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French nationals continue without stars

Joubert, Delobel and Schoenfelder sidelined with injuries

Yannick Ponsero won his first senior title at French Nationals.
Yannick Ponsero won his first senior title at French Nationals. (Getty Images)

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By Jean-Christophe Berlot, special to icenetwork.com
(12/22/2008) - As soon as they came back from the ISU Grand Prix Final, early last week, many wondered how Brian Joubert -- who had withdrawn from the free program -- and Isabelle Delobel, who had injured her shoulder, could possibly skate at French nationals. The event was supposed to start only two days later in the remote city of Colmar, not far from the German boarder, in the east of France.

In effect, Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, the 2008 ice dancing world gold medalists, announced they were withdrawing one day before French nationals started. Joubert withdrew a few days later. This, however, did not prevent French nationals from being highly competitive.

Men: Ponsero's surprise victory

Many thought that Alban Préaubert, who had won convincing bronze medals both at the Trophée Eric Bompard and the Cup of Russia, would win his first national title. He started out on the right foot by winning the short with a flawless program.

"This is my eighth clean short program in a row," he said afterwards. Unfortunately, he could not hold on to his performance for the free program. He over-rotated his opening triple Axel and missed his quadruple toe loop.

Yannick Ponsero, the 2005 Junior Worlds silver medalist, had won his first Grand Prix medal (a bronze) at the NHK Trophy in Japan earlier this season. He had placed higher than Préaubert at French nationals the last two seasons, and was also a strong favorite to win. His short program was however not up to his ambitions. He two-footed the triple toe in his quad-triple combination and doubled a planned triple Axel. Ponsero's free program was however by far the strongest of the field and brought the crowd to its feet. Ponsero won his first national senior title.

Florent Amodio, fresh from his victory at the Junior Grand Prix Final, was competing at senior level for the first time. He finished second in both the short and free programs and won a deserved silver medal overall.

Ladies: no battle of Didiers, Candice wins

Since she was fourteen, Candice Didier has been considered one of France's best hopes. Back then she had won two national titles (in 2002 and 2003), after the retirement of 1997 world bronze medalist Vanessa Gusmeroli and Olympian Laetitia Hubert. Didier, however, never quite confirmed her abilities. A master of training sessions, where she could land triple Lutzes and flips without any difficulty, Didier always had difficulty transforming her mastery on competitive ice. At a national level, she left the door open to other skaters the last four years, with Nadège Bobillier and Gwendoline Didier winning the national title.

This season Candice Didier made it clear that she had found a new motivation and mental strength to hold on to her jumps. She was back to the top when she took a surprise fourth place at the Trophée Eric Bompard. She confirmed her comeback in Colmar. This year there was no "battle of Didiers." Candice won both the short and the free programs to win her third national title.

"This is so motivating," she said afterwards. "I am so happy to recover my real level."

Gwendoline Didier struggled through her beautiful, yet awfully tiring, program to finish fourth overall. Mae Berenice Meite, at only 14, won the silver medal.

Pairs: Canac and Coia confirm

Many were wondering who would win this year in the pairs category: could Yannick Bonheur (sixth in Europe in 2006 with Marilyn Pla) and his new partner, Vanessa James, come back at the top? Or would Adeline Canac and Maximin Coia, the 2007 French national champions, keep their lead?

Canac and Coia won the short program in Colmar, while James and Bonheur finished third. The suspense ended when James and Bonheur withdrew before the free skate, as Bonheur had a muscle problem. Mélodie Châtaigner and Medhi Bouzzine, who had finished eighth at Europeans last year, took the silver medal.

Ice Dancing

With three world class competitors, there was little doubt that the ice dancing competition would hold its promise. Even though Delobel and Schoenfelder were missed, their withdrawal allowed the French skating world to focus on the talent of their successors, Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat.

Péchalat and Bourzat did not only open the door left unlocked by their former teammates' absence. They also proved that they were completely up to the task of taking the lead at the highest level. Péchalat and Bourzat won the original and the free dances with ease and determination. Their work with Alexander Zhulin in Moscow proved its efficiency, as each one of their steps is now mastered in edge and unison.

Second to Péchalat and Bourzat, Pernelle Carron and Mathieu Jost delivered two clean performances. Zoé Blanc and Pierre-Loup Bouquet, who had finished third in the original dance, had to settle for fourth place, as the junior duo of Terra Findlay and Benoît Richaud won the bronze medal.

What's next?

The French Federation now has to announce the French selection for the 2009 European Championships, to be held Jan. 21-25 in Helsinki, Finland. They should not rise any contest in the ladies, ice dancing and pairs categories, as the national rankings are consistent with the world placement of the major contestants.

Even though they had to skip their national championships, Delobel and Schoenfelder should automatically qualify thanks to their current world and ISU Grand Prix Final gold medals.

The men's category may be far more difficult, however. Joubert should automatically qualify, as he participated in the ISU Grand Prix Final. Ponsero, Amodio and Préaubert will be on the qualifying list, too, but with at most three spots to allot, many observers feared that political reasons might interfere with technical ones.

Then there is the "Joubert enigma." After the blade-sharpening problems Joubert experienced earlier in the season and his back problems, many wonder how fast he will be able to recover.

"I am not able to bend my back," he mentioned when he came back from Korea. "I can not even spin."

At the same time, some rumors in France state that there might be family problems behind Joubert's poor mental condition. He appeared to be much closer to his mother than ever this season, even for skating matters like... blade sharpening.

"My mother is the only person I can trust 100 percent," Joubert explained.

Will she be able to help him rebound rapidly? This is now the main question. French skating may be rich, but it still needs its leaders to be at their best.