Ice Network

French skaters debut programs in Orléans

Bességhier breaks ankle in warm-up; French fed tests new ideas
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Florent Amodio won the men's competition at French Masters, but he was more concerned with the well-being of his friend, Chafik Bességhier, who broke his ankle during the warm-up for the free skate. -Getty Images

It can be said that the French team has had a rough start to the Olympic season. Florent Amodio spent a whole summer without a coach before recently finding two, Katia Krier and Shanetta Folle, while Brian Joubert decided to relocate closer to home after a whole season in Paris with two different coaches. Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat also changed coaches in the summer, although their programs were already set up. This was quite visible at this year's French Masters, the traditional season opener, in Orléans.

Off-day for the men

Amodio did win the event, yet he did so in a rather incredible circumstance and after what could be called a disastrous showing -- at least jumping-wise. Chafik Bességhier won the short program and could have won the free as well had he not fallen and broken his right ankle at the end of the final warm-up. Florian Lejeune took a surprise silver, while Romain Ponsart took the bronze, also injuring his ankle in the process.

Amodio's short program to "La cumparsita" was a delight to watch, although he fell on his opening quadruple Salchow and under-rotated the triple Lutz of his combination. He did not recompose in the free program. He opened with a double Salchow instead of his planned quad, then a triple instead of a quad combo, and landed two double Axels instead of triples. The French star won 50 points only for his technical content, way behind his best.

Amodio was not so upset afterward.

"Jumps were blocked today," he explained. "Still, I felt some emotion throughout my programs, and the audience was great. There is still some Florent Amodio in there; I was not lost in the process. I just skated nuts today. It's just an accumulation of mistakes.

"You know, I am just starting to learn what I am doing, really," Amodio continued. "Now everything has to be calculated millimeter by millimeter, each preparation of a jump, each step. I am still learning my lesson, and I have not said it right yet. Still, I am working like hell, and after this is over I will understand each one of my jumps, rather than simply feeling them. I have three weeks to work before Cup of China, and that is a lot."

"I am far more sad for my friend Chafik," Amodio concluded in his usual sportsmanlike way. "He deserved so much to win today, and he injured himself right before. I told him to look beyond, where his future lies."

Bességhier left the rink in an ambulance and was hardly able to walk.

French star Brian Joubert decided not to compete in Orléans. He moved back to his home rink of Poitiers earlier in September.

"I am now quite late on my schedule, so I prefered not to skate at this year's Masters," he said.

Pairs

Daria Popova and Bruno Massot, from Caen (in Normandy), who ranked seventh at their first European championships in 2013, ended up being the only contestants. Both of their programs were incredibly athletic and ambitious, yet marred by several errors.

"It's OK for Masters," Popova said after their free program. "This was rather a test, in order to prepare for the competitions to come."

"We really need to perform more our choreography and transitions," Massot added. "Our free program is not yet in our legs. Skating perfect will come when we have it."

The team has planned side-by-side triple Salchows, followed by a triple toe-triple toe combination. All three were doubled, however.

"My foot is still injured," Popva explained, "So we decided to go for doubles this time."

"Also," Massot added, "This rink is smaller than the one we skate in, in Caen. We have worked a lot on speed and transitions, so it is quite a challenge to skate on a smaller rink."

The team's next challenges will take place at Cup of Nice and then Cup of China. Their main target is the 2014 European Championships, however.

"That's when we should be in top form," Massot said.

Popova should, however, have another challenge before then: She has applied for French citizenship and needs to pass an exam in French conversation to obtain it.

Ladies

Only three ladies took the ice in the senior ranks. Maé-Bérénice Méité won the competition almost 20 points ahead of Candice Didier and 27 over Lénaëlle Gilleron-Gory (153.26 points for Méité, 133.76 for Didier and 126.67 for Gilleron-Gory).

Méité skated her short program to "The Question of U" by Prince. Her program was a real dance in itself. Méité seems to master her body segments and balance better than she has ever before -- at least on the ice. She has learned to play with her arms, hands and fingers and to use her beautiful body lines to full extension.

"We are working on it all the time," she explained with her usual bright smile.

One day the world will discover that Méité is a true dancer, something she is starting to believe herself. Her program was an instant hit with the audience.

Her "rock 'n' roll" free skate was a little less of a success, although she managed to land a triple Salchow-triple toe right at the start.

"This was important for me," she said afterward. "It was the first time I was including it in the long program, and I wanted to include it before Skate America. So I should have both that triple-triple and my usual double Axel-triple in two weeks in Detroit," she said.

