Ice Network

Storylines overshadow skating at French Masters

Warren uses competition as 'trial'; Haguenauer gives update on Papadakis
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U.S. competitor Philip Warren was a surprise entrant at the 2015 French Masters, while Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron were notable by their absence. -icenetwork

History may not remember the men's competition at the 2015 French Masters in and of itself, as the quality of the skating was rather low. It will surely remember, however, that Brian Joubert came here for the first time as a coach, and that his first pupil, Romain Ponsart, won the competition easily.

Ponsart won his first French Masters on Saturday, two years after breaking his ankle in this very rink in Orléans. The 23-year-old displayed two elegant programs, including a clean free skate to a Tchaikovsky violin concerto in which he landed all of his triples with elegance and amplitude.

"What I need to see now is the quads," Joubert said afterward.

Simon Hocquaux won the silver, and Florent Amodio ended third.

The competition had a very American flavor to it, as two entrants, Philip Warren and Alexander Zahradnicek, are both originally from the U.S. Zahradnicek was the U.S. junior silver medalist in 2011, and Warren took the bronze in 2012. Here in Orléans, Warren took fourth and Zahradnicek fifth. 

"Actually, my great-grandmother was French. She came from Marseille, in the south of France, I think," Warren explained. "Vincent Restencourt (a former French champion who skated in the years between Philippe Candeloro and Joubert) is now working with Kori Ade in Colorado. He mentioned that one of his pupils (Zahradnicek) had switched to France. So that triggered my mind."

"It's both a trial and a process for me. I haven't signed up for the qualifying competitions in the U.S. this season, but I keep training in Orange County with Todd Sand, my coach. I have not skated internationally for the U.S. in the last three years, so I don't think I would have any problem being released by U.S. Figure Skating. I'm here to stay.

"I have been to Paris before, as my sister took classes here. We went to Normandy and Mont Saint-Michel," Warren continued. "I love this country. The food is amazing! I suppose these Masters will be my only competition this year -- unless I can compete at French nationals."

In the free, Warren had by far the most difficult program of the field. He skated his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory routine boldly, launching two quads and two triple axels. He did not quite succeed, but he did enough to impress the French federation officials.

"This is the first year I'm doing the quad," he offered.

Zahradnicek represented France last season, receiving his release from the ISU in March. He moved to Colorado to train alongside Jason Brown and under Ade's tutelage.

"She is my main coach now," he said. "As soon as I got my release, I competed at the Coupe de Luxembourg (Printemps) and then in Val Gardena, Italy, for the Spring Trophy. Last week, I competed in Bratislava (at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy, where he finished 11th), and I should compete in Zagreb for the Golden Spin," he added.

"Coming here allows some skaters to skate internationally," explained Katia Krier, a former Olympic coach and now the coordinator of the French national team. "Philip was a strong competitor in the Junior Grand Prix, but the competition was too strong for him beyond that point. He wrote to us at the end of last season, and we are meeting him for the first time in this competition. We certainly welcome someone like him, who is not thinking twice about whether or not he should include a quad in his programs. That boosts our skaters.

"Still, asking for a release is by no means a small issue. You really need to think of what you are doing when you transfer from one country to the next. That's why the U.S. waits for one full year to release them, so that skaters have the time to really think of what they are doing," Krier continued. "Filing a release form is by no means an anecdote."

Krier came back to the refusal of the French federation to release pairs competitor Bruno Massot, who has been training with Aliona Savchenko, the five-time world champion with Robin Szolkowy, since the Sochi Olympics. The case has become a hot-button topic in the skating community, as Massot still does not have his release, and the team is not able to compete together for a second season.

"It all started after the European championships in Budapest, one month prior to the Sochi Olympics," Krier recalled. "We received a hand-signed letter from Aliona asking to transfer to France. I still have that letter. We were really interested, of course! But now they changed their minds. Having them skate for France would have been fantastic. The other way around is different. If the French federation releases Bruno, you can understand that it's not supporting its current 'first' team. It would just be like telling Vanessa [James] and Morgan [Ciprès] that we don't care for them. We just can't do that."

She also cited the financial investment France has made in Massot as another reason for why the federation doesn't want to let him go.

"When you watch the pairs competition here, you can see that there is not one single pair with two skaters of French origin. Vanessa was born a Canadian, and the two other male partners are coming from Russia," she concluded.

