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Péchalat, Joubert reach finals of France's 'DWTS'

Two-time world bronze medalist finishes second in controversial decision
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The finalists on 'Dancing with the Stars' hope for good luck before the season finale (L-R): Rayane Bensetti (the eventual winner), Nathalie Péchalat, Brian Joubert and Péchalat's partner, Christophe Licata. -instagram.com/nathaliepechalat

Two French skating icons reached the finals of the French version of the latest season of Dancing with the Stars.

Nathalie Péchalat, who won the 2012 and 2014 world bronze medal in ice dancing with her partner, Fabian Bourzat, finished second, in a somewhat controversial vote. Brian Joubert, the 2007 world champion, ended third.

Péchalat emerged in first place on most episodes this season. All the dances, with the notable exception of the final dance, were evaluated in a dual way: by professional judges and via public voting. Four professional judges awarded two marks, from 0 to 10: one for artistic impression and one for the technical content of the dance.

The last dance of the finale, a freestyle dance, was to decide the winner. Unlike all previous dances, it was evaluated only by public voting. Many thought that Péchalat's dance was better than the one performed by her competitor, Rayane Bensetti, a young TV actor. The audience decided otherwise.

Public vote had also been responsible for eliminating one of the best dancers in the show, American actress and model Tonya Kinzinger, at the end of the quarterfinals.

Elite figure skaters have brought both their talent and competitive spirit to Dancing with the Stars throughout the years. In the U.S. version of the show, Kristi Yamaguchi and Meryl Davis won their respective seasons, and Evan Lysacek finished runner-up.

Péchalat and Joubert were the only two athletes to appear in the most recent season of the show in France, and both reached the final. Taking part in Dancing with the Stars served as strong motivation for Péchalat and Joubert, and posed a challenge for both of them.

"The show will provide me with a nice transition between high-level sport and a little less active life -- at least in a physical point of view," Péchalat said before the show started. "Dancing with the Stars is consistent with my career. I have loved dancing since I was a little girl. I love competing, and I love challenges.

"Dancing is not that far from ice dancing, at least for the movements of the body. Ice dancing is a matter of body expression, and head expression comes from the mood of the dance. Moving your feet is a completely different story, however," she explained. "On the ice, I am used to skating specific steps to gain points. Here, I will need to start from scratch."

Péchalat also pointed out another challenge: "The show will also confront me with a different partner. I have danced most of my life with Fabian, and I will need to establish a new rapport with a different partner. That is a little frightening to me. Fabian has always been my reference; being in someone else's arms is not my place. I will have to learn -- and to learn fast!"

In fact, Péchalat did not know at the time that she would have two opportunities to establish rapport with a new partner. The first professional dancer she partnered with left the show in the middle of it for personal reasons (his girlfriend was proved to be jealous of Péchalat), and Péchalat had to switch to a different partner. The change was for the better, however, as she appeared to be much more connected to the latter than the former.

In one of the first dances she had to practice for, contemporary ballet, Péchalat found herself in an even bigger challenge: "My partner is asking me to fall!" she exclaimed. "Can you believe that? For 23 years I have banned that word from my language. Falling on the ice is a mistake, and in contemporary style it's a must! I need to change all my references and throw myself to the ground."

Her biggest challenge throughout the show, however, was to let movement go and flow, rather than controlling it, as she used to on the ice. This was even truer when she had to dance to Afro jazz.

"I have to wake the lion inside me!" she offered.

She needed five weeks to really follow the judges' advice and find "a real internal resonance" within her and "a complete harmony" with herself, as Marie-Claude Pietragalla, a star ballet dancer in France and one of the judges, said.

Ever since, Péchalat scored mostly 9's and 10's, and led the show from one week to the next until the very last dance of the final. The panel praised her total commitment to the show and her humility to learn throughout the grueling season, which lasted two months. Many fans said she would remain, in their view at least, the true winner of this year's edition.

"It's the end of a great adventure," Péchalat said at the conclusion. "I am super-happy to have lived it. I would never have thought that I would go that far in the show."

Joubert's motivations, surprisingly, were also geared toward partnership.

"I have done only skating throughout my life, and always by myself," Joubert said when he started the show. "This show will be quite a challenge for me. I will have to share something with a partner. Sharing stress with someone else is something I don't know -- maybe it will help me get rid of it?

"I am used to skating in front of a 'jury;' I am used to being 'on scene' in front of an audience. But still, there is a big question mark for me: I don't know anything about ballroom dance, and I have never performed any dance steps. ... Dancing in the show should bring me a lot, both for my job as a skater and in a human perspective."

Joubert's biggest challenge, however, came when he had to dance in a classical ballet style.

"This will be a true catastrophe!" he exclaimed when he heard about that challenge. "I don't have the body to dance classical; my legs are way too big! Also, I have spent 25 years of my life with my feet in an iron cast (his skates). Now I have to take them out and learn to bend them, point them, loosen them. The whole of classical ballet technique is geared outside of the body, whereas my personal technique is geared toward the inside."

Joubert survived week after week, rallying the sympathy (and votes) of his fans.

"Brian is a real competitor," the judges said afterward. "He has improved from one week to the next, and he never let anything pass by him."

"It's cool to dance together in the final!" Joubert said after he and Péchalat qualified for it. "Skaters will go to the end of the show!"

He delivered a big basket of flowers to Péchalat as she was rehearsing for the final, and brought another one to his partner.

"I never thought I would reach the final," Joubert concluded. "Now I am going back to my skates. It will be good for me!"