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Nice welcomes skating world with open arms

Skaters should enjoy sunny weather, passionate audiences

French skating fans would like nothing more than to see this scene recreated at the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships.
French skating fans would like nothing more than to see this scene recreated at the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships. (Getty Images)

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By Jean-Christophe Berlot, special to icenetwork.com
(03/22/2012) - The city of Nice was originally an ancient Greek colony called Nikaia, which bears its name from Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. For many of the more than 200 competitors at the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships, just being at the competition represents a victory.

For others, there is more on the line.

Skating capital for a week

One hour to the west is Brigitte Bardot's Saint-Tropez. On the way to the city is Cannes, home of the coveted cinema festival, which was the first to crown The Artist, the movie that recently took home the Oscar for "Best Picture." Half an hour to the east is Monte Carlo, with its spas and casinos. The city's airport is the second largest in France, right behind Paris. Vacationers come here by flocks as soon as spring turns around and mimosa flowers bloom all over the hills. How can Nice ever look like a skating capital?

Nice has nonetheless become one of figure skating's favorite stops after just one hit, when worlds were organized there in the spring of 2000. "Nice is nice" had then become a common saying.

Worlds returns to Nice for the second time in the city's history. More than 200 skaters, their coaches, federation officials, families and friends are due to arrive in the city in the following days.

Ashley Wagner, the 2012 U.S. champion, was not the least bit enthusiastic about coming to Nice.

"I have never been there before," she said in a recent teleconference. "My mom is coming too, and she will bring a friend along. She will do some research before going about what to do there, so I might get a chance to see a bit of the city, according to my schedule."

Wagner's mother