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France hands out national titles in Vaujany

Méité finally claims first French crown; Péchalat, Bourzat win easily
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After fourth silver medals in a row, Maé Bérénice Méité won the gold at the French championships in Vaujany. -Getty Images

Not very many people knew about Vaujany before the 2013 French Championships were organized there. Vaujany, a small ski resort in the French Alps, more than an hour away from Grenoble, is more known for bicycling, as the Tour de France has lived some of its most memorable stages at nearby l'Alpe d'Huez.

History will nonetheless remember the newly opened rink in Vaujany as the place where Brian Joubert (second behind Florent Amodio), and Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat (first) will have skated their last competition in their home country, in front of a capacity crowd. Maé-Bérénice Méité will also remember Vaujany as the place where she won the first national gold medal of her career in the ladies event. Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès won their second title in pairs.

Men: Confidence is starting to come back

Joubert's counter will finally stop on eight - the number of French titles he will have amassed in his competitive career. Amodio beat him in the 2013 edition by 1.41 points, although Joubert beat him by seven points in the free program.

"I would have preferred to win tonight," Joubert said afterward, "But I was so bad yesterday, and I am paying for it badly."

The two skaters nonetheless embraced strongly after the competition ended: Their performance looked like redemption to each of them, after the erratic first part of the season they both experienced.

"This was tough," Amodio said after his free program. "Altitude made it even more difficult."

Amodio won the short program thanks to a beautifully executed quad Salchow. Amodio has always experienced some difficulty on his quad; yet a successful quad Salchow by Amodio is usually a treat, as he rotates so fast and clean. That was the case in both his short and free programs in Vaujany. The missing jump this time was the triple Axel, which he could not land in either program, in spite of several attempts.

"There is some excellent, and there is some ugly," Amodio said in his own natural and candid way. "The quad is coming back really strong. This [free] program also showed me that I could really land all my triple jumps with a good quality. I really needed to work on many elements after the Eric Bompard Trophy (where Amodio finished a catastrophic seventh), but now I need to do run-throughs and skate my programs clean every day."

Amodio's program to "La vie en Rose" garnered 63.83 points for the elements (compared to 74.11 for Joubert) and 85.14 for his components (to 81.86 for Joubert).

Never this season had the French team been together at a competition. Usually the French Masters and Trophée Eric Bompard offer a good opportunity to bond the national team. This year was a notable exception for the men. Joubert did not show up at the French Masters for a lack of preparation, which later cost him his participation at the two Grand Prix he had planned, Skate America and the Rostelcom Cup. Chafik Besseghier, who is ranked third in France, was injured at the French Masters and could not skate at Bompard.

The three of them could finally compete in Vaujany. Joubert did land his quad toe in both his short and free programs, but also had some difficulty with his triple Axel. His new free program, set to Rodrigo's famous "Concierto de Aranjuez," was a delight to watch.

"These nationals will do me good." Joubert said. "I am happy about my free program, and also about the way I behaved here. I am on the rise, and it showed."

Besseghier was quite concentrated throughout his free program. Coming back from his injury, he did not attempt any quad in his program in Vaujany but otherwise skated perfectly.

"We have preferred not to attempt any quad this time," Besseghier explained. "We need to wait for my ankle to come back completely. That allowed me to skate a clean program. I was not hoping to skate all my elements that well, but I really fought, and tonight I am quite happy."

All three men arrived with questions and doubts in Vaujany. They will leave the rink reassured. Their audience will too, just a month prior to the European championships, where all three of them should participate.

"It would be so neat to repeat what we did in Bern in 2011," Joubert offered. Amodio and he had taken the gold and silver medals in Switzerland.

Pairs: James and Ciprès, who else?

James and Ciprès wanted to skate clean programs so badly, after the operation Ciprès had to undergo last September on his right wrist.

The team, which finished fourth at the 2013 European Championships and eighth at worlds, has acquired a new dimension this year.

"I was so stressed. I don't know why, really, as we were the only one pair competing here," she said with a laugh, "But I was. We did not want to fail."

The team was hoping to land its side-by-side, triple toe-triple toe combination -- a first in any pairs event.

"You should shoot at the stars if you want to reach the moon!" Ciprès explained half-laughingly and half seriously. "We really want to progress. The more you try to master new difficulties, the more you will master the traditional ones,."

They did not quite succeed, as James' was two-footed and downgraded by the technical panel. The team nonetheless garnered 177.18 points.

James and Ciprès were the only pair to compete in Vaujany. Daria Popova had not recovered from her foot injury yet, and she and partner Bruno Massot could not compete at nationals, a few weeks after they withdrew from Bompard.

