French skaters channeling high hopes for Euros

Joubert, Pechalat and Bourzat seek world spots in Sheffield

Fabian Bourzat's pharaoh attire will get an upgrade to match Nathalie Pechalat's mummy.
Fabian Bourzat's pharaoh attire will get an upgrade to match Nathalie Pechalat's mummy. (Getty Images)


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By Jean-Christophe Berlot, special to
(01/20/2012) - The French team is about ready to depart for Sheffield, Great Britain and the European Championships, which are due to start next Monday. Several team members will not leave from Paris, however, as they train away from France. 2011 European gold medalist Florent Amodio is currently training in Moscow, while the two dance teams, Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat (who also won the gold medal in Bern last year) and Pernelle Carron and Lloyd Jones, are currently training in the U.S.

Brian Joubert, Maé-Bérénice Méité, Vanessa James and Morgan Cyprès gathered in Paris to skate their programs prior to departure. They took the time to speak with, with Péchalat kindly talking via telephone.

Brian Joubert: "I have always loved the European championships."

Amazingly enough, Joubert has medaled at every European championship he has entered so far.

"I do not know why I have always felt good at Europeans," he said. "I have skated there well right from the start. Maybe I like the timing of these championships. I never enjoyed skating at nationals, but I have always loved skating at Europeans. Maybe I feel that I am really supported there."

Joubert's ambitions for this year are clear: he aims at winning again. "What Florent [Amodio] and I did last year in Bern (Amodio and Joubert finished first and second at the 2011 Europeans) was just fabulous," he explained.

"Of course I would have preferred the order to be reversed," he said, laughing, "Yet I feel I am able to skate to a fourth European title. I have good feelings, my technique is good. I am aware that it will be quite difficult, though."

"Javier Fernandez from Spain is in great shape, [Evgeni] Plushenko would not be coming back if he were not ready to win again. Also, several newcomers will have matured and will be ready. It is always much easier to make a podium for the first time than to stay up there. But, finally, you know, the stronger the competition is, the happier I am."

Joubert's Grand Prix season was rather disappointing, as he had to withdraw from his two assignments due to a back injury.

"After all, I think it was an evil for a good," he said. "Somehow I had lost my hunger for competition. Now I feel hungry again. Very hungry!" he added, laughing.

Joubert has decided to change his programs significantly during the winter.

"We changed the music of the second part of my short program," he said. "The music was a bit monotonous, and I did not feel as happy to skate to it after all. We picked a music from Daft Punk, a French group that is musically close from Doctor Justice, the group who composed the first half. It should please the audience."

Joubert elected to skate his free skate to his 2004 winning program set to Matrix.

"I am well aware that the program was devised for the previous judging system. Next year we will work otherwise. But this year I needed this program to help me rebuild myself and regain some confidence," he said.

Still, he and his coach, Véronique Guyon, made significant changes to the program to adapt it to the current judging system.

"The step sequences were so simple in 2004!" Joubert said. "They were undoubtedly more spectacular, as they showed our personality far more. Yet they were much simpler. The same can be said from spins, actually."

Joubert and Guyon worked on the order of the jumps, too, so as to get maximum "bonus" jumps.

"We had three, now I have five -- basically all triple jumps [except the Axel] are scheduled in the second part," he explained.

Always quite interested in the history of his sport, Joubert has promised himself to pay a special visit in Sheffield.

"I have always dreamed to visit the factory where my skating blades are manufactured," he said. "I skate with Gold Seal blades, which were designed by two-time Olympic gold medalist Pierre Brunet. I owe him a tribute!

"Also, I am really excited to meet the British audience. They may not have the greatest skating national team, yet their supporters are always so numerous and lively!"

Maé-Bérénice Méité: "Keep fighting for the components"

Méité has learned her lesson. One month after her second-place finish at nationals (behind Iretha Silete, who will join her on the ice at Sheffield), she is quick to recognize that her components are still very high on her working list.

"We work and work and work every day on them. I have a special coach for basic skills and skating ability," she said, "And we work both off and on the ice for interpretation and choreography. I work a lot on interpretation and expression, on how to play with the audience, on where to point my eyes. It means hours and hours of work.

"I have always been a shy person," she said. "I am not really extroverted. I have not changed, actually, yet I feel that maybe that I have grown up now. Also, I sometimes watch the recordings of my early competitions and I can see how much I have improved. There is a lot ahead of me, still, to be where I would want to be, but seeing my own progress makes me wish to continue improving."

As for her showing in Sheffield, she admitted that "last year was such a great experience for me (she finished ninth overall), so I really hope I can have fun and give fun, too."

Two pairs for one spot at worlds

Daria Popova and Bruno Massot, the surprise winners of the French national title last month, are quick to admit that they had not thought of winning there.

"Our main objective was to get our selection for the European championships," Massot said. "We skated a great free skate and we won our first national title. Yet for us, it is only the beginning. I have been waiting for that moment for five years, since I started in Pairs. This first title has made us want more titles now."

Popova, who is of Russian origin and skated in Germany with Ingo Steuer prior to joining forces with Massot, was ecstatic as well.

"In Sheffield, we will be skating along with Russian great couple, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, and with Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, with whom we train each time we go to Chemnitz."

Popova and Massot have kept on training with Popova's former coach, about three weeks every quarter.

"Aliona and Robin have just so much experience. Each time they step on the ice, you just have to watch them," she said.

James and Cyprès also qualified for the Europeans. The competition between the two French pairs could be quite fierce, as only one of them will qualify for Nice, where the World Championships will be held at the end of March.

Péchalat and Bourzat: "Now Fabian looks like a real Pharaoh!"

Péchalat and Bourzat will be skating in Sheffield for a second European gold medal.

"It is certainly much harder to keep a title than to go look after it." Péchalat said. "Last year, we won even though we had never medaled at Europeans. We are certainly more stressed this year, simply because we've done it once already.

"You never know in a sport, and nothing should be taken for granted," she said. "Anyway, we are in good shape. No injury, no sickness. We feel at our best, so we should be skating in good conditions."

Since the Grand Prix Final (where they took the bronze medal), the duo made only one major change.

"We've changed Fabian's pants in the free program. They were made of an Egyptian blue cloth, but several people told us it was not silky enough and was not up to a pharaoh's standard!" Péchalat said.

"Fabian and I have thought of it quite a lot. We purchased color pencils and we drew sketches. We also came back to the old costumes we had to see what color could be better suited. We selected a bronze-like color, and it is really neat."

Besides their costume, they worked significantly on their choreography.

"We did not really change anything, but each time we can, we work with a choreographer," she said. "It gives us a new spark. When you skate a program every day as we do, some movements can erode with time, so you need to refresh them to give them their original luster and meaning."

As for the duo's mental state, Péchalat was quick to answer: "There is only one answer. You skate two clean programs every day, then you do 10 times again and again -- every move or step that you wonder about until you get it perfect in your legs and feet, and that will do!"