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Q&A with French champion Brian Joubert

Brian Joubert recovered from a flu-like virus just in time to claim his sixth title at French Nationals.
Brian Joubert recovered from a flu-like virus just in time to claim his sixth title at French Nationals. (Getty Images)

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By Kathleen Bangs, special to icenetwork.com
(12/24/2007) - A perfect season.

That's what a triumphant Brian Joubert accomplished last season when he took gold at every competition he laced up his skates for. The biggest prize was the Frenchman's first world title, a goal he'd missed by the narrowest of margins the year before. Joubert also made history as the first skater in the post 6.0 era to land three quad jumps in a single program.

Known for his determination, training ethic and explosive on-ice jump launches, it came as a surprise last month when Joubert was forced to cut short the Grand Prix circuit after a mystery ailment drained his reserves, leaving the 23-year-old near collapse just minutes into a daily practice session.

Still plagued by fatigue in early December, Joubert successfully managed to fight through the free skate at French Nationals and claim his sixth title. Coach Jean-Christophe Simond, himself an eight-time French champion, was justifiably proud. Since the Joubert-Simond partnership began, Joubert has won ten consecutive gold medals. Simond said, "We specifically work hard and concentrate on his technique so that we can rely on it. Once the technique is good, Brian becomes very, very confident, and when he is confident, he is unbeatable."

IceNetwork: This season at French Nationals you had a fairly strong challenger with Yannick Ponsero, who now has a reliable triple axel and quad.

Brian Joubert: Yes, and Alban Preaubert is also strong. Alban and I have been friends for so long; we have been competing together since we were 10 years old. Ponsero is technically and artistically very good, and is talented on his spins and footwork. The only problem he has is mentally. He could work more on his focus during the competitions. I want to help him actually. I will probably see him in Courcheval over the holidays and I will tell him.

Ice: Tell him what?

BJ: That I think he can be a champion skater. What I don't know is if he wants it enough. His primary goal is to become a physiotherapist. This time French Nationals was more interesting for everyone: the skaters, the media and the audience. The caliber of competition was very high, and almost every skater performed well. Throughout the junior and senior levels, everyone worked hard this season and it showed.

Ice: At Skate Canada you delivered a brilliant short program, and won the event although Kevin van der Perren beat you in the free skate after a tumble on your opening quad. Back in France, you had to withdraw from Trophe Eric Bompard, which cost you a probable berth at the Grand Prix Final. When did you realize that something was wrong with your health?

BJ: I started to feel tired a few days before Skate Canada. At first, I noticed that my muscles were sore, then I began to feel worn down, and eventually after only 20 minutes on the ice I would become exhausted. My coach faced a difficult decision on what to do, but he felt we needed to push and make it through the first Grand Prix competition. The main thing at that point was to not get careless and allow an injury to occur. Of course, when I was too tired he would allow me to stop the practice.

Our short program was new ["All for You," specially composed for Joubert by Sebastien Damiani] and one of the main goals was to deliver a very good performance because I wanted to see how the audience and the judges would react. It's important to see the response. I downgraded to a quad-double, but was pleased that the audience was with me, not only during the short but throughout the whole event. Canadians know figure skating, so it means a lot to have their support. When you do something well, you can feel their enthusiasm — they are with you — and it's a great feeling.

Ice: How difficult was it to complete your long program?

BJ: Right before I took the ice, I knew it was going to be tough. Physically, the short program had been fairly easy, but by the second half of the free I could really feel the fatigue. Because I was not at 100 percent, a certain nervousness came over me, which interferes with my breathing. It becomes tight, not relaxed like it should be. Once I fell on the quad toe, it caused me to lose energy.

Ice: How did you feel when you returned home?

BJ: Things got worse with my health. Trying to prepare for Trophe Eric Bompard, I skated one practice for maybe five minutes and couldn't do more. My muscles were sore, my body ached, and I could not concentrate. I went for treatment to the doctor who helped me last year before the World championships — she is the same one who did the surgery on my foot after my blade slashed it. My blood pressure was very low, my heart rate was really high — even while resting — and I was diagnosed with some sort of flu-like virus that was invading my muscles. The only thing to do was rest, and that's what I did. It was three weeks, even four, before I felt close to normal. Just before French Nationals, luckily, I came alive again.

Ice: In the past, sometimes it seemed that if you missed a big jump, it could destroy your concentration. Now you seem better able to put a mistake immediately behind you and carry on.

BJ: My jumps are the most important thing to me. If I feel confident on those, the program is easy.

Ice: When another skater — particularly a true rival — skates before you in a competition, do you watch him?

BJ: It depends. If I do, it will be to just watch the beginning of his program and to see the main elements up front. When Evgeni Plushenko was competing, for instance, I would watch his first two jumps.

Ice: Why only the first two elements?

BJ: If they fall, then it is easier on me mentally. On the other hand, when they do well, I also like it because I think it brings up my level. It means that then there is no question; I know I have to do my job. If another skater makes mistakes, then I might start to think about my program, and analyze what I have to do. That actually can complicate things.

Ice: How did you end up collaborating with legendary four-time world champion Kurt Browning?

BJ: Growing up in the skating world, I never met Kurt Browning, never saw him skate live, and never even saw him on TV. Yet, I knew all about him because in my country, when we talk about Kurt Browning, we always describe him as the world's best skater. He was also the first man to land a quad in competition, and the quad is very meaningful to me.

