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French elite gather to prepare for worlds

Ice dancers practice in Lyon; rest of team meets in Poitiers

Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder performed very well at Europeans, and some believe that they should have received the gold medal.
Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder performed very well at Europeans, and some believe that they should have received the gold medal. (Getty Images)

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By Jean-Christophe Berlot, special to icenetwork.com
(03/04/2008) - Two weeks before the 2008 World Championships, most of the French competitors gathered for a final tune-up in Poitiers, Brian Joubert's home city. Joubert, the defending men's world champion, will be joined in Gothenburg by fellow Frenchmen Yannick Ponsero and Alban Préaubert in the men's competition. The ladies who have officially qualified are Gwendoline Didier, the 2008 French champion, and Candice Didier. In pairs, France will send national champions Adeline Canac and Maximin Coia and national runners-up Mélodie Châtaigner and Medhi Bouzzine.

The ice dancers did not have to be gathered. The top-three teams all train in the same rink in Lyon together and have the same coach too, Muriel Zazoui-Boucher. One month ago, at the 2008 European Championships, the French team performed well. Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder won the silver medal after winning the compulsory and original dances, Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat took fifth place and Pernelle Carron and Mathieu Jost finished ninth. France was the only country to land three teams among Europe's 10 best.

I met the three duos at their home rink during one of their practice sessions, and they agreed to share their thoughts as they head into the world championships.

Isabelle Delobel: Talking without words

Delobel and Schoenfelder have always tried to create special and original themes. This year, they have elected to interpret the "language of signs" for the deaf and mute.

The day I was there, Delobel trained by herself as Schoenfelder recovered from a small injury he had suffered with his blade the day before. Isabelle still went through every move and every gesture during her program with Zazoui-Boucher watching every move. For Delobel and Schoenfelder, gold at the world championships is the goal, so these practices are all about polishing their routines to perfection.

"This program has become visceral for me," Delobel says. "I skate it from deep inside." She wants to skate it perfectly -- all the way from her feet to her arms and hands and eyes and head -- so that the judges and audience may relate equally to the story the duo wants to express.

Pechalat and Bourzat: Skating like mad

"For three months, we really tried to save Fabian's knee," Pechalat explains. Bourzat underwent successful surgery on a torn meniscus right after the 2007 ISU Grand Prix Final, for which the duo qualified for the first time this year.

"Everything is going all right now, but we still need to be cautious, because it is still fragile. Now we are going back to a normal training schedule," she explains, "and it takes a lot of energy!"

This year, Pechalat and Bourzat elected to interpret the theme of madness in their free program. Their routine, set to electronic music, requires a lot of energy. Two weeks ago, they worked their free program over again. Then they left for Russia to work on technical elements, and earlier this week, they worked with their Spanish choreographer on their original Flamenco.

"Now we have everything," Pechalat says proudly. "We just need to do it, do it and do it again."

Carron and Jost: Looking for a lift

Carron and Jost, who earned their first medal in the Grand Prix Series at Skate Canada last fall, struggled today. "In fact, we did not agree on our lifts," says a smiling Carron afterwards. "These things happen."

"Yet our season is over," Jost adds.

Carron explains that "France has got only two spots at worlds in ice dancing this year, and we are only substitutes. We keep training hard, but we really hope that Isabelle, Olivier, Nathalie and Fabian will have no problem until worlds."

"We have been training three-to-four hours a day as usual," Jost says. Their planning is quite hectic, though, as Jost is working full-time as a computer scientist. "So we train in the morning and then again at lunch time. Now I have to rush back to work."

Jost's family life is also blooming. He just bought a house between Lyon and Geneva, where his partner in life, 1997 ladies world bronze medalist Vanessa Gusmeroli, is coaching.

Carron is also quite busy. She is currently enrolled at the University of Lyon, where she is studying Law after receiving her B.A. in Art History.

As far as skating goes, Carron says that they "are also devising two more exhibitions. This year, we will do all 28 stages in the French tour, and we have two numbers to prepare for. We should use them next season as well."

"After the tour, later in May and June, it will be time to develop our programs for the upcoming season," Jost adds.

Carron also talks about getting to train with the top-two teams in France: "Indeed there is a lot of emulation amongst the three pairs skating here. Having three pairs training together is great. Nobody mentions it, but we watch one another, and you learn a lot watching others skate. Each time we see someone's level rising, then we try to catch up.... The difficulty is to create new things all the time -- to innovate and invent."

The French ice dancers are now ready to compete in Sweden with the rest of Team France.