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Joubert returns to form at French championships

Former world champ earns eighth national title; Pechalat and Bourzat win event for third time

Brian Joubert landed a clean quad in both programs at 2012 French nationals.
Brian Joubert landed a clean quad in both programs at 2012 French nationals. (Getty Images)

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By Jean-Christophe Berlot, special to icenetwork.com
(12/19/2011) - Brian Joubert won his eighth French national title this past weekend in Dammarie-lès-Lys, a small city in the middle of the Fontainebleau forest, not far from King Francis the First's monumental palace. Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat won their third national crown, Yrétha Silete her second, and the newly formed pair of Daria Popova and Bruno Massot their first.

The men's competition could be seen as a friendly confrontation between the 2011 European gold and silver medalists, Florent Amodio and Joubert, but it was not to be. Joubert wanted to prove to himself that he could still skate at a top level after missing the first half of the season because of a back injury.

"Now I feel much better," Joubert said, "Although I am only skating at 70 percent of my capacity."

Amodio wanted to be "back to himself," as he said, after his poor showing at his two Grand Prix events (he finished ninth at Skate America and fifth at the Trophée Eric Bompard).

Amodio had told icenetwork.com that he would change a part of his jazzy short program after the Grand Prix Series. He actually changed the whole program to a darker piece, "Tears of the Sun." He stopped his planned quadruple Salchow after three revolutions, and then landed a clean triple Lutz-triple toe combination and a triple Axel.

Joubert skated a flawless short, and his quad toe-triple toe was one of his best ever. Joubert entered the free skate with a two-point lead over Amodio.

"Not being able to land a quad really starts bothering me," Amodio said after the short program.

He did not let another opportunity pass by, though, as he opened his free skate program by landing a beautiful quad Salchow. The rest of his program was not as clean, as he could not land any of his planned triple Axels, and his triple Lutz-triple toe was downgraded.

Amodio also significantly changed his free skate program, emphasizing even more the Brazilian theme he had chosen at start of the season.

"We had to work like hell to make all these changes in the last two weeks," Amodio said.

It certainly hampered his mastery of the program, though, as his spins got Levels 1, 2 and 3.

Joubert elected to come back to his own charms, exhuming his 2004 free skate to The Matrix, the program he used to capture his first European gold medal. He even went back to the costume he wore for that program.

"It was still suiting me!" he said.

When his quadruple toe loop did elude him too often, during these last few weeks, he even decided to come back to his 2007 pair of skates, with which he won his only world gold medal.

Joubert's victory in Dammarie was quite convincing. He landed his quad toe and two triple Axels to win the title by 20 points over Amodio.

"To be fully honest with you, I landed only two clean quads in three weeks," Joubert said afterward. "It shows that I can still go beyond myself in competition," he added, smiling.

Chafik Besseghier did not nearly skate at his best but took third place.

Péchalat and Bourzat unsurprisingly won both segments of the dance competition with their usual class. They have significantly improved the flow of their "Night in Rio" short dance.

"We now have found that typical samba wave movement that guides us throughout our program," Péchalat offered afterward.

Their "Pharaoh and Mummy" free dance was also quite exciting to watch. Péchalat and Bourzat have even increased their velocity throughout the program, both on the ice and in the air. Their arm and hand movements are now in full sync between them and with the music. Their choreographer, Kader Belmoktar, explained that their approach to this dance had been hip hop, which provided a fast tempo and forced them to disconnect the upper and lower parts of their bodies.

One of the main attractions to these nationals for the French audience was the programs of Pernelle Carron and Lloyd Jones, who had neither competed at the traditional French Masters earlier in the season nor at the Trophée Bompard.

The duo left their long-time base in Lyon to train with Natalia Linichuk in the United States at the end of this past summer. They won the bronze medal at the Cup of China and finished sixth from the Rostelecom Cup. Here, in Dammarie, they took the silver. Tiffany Zahorski and Alexis Miart, who were ranked fourth at the 2011 World Junior Championships, completed the podium in third.

As at most national championships, these French nationals served as a qualifier for the upcoming European and World championships. The fact that worlds are due to take place in Nice at the end of March added extra pressure to the competition.

There were four ladies to fight for the only French berth in the ladies category in Nice. Veteran Candice Didier decided to withdraw prior to the event, making many wonder if she would keep skating competitively at all. Diminutive Lena Marrocco, the 2009 French gold medalist, could not hold onto the podium. The two that remained were Yrétha Silété, who won the French title in 2010, and Maé-Bérénice Méïté, who finished ninth in Europe and 15th at worlds last season.

Silete won the short program, and that proved to be enough to secure her second national gold medal.

Méité opened her free program with a double Axel-triple toe-double toe combination, and kept on landing her whole repertoire of triples -- loop, Lutz (in combination) and flip -- although her second Lutz was downgraded.

Silete opened her free skate with double Axel-triple toe, and went on to land a triple flip, triple toe (in combination), triple Salchow and triple loop. She only fell on her triple Lutz. Méité won the free by the narrowest of margins, 0.10 points but it was not enough to catch Silete.

Méité actually lost the gold in the short program. Her triple toe-triple toe was perfect, but she fell on her triple Lutz.

"It is so stupid," she said afterward. "I never miss one!"

She was still happy with her marks, saying, "I see that my components are getting better and better each time, so this is an encouragement."

Silete was skating at her home rink.

"It certainly added extra pressure," she said. "I was so nervous, yet I tried not to think of it and do my job."

There were only three pairs competing for the title, and a spot on the French team. Most thought that Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès, who have been skating together for a little over a year, would win easily. They did win the short program easily, but their free program turned out to be a nightmare. They fell twice, each time on their side-by-side elements (triple toe and double Axel). That was quite a shock, as both have a good track record as individual skaters. Their throw triple loop and Salchow were shaky, and they ended in second place, nine points behind the surprise winners, Popova and Massot.

Popova used to skate at Ingo Steuer's school. A little more than six months ago, Steuer proposed that she test skate with Massot.

"It was incredible," said Jean-François Ballester, who coaches them in Caen, Normandy. "It worked right away."

The duo goes back to Chemnitz regularly to train with Steuer.

The selection for Europeans, to be held in Sheffield, England, should be announced shortly. It should not be difficult to decide for men's (three berths: Joubert, Amodio and Bességhier), ice dancing (three berths: Péchalat and Bourzat, Carron and Jones, Zahorski and Miart) and ladies (two berths: Silete and Méité).