The wide (wild?) world of skating is still in the building stage.

Pairs

James and Ciprès won the event by more than 60 points over Camille Mendoza and Pavel Kovalev. They skated a superb short program but left the ice quite disappointed after the free.

"Landing the side-by-side triple toe-triple toe combination was our main goal coming here," Ciprès explained. "Of course, this is a very difficult element, but we really want to be the first pair in the world to land it in competition. We missed it, and just a moment later we didn't succeed on the throw triple salchow. That really killed us for the end of the program."

"We know that we can compete at the highest level, at least in Europe, if we skate the way we can," James added. "We land that combination every day in practice, and did it again this morning."

Lola Esbrat and Andrei Novoselov paired up at the end of last season, after Daria Popova, Novoselov's previous partner, decided to quit skating. They delivered a solid short program but were not ready to skate their free.

"We saw progress after one month, so we decided to stay together. We hope to make the points (gain the ISU minimum technical element scores) for Europeans. It will be our objective for the season," Novoselov offered in good English.

Ladies

Mae Berenice Méité delivered a flawless short program, but she had advised beforehand that she would not skate the free.

"Last November, I injured the tendon of my right knee, and I suffered throughout the season. It was diagnosed then, but I chose not to say anything. I stopped skating after the World Team Trophy and had it treated in the subsequent weeks. I could not jump for three months afterward," she explained.

"I am not currently capable of skating my long program yet," Méité continued. "I started to jump again only in mid-September. I still have some deficiences in my leg muscles. I will work again on more difficult [elements] later on, especially the flip. My pick is too strong for my current shape, and I don't want to risk hurting myself. I have experienced skating a whole season while being injured, and I don't want to go through that again. I am grateful that I could skate my short program already. It put me back into a competitive mood."

Laurine Lecavelier, who placed 10th at Europeans in 2014, won the competition with her persistence -- she was the only competitor left in the field.

Ice dance

The most talked-about competitors in Orleans were…absent. Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron withdrew from the French Masters two weeks ago and stayed in their training base in Montréal. Their presence was felt, however: All over the city and rink, giant pictures of the team were posted on the ads for the competition.

Romain Haguenauer, who coaches the team with Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, spoke openly about the team's shape.

"They have resumed training some three weeks ago. Gabriella is still quite tired because of the treatment she has been receiving to restore her mental activities," he said.

Haguenauer also detailed Papadakis' healing process since her Aug. 28 fall.

"They fell together, and it was just a classic fall, if I may say. She did not fall directly on her head, as some have reported, but as she fell, her head was projected backward onto the ice. We asked her to go back home and rest for the weekend. We thought that she would be back on the ice the next Monday, except the symptoms were still there three days later. We took her to the hospital, and she had a scan done. Nothing structural was diagnosed, but she still had some difficulties.

"She was ordered to just rest and relax -- no computer, no TV, no reading. And, of course, no training," Haguenauer continued. "That lasted for 10 days."

Rest, however, was not enough, and the team had to take further steps.

"We had found a brain specialist in the U.S., but she could not fly either!" Haguenauer said. "We managed to find a specialized clinic in Montréal. They work with a method that was developed by the American army, specifically to restore damaged neuronal activities and regulate the normal process of the brain. Scanners had not detected any structural damage, but electric stimulations, performed via electrodes, did detect some discrepancies in the activity of several areas of Gabriella's brain.

"She is currently being treated to return the (brain's) activity to normal. She is working on areas that connect to vision, eye convergence and divergence, mood, short-term memory, balance, via watching videos. She is improving fast, but she remains very tired. She comes out of these mental exercises completely exhausted. We had to adapt her training regimen, as she can't skate more than two hours a day," Haguenauer continued. "Now they can skate their short dance every day, and their long, too."

Papadakis and Cizeron were connected to the rink via Skype and promised they would skate at Trophée Eric Bompard in Bordeaux mid-November.

Marie-Jade Lauriault and Romain Le Gac, who just qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final, won in the junior category. Lorenza Alessandrini and Pierre Souquet won seniors.

Michael Bramante, yet another former American skater (he was ninth at the U.S. championships in 2013 with Isabella Cannuscio), could not skate the free dance. His partner, Peroline Ojardias, injured her thigh with her blade during practice, and the team had to withdraw.