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Can French dance team realize "Impossible Dream"

After 20 years, Delobel and Schoenfelder seek golden Olympic goodbye

Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder at dance practice in Vancouver on Wednesday.
Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder at dance practice in Vancouver on Wednesday. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(02/18/2010) - If they awarded the ice dance gold medal to the most relaxed and happy team, Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder would win it by a country mile.

Chatting in the mixed zone Wednesday, the French skaters, both parents, said they are sharing their final Olympic experience with their families, but in different ways.

Schoenfelder's wife, Isabelle Pecheur, and three-year-old son, Gabriel, arrive in Vancouver today.

"He loves to watch me skate," Schoenfelder, 32, said. "He is already interested. His eyes grow as big as saucers."

Delobel stays in touch with her husband, former Nordic combined skier Ludovic Roux, a bronze medalist at the 1988 Nagano Olympics, and five-month-old baby boy Loïc (born October 1) via Skype.

"He is just too young to be here," Delobel, 31, said. "His father is taking care of him in Lyon. He sees me, and he knows it is me, and he smiles."

Four years ago in Torino, Delobel shed a few tears in the mixed zone after the free dance when the team lost the bronze medal to Ukrainians Elena Grushina an Russian Guacharo despite placing second in the free dance. (They were seventh in the Ravens burger Waltz and fourth in the original dance).

"This is very different," Schoenfelder said. "In Torino, we were outsiders [dark horses], but we had skated all season; we were normal competitors. This year, it is very special with the injury, Isabelle's baby."

"I had an injury when we were on top in ice dancing," Delobel added. "Getting my strength back was a big challenge."

At the 2008 worlds in Gothenburg, after nearly 20 years of competing together, the French won gold, their first world medal. They won three events, including the Grand Prix Final, in the fall of 2008, but Delobel injured her shoulder and had to undergo surgery.

In the spring of 2009, Delobel announced her pregnancy.

"I had to work a lot [to come back]," she said. "There was not much time. As a mother now, I feel something different. Your view of sports is different . . . I don't know. You know what life is, and you know what sports life is, and you know the difference."

"With Isabelle and Olivier, we planned the return [to competition] very carefully and took it step-by-step," the team's primary coach, Muriel Boucher-Zaloumi, said.

"Isabelle was skating until she was seven months pregnant. We [created] the OD and free dance last April."

After Loïc's birth, the team resumed training together on October 26.

In a black practice dress yesterday, Delobel looks fit and trim as ever, but she says she still is a few pounds over her former competitive weight.

"Not all the extra [weight] is gone; almost," she said. "I was so small before the injury, it is hard. I had to work to find a balance between losing weight, and not working too hard, that I would get another injury."

Last fall, the team announced they would perform their free dance to music by Jacques Bret, "La Quite de Bret" ["The Impossible Dream"]. Back then, Schoenfelder said, "It is very personal, a conclusion to our career. We put all our souls into it. We try to be very earnest and try to show what we are and skate the best we can."

Watching the team in practices here, the dance looks far more delicate and lyrical than some of their past avant-garde efforts.

"We want the program to be soft, not so sophisticated," Schoenfelder said. "We just want to show emotions. We are telling our story. We have skated together for 20 years; at the beginning [of the program], we are children, and we want to grow into this day."

"In the beginning of the program, it is kids speaking," Delobel added. "I say, "I want to be a ballerina" and he says, "I want to be a stunt man." Then I say, "I went to dress up." We are talking about what we want to be when we were young."

The program tells the story of their competitive career.

"We want to give power, energy, and the gift of the sun," Delobel said. "We want to shine on the arena and of course we want the good marks. We want gold."

The French did not take part in their national championships or the European Championships in Estonia last month. Instead, ISU judges and technical specialists visited their training base in Lyon twice in recent weeks to review the team's elements, and watch run-throughs of their compulsories and original and free dance.

All of their elements, including lifts, spins and step sequences, to gain Level 4 from the Olympic technical panel.

"In some ways, we have not had the best preparation for this fight," Schoenfelder said. "In another way, we have had very good preparation."

"We hope," Delobel added. "This is the last [competition] for us and the last time we will all be together, and we want to make it our best."

The French say they are mostly unaware of what other top teams plan here, and haven't kept abreast of the many judging controversies, large and small, that swirl around the ice dance world this Olympic season.

"I don't follow so much," Delobel said. "Between practice, and the baby, and I have to sleep, I don't have so much time."

"We know there are many very good teams here," Schoenfelder added. "We think we are one of them. We think we can be up in the best."