After my second-place finish at the 2006 Calgary World Championships, I got his phone number and called him myself. Not my agent or coach, I called him. I was of course very nervous, yet when I spoke with him, I could tell right away that he's very friendly, very natural, and I wanted even more to work with him. We began that summer in Toronto. I actually went alone, without a coach. Before I arrived, I sent some music that I wanted to try, and he liked it. The first time on the ice he told me, "We are not here to work, we are here to play." Eventually that music became my free skate and I won every event that I entered during the 2006-2007 season.

Ice: How has Kurt Browning influenced you?

BJ: Right away I wanted to change my style, to try and please him and show him what I could do. He didn't want me to do that too quickly. He said, "Be who you are and step-by-step we'll get you ready for the 2010 Olympics." He was very surprised because I learned fast, and he was happy with that. To work with him is so fun that you want to push your limits — you want to work harder. At footwork, he is the best, hands down. Before Kurt, my skating was always about the jumps, but he showed me how to enjoy the ice, and now I love just to be on the ice and skate.

Ice: What was the hardest part about working with an idol?

BJ: When we first started to work, he said, "Brian, you are too slow." I was very disappointed. Here, all of my life, people had been telling me how good my footwork was and he kept shaking his head saying, "Too slow, too slow. It's not going to be easy to be fast." He showed me how to use my body so that I can make edge changes, step easier, and be light across the ice. When he saw me later that season, he said he was surprised at how much faster I was moving, and that I had become more nimble. I learned that with good skating you can be fast and actually use less energy.

Ice:It will soon be Christmas. How will the Joubert family celebrate?

BJ: This holiday is very important for us, and it brings a lot presents, good cheer and happy moments. In particular, we indulge in foie gras (goose liver). For our big Christmas dinner we will have, ah, I can't think of the word. Do you know the movie, "Bambi?"

Ice: I can see the headlines now! You mean "venison."

BJ: Yes, you can buy it here in the market. There is a French tradition, one cake that every family makes, a bouche noel (yule log), but I don't like it. My mother creates so many different desserts. I watch what I eat before Christmas and then I can enjoy myself. I try to lose some fat beforehand, because I can easily gain weight, and bad food will turn to fat. My favorite is chocolate. I love milk chocolate, dark chocolate and white chocolate, preferably all together.

Ice: On the subject of family, I must inquire about Blade.

BJ: My dog is good. Like most bulldogs, he is difficult and if he wants something, he will do anything to get it. Sometimes it can be hard to contain Blade. I give him a special food now to keep his skin better. For Christmas I will spoil him with a taste of foie gras. Although he is physically very strong, and strong-willed, inside he is extremely gentle. He could guard a baby.

Ice: Your goals for the rest of the season?

BJ: To keep my titles. That's it. And to be better on spins. If I win at Euros, this will be my third title, and I really want to keep my crown.

Ice: Anything about the field that surprises you so far this season?

BJ: I'm a little concerned that there are no more skaters who do quads consistently. It's going to be interesting at the world championships, because anyone could be on top. I'm disappointed that not a lot of skaters are trying to do quads in the short anymore, and the technical level has dropped. They are resorting to doing triple-triples, and it's sad to see that, but I still don't think we will see a world champion without a quad. I will always remember 2002 — it was completely different. Goebel, Plushenko, Yagudin, Honda — all of them were doing good quads, it was the golden age of jumping.

Ice: Is the judging system part of the problem?

BJ: It should be changed, so that the jumps are rewarded properly. Some skaters do the quad in their free skate, but not in the short program. Why? Because they choose not to, they prefer the clean triple-triple. It's not sportsmanlike. Sport exists to push the limits of what a human can do, to exceed past generations. Sport is not to play it safe, play it easy. It's not about making the podium the easy way.


FAST 5 WITH JOUBERT COACH JEAN-CHRISTOPHE SIMOND

IceNetwork: Besides you as his coach, what single quality has made Brian Joubert a world champion?

Jean-Christophe Simond: He always does more. That's the main thing about him. Whether it's a certain amount of jumps, or run-throughs, he's always asking to do more.

Ice: One change in him during your time together?

JCS: Brian is much more mature. In his approach to the practices, his focus, preparation for the competitions, everything.

Ice: Most difficult challenge?

JCS: So far this season, his illness. We had to rearrange everything. At the upcoming championships it could be a big contest: Takahashi, Lysacek, Verner, Lambiel, Weir, maybe Oda. The danger could come from anywhere and everywhere.

Ice: Your training secret?

JCS: I think the amount of program run-throughs we do has helped tremendously. We may do the long program four to six times in a week, and the short program almost every day. I sometimes take certain elements out, like the quad, but he's still doing jumps throughout the program. Organization is key for Brian. He needs to know where he's at, and where he's going. He needs to see on the computer screen whether he's at 90 percent or 60 percent on a given jump. Then what we work on makes sense to him.

Ice: Controversial figure Didier Gailhaguet has been a longtime advisor to Brian Joubert. Thoughts on his recent re-election as President of the French Federation?

JCS: He is someone who is able to work 20 hours a day for figure skating. We are all close and I've known Didier for a long time — I even trained with him during 1983-84. The future will tell, but I'm confident in his abilities to lead the Federation.