When asked about their hopes for the second part of the season, James and Ciprès were quick to answer with one single voice: "A European medal. That's our goal for this season."

Ladies: Méité, finally!

Méité finally won the national title which had always eluded her in the past. She had won the silver medal for the last four years, first behind Yretha Silete and then behind Anaïs Ventard. Silete was still recovering from her torn knee ligaments and could not skate in Vaujany, and Ventard, although she skated in her artistic and fluid style, was still lacking some technical content in her programs.

Méité won her title more than 15 points ahead of her closer competitors, Laurine Lecavelier and Ventard (161.23 points for Méité, 146.88 for Lecavelier, 146.81 for Ventard). She has shown steady progress this season, finishing sixth at Skate America and fifth at Bompard.

Méité has not only improved her technique, with a triple-triple combination in both programs, but also her expression.

"Now I am learning to live my programs," she explained. "In the past, I used to skate them, and afterward I learned to express them. But I need to go beyond that to capture the crowd's attention."

Méité won the short program with ease, almost 10 points ahead of Lenaëlle Gilleron-Gory and Ventard, but she had more difficulty in her free program, as she fell twice. The title was hers anyway, and for now the treat is to be fully savored.

Le Petit Prince et sa Rose

Péchalat and Bourzat had little at stake in Vaujany, merely seven days after the standing ovation they got at the Grand Prix Final. (They won a much-coveted bronze medal in Japan, bouncing back from their fifth-place finish in the short dance to rally and make the podium.)

Bourzat tumbled at the end of the team's short dance ("We were tired," he admitted), but they won the event easily. Their short dance caused them quite a bit of difficulty this season, and they have started modifying a number of elements already.

There was a lot of emotion in the rink of Vaujany when the duo started their free dance, as everyone was aware that they were competing in France for the last time. Their program to "Le Petit Prince et sa Rose," which they chiseled after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's masterpiece, was the perfect piece for such a finale in their home country. Indeed, the duo managed to tame audiences worldwide throughout their competitive career, skating to every style, from musicals (Cats) to rock 'n' roll (Rolling Stones) to movies (Charlie Chaplin) to ancient Egypt.

Bourzat tumbled in their opening twizzles, and the small size of the rink (190x92) did surprise them. Their program was still an enchantment.

"We have spent so much time trying to polish every single step," Péchalat explained, "That we really love to skate this program."

They garnered 106.43 points for their free dance and 176.78 overall, 22 points ahead of the silver medalists, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

The least that can be said is that Papadakis and Cizeron, who won the world junior silver medal in 2013, have managed their entrance into the senior ranks. Most noticeable in Vaujany was the incredible path their free dance has taken since the season started.

"This year we selected some contemporary jazz music," Cizeron explained. "Our coaches (Muriel Zazoui-Boucher, Romain Haguenauer and 2008 world gold medalist Olivier Schoenfelder) told us that such style corresponded to our natural gesture."

Papadakis' extreme body flexibility and expression, allied to Cizeron's superlative class, was a story in itself.

"We have no story to tell in this program," Papadakis explained. "Our program is just a matter of oppositions and power. I make him do things, and he makes me do things."

Portraying that tension made their dance quite intense throughout their motion. They won 92.45 points for their free dance and 154.24 overall.

The main question remaining after Vaujany is, of course, who will qualify for Sochi, along with Péchalat and Bourzat. Pernelle Carron and Lloyd Jones, who are ranked second in France, could not compete in Vaujany, as they were selected to represent France at the University Games in Trentino, Italy (which they won by 11 points).

Team France

Right after the 2012 World Championships in Nice, less than two years ago, the French team was considered one of the favorites for an Olympic podium at the newly created team event. Péchalat and Bourzat had won their first world medal (a bronze), after two European gold medals. Joubert had just finished fourth in Nice with his old Matrix program he had himself qualified as "non competitive." Amodio had just skated to another European medal (a bronze) and finished fifth in Nice. Silete had taken a solid eighth place in the free program, and James and Ciprès were on the rise. At the World Team Trophy that season, Team France finished fourth, with the same number of points as Canada.

Last season was not nearly as successful for the team, which ended sixth, and last, at the World Team Trophy.

Team France is now officially selected for the Sochi team event. Most team members are now training in Paris -- with the notable exceptions of Joubert (who trains in Poitiers), and Péchalat and Bourzat (who train in Detroit).

"We are really a team now," Ciprès offered, "Especially since Florent joined us."

Amodio was even more explicit: "We have a super team," he said. "It's really great. Brian and I boost each other; it's really good to see him back! We will fight for a medal all together."