Ice Network

At long last: Massot granted release from France

Former French champion allowed to compete for Germany with Savchenko
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Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot are ready to compete internationally for Germany, with the ultimate goal of winning the pairs title at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. -Klaus-Reinhold Kany

A near 18-month saga ended Monday, Oct. 26, at the office of the French Federation in Paris, when pairs skater Bruno Massot was finally granted his release from Didier Gailhaguet, the federation's president. Massot's release means that he and five-time world champion Aliona Savchenko (with Robin Szolkowy), will now be able to compete internationally

"Mr. Gailhaguet wanted to tell me the news himself, and that's the reason why he asked me to come to Paris," an ecstatic Massot said a few hours after learning the news while driving back to his training base in Oberstdorf, Germany. "He took the initiative himself, and he called me directly to offer me this meeting. It's super nice of him. The news is not completely official yet, as the paperwork has yet to be completed. It should be signed by the end of this week. The ISU (International Skating Union) should follow almost immediately.

"Actually, I'm rather surprised, I must admit. Yesterday, when I left Germany, I told Aliona that I would come back with the release. Except I was just joking and did not really believe it myself!"

The saga started days after Savchenko and Szolkowy won their fifth, and final, world title in Saitama, Japan, in 2014. Savchenko and Massot then announced that they were joining forces, with one ultimate goal -- winning the Olympic gold medal that eluded Savchenko twice in 2010 and 2014 (she and Szolkowy won bronze each time).

Savchenko and Massot were used to training together, at least in the same rink. Massot's then-partner Daria Popova was a pupil of Ingo Steuer, just like Savchenko and Szolkowy. Popova and Massot started skating for France under the tutelage of Jean-François Ballester, but Steuer was kept on as a part-time coach.

Popova was denied French citizenship at the time it counted most, and the team could not compete at the Sochi Olympic Winter Games. After Massot decided to skate with Savchenko, he asked for his release in order to compete for the German Federation, but the French Federation denied his request for the 2014-15 season.

"Asking for a release is by no means a small issue," Katia Krier, the coordinator of the French national team, explained to icenetwork a few weeks ago. "We received a hand-signed letter from Aliona one month before the Sochi Olympics asking to transfer to France. Having the team skate for France would have been fantastic. The other way around is different."

Releasing Massot could have been seen as unfair to the other French teams, she explained. The French Federation did reverse the decision in the end, however.

"Bruno has always been my priority because he is an excellent athlete, and athletes always have to be encouraged," Gailhaguet explained in a press release. " As soon as (French) federal and ISU rules are respected, the French Federation accepts Bruno's transfer to skate with Aliona for Germany, and I wish him the best for his career.

"This whole story should encourage everyone to better understand the subtle process of international transfers", Gailhaguet added. "There is, of course, a sports dimension into these transfers, but also a legal one and even an affective one."

Gailhaguet announced that he would make proposals to the next ISU congress.

"These things are quite complex," Massot said. "There are many rules behind it, and also some misunderstandings between the two national federations did not help. But whatever the reason, the most important thing is that now we can skate, we can compete and I may finally make a living by skating in exhibitions."

The team endured months of uncertanty, garnering lots of sympathy and support from Germany, France and everywhere in the world.

"I must say that it was quite difficult to stay fully motivated throughout," Massot said. "We did stay motivated, but it was rather complicated to wake up in the morning and keep training day after day, not knowing when it would be possible to resume competition. It's difficult when you can't make a full plan! I must say that the news I got today raised our motivation by 10,000 levels."

Massot stated that the team was fully ready to compete again.

"We are in a great physical shape," he said. "Our programs have been ready since the end of last season. We have been skating both programs faultlessly every day in the last weeks. We still have to work on our quads, but we first want to make sure that we can skate our programs faultlessly with triples. We will add quads later on, when we feel comfortable enough with the programs in actual competition. We are completely ready. Actually, the only thing we are missing now is our costumes! They are not completely finished yet." 

Massot took the time to describe the two programs he and Savchenko will skate to this season.

"We skate our short program to a waltz from Cirque du Soleil. It tells the story of a princess who gives a penny to a beggar in the street and they both fall in love," he said, which is a theme that may resemble some of Savchenko's former programs.

"That will be a real challenge for me. Many people are now waiting to see Aliona again, but I must say that I feel a bit of stress myself. How will people compare me to Robin [Szolkowy] is a question for me, and I will have to prepare myself for it," Massot said. "That will be my own challenge: to not look like Robin and become better than him. I know I can, and I'm doing my best for it.

"Our free program is completely different, however," Massot added. "It's a new concept, which Gary Beacom choreographed to some classical music (Edvard Grieg's "Solveig Song," from Peer Gynt) remixed by Wax Tailor, a French DJ and hip-hop producer. I would say it's a concept, and the universe of the piece could be qualified as … I would say, 'strange.' It's classical, contemporary and modern at the same time. This one will be completely different from everything we've been skating before. We are still looking for our own style as a pair, and that may be one step for us in that direction. We have had positive feedback on our program for that reason."

The road between Paris and Oberstdorf is quite a long one, especially when you have to drive your own car. The night we spoke may have been just a short one for Massot, however, compared to the months he and Savchenko had to wait. A bright full moon was rising higher and higher above Massot's road toward the East. Their own journey can finally start again.

Hopefully, it will be just as bright.