior worlds, however. He then prepared for his first season in the senior ranks.

"I am arriving like a brand new skater," he said. "Also, this year I worked with different coaches on my new programs. Stanick Jeannette [a former European bronze medallist] and Sasha Zhulin made my programs, and I spent time training with Doug Leigh's school in Canada."

At just 19, Amodio defeated all his senior rivals during the French Masters, a national competition held mid-September.

His victory did not change his state of mind, however.

"It should not", he explained. "I do not want to lose stupidly. I'd rather stay quiet and do my job," he continued. "I want to show what I am capable of. If this allows me to be qualified for the Europeans, Olympics and worlds, then it will be wonderful. Yet this season is a long one."

Amodio has earned his victories through a strong technique but also a natural talent for gliding and dancing.

"I have always liked dancing," he said.

He is coached in the Paris area by his longtime coach, Bernard Glesser, himself a former national skater. Glesser discovered Amodio when he was four years old and came to skate in a public session. Amodio was born in Brazil and was adopted by French parents, just like his sister.

"If I had been asked, maybe I would have chosen soccer just like all the kids my age," he said smiling. For now, he poses a major challenge to Préaubert and Ponsero.

Préaubert earned a bronze medal from Skate Canada after a disappointing seventh-place finish at the Trophee Eric Bompard earlier this season. That competition left him with a bitter taste, as he skated two clean programs and had some of his technical elements were downgraded.

"I have two strong programs," he explained, "and I can see that they both are entertaining to the audience." Indeed, his "William Tell's Overture" short program, where he portrays a horse jockey in a rather comical way, was an instant hit.

"It is rather humorous," Préaubert said. "For this Olympic season, I wanted to come back to my own style, even though I am happy about what I did the last seasons. I tried several other things, so no one can tell me I did not explore other styles."

His free program to the Rolling Stones earned him similar success.

"My parents are absolute fans of the Rolling Stones," he explained. "I do not know why their music is so seldom used. In fact, I went to one of their concerts recently, and when I saw them, I thought it would set the fire to the audience!"

One of Préaubert's main challenges may be the readability of his steps.

"I tried to erase the default I was mentioned," Préaubert said. "What I hope is that I reach the same level of performance as last year but much higher results."

Préaubert had skated most of programs clean last year but had not felt that they were rewarded at their proper value.

"Alban has been working on his steps a lot with us," said Romain Haguenauer, who coaches some of the main French ice dancers with Muriel Boucher-Zazoui in Lyon.

"The international judging system has increased the ties between ice dancing and figure skating," Haguenauer explained. "In France, training centers are much more specialized than in the U.S. between ice dancing and figure skating. So, in fact, our skaters do need to improve on their steps, whereas they learn to skate right away in the U.S. French figure skaters and coaches are now integrating the fact that they need ice dancing for increasing their components, just like ice dancing needs figure skating to improve on spins and lifts."

Ponsero managed to finish fifth at both of his Grand Prix events this season, the Trophee Eric Bompard and the Cup of China.

"I still have a lot of work to do before the Olympics," he said, although he considered his results "acceptable." For several years now, Ponsero's main enemies have been his own nerves. Ponsero has come to be known as the "one-program man," missing either the short or the free program of most competitions he entered. One notable exception was last year's French nationals, where he won the title. At the subsequent European championships, however (in January 2009), he completely missed his short but recomposed to win the free with a superlative program and finished short of .04 points away from the podium.

Ponsero has been working extensively with a mental coach. He has also adopted a new strategy during competitions.

"I look tense throughout the competition," he explained, "yet, in fact, I may be more relaxed."

As a matter of fact, he always looks highly concentrated and absorbed into his skating.

"This is true. I mostly isolate myself into my bubble." he confirmed. His attitude certainly discourages anyone to stop him or ask him any question along his way.

"Considering the results so far, it may be a good tactic," he concluded, smiling.

About his own selection for the international events to come, Ponsero was clear.

"We are four strong skaters in France, and each one of us has the capacity to make the Olympic team. It is certainly easier for Brian [Joubert], as he has no question about his own selection. He can manage his season the way he likes. My own results give me confidence for the weeks and months to come, although I still have a lot of work to do."

The selection process should proceed fast after French nationals next week. Whatever the outcome may be, there is no doubt that the French team, however fierce the battle for selection may be, will be united as the fingers of one hand -- just like the musketeers crossing their blades were in their own time.