Veteran Didier decided to add one more year to her 10-year competitive career. She has kept her pure line and strong jumps. Her short program was perfect, but her free was marred by a few mishaps.

"I am a bit disappointed with myself today," she said, "Because I could really visualize a faultless program. It did not happen, but I really want to go back to train next Tuesday and fight!"

Ice dance

The ice dance competition was certainly the most exciting of all. Péchalat and Bourzat are considered as top favorites to take one of the two spots France has won for the Olympics, but the battle could be fierce between Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the 2013 world junior silver medalists, and Pernelle Carron and Lloyd Jones, who finished 12th at last season's world championships.

The current hierarchy was respected in Orléans, with Carron and Jones finishing 17 points behind Péchalat and Bourzat and almost 11 ahead of Papadakis and Cizeron (171.45 for Péchalat and Bourzat, 154 for Carron and Jones, and 143.47 for Papadakis and Cizeron).

"This is the place where we show our programs for the first time," Bourzat offered before the competition started. "We are as ready as we can be at the start of a new season. Yet, we are still far away from what we will be at the Olympics. The good thing here is that we can meet with most French judges, especially those who will judge us at the Olympics."

Never would one have thought that this year's pattern dance, the quickstep, could appear in so many different styles. While Péchalat and Bourzat selected the "cabaret" approach (they earned two Level 3's), Carron and Jones chose Cole Porter's musicals (they also received a pair of Level 3's), and Papadakis and Cizeron took a more classical ballroom style (notching two Level 2's).

Péchalat and Bourzat skated their short dance to Bob Fosse.

"We wanted to get away from the 'Ginger and Fred syndrome,' " Laurie May, the team's choreographer, emphasized. "The first idea you get, listen to it, and then through it," she added with laughter.

Péchalat and Bourzat's "Little Prince" free dance was a subtle mix of fantasy, poetry and refined technique. Their program could also be seen as a rendering of their previous most successful choreographies; one of the judges even had a tear on her cheek at the end of the routine. The audience gave them a standing ovation.

"For sure, this is their last competitive skate here," a fan said.

Carron and Jones have decided to skate to Swan Lake.

"We took a classical recording," Carron explained, "But the music does not have a strong enough beat for ice dance standards. So we had it remixed by Beat Circuit, a Houston-based group.

"We really wanted to skate to an energetic program. We emailed and skyped a lot with Beat Circuit, and we came up with something we really like. It is classical at times; at other times you can hear some hip-hop as well. Both programs are quite different, but both really stick to us well."

"I realized that we were skating our first senior competition at the very moment I stepped on the ice for our short dance," Cizeron explained.

"It was not a real emotional shock, however!" Papadakis added laughingly, as they had already skated with all these teams before.

Papadakis and Cizeron's contemporary free dance was incredibly intense.

"We have no theme to our dance," Cizeron explained. "It's just a matter of power. Sometimes she takes the lead and sometimes I do."

The audience remained silent throughout their program, finally erupting in applause at the end.

"They expressed so much," one expert said. "They really managed to take us in their own world."

"We have no real objective for this season," Cizeron concluded. "We simply want to improve and skate our best."

They already gave a sample of what it could be.

A French première

The French federation tested a new idea during these Masters: displaying the technical panel screen to the audience while the skaters were skating their short program.

"Actually, they did that in the U.S., and we tried to adapt it here," an official suggested.

On a big screen along the rink, one could watch every mouse motion, hesitation, click and replay requested by the panel. Elements and levels could be seen right away.

"This screen is really too esoteric for the public," one judge suggested, "But it is a great idea."

"This is, however, more accessible for figure skating than for ice dancing," an international ice dance judge offered, "As not many even know what a chocktaw is -- not to speak about the key points!"

The screen was, however, very instructive for whoever wanted to look at it.

"It will work if judges, audiences and skaters find it interesting," a skater's father summed up.

The second test that was carried out in Orléans was also quite successful. While in the kiss and cry after their program, skaters could ask the judging panel for what was called a "challenge," that is, a review of a given element to clarify the way it was scored.

Not many dared.

"This is quite understandable," a judge said. "First, skaters can see what reviews we ask for while they are waiting for their marks, so they know right way what we have seen. Second, if ever we have missed the evaluation of an element, we may correct it upward but also downward!"

Still, the "challenge" had a great impact, as the skaters and audiences could listen to the detailed and objective explanations provided by the technical controller and realize that their evaluation was carefully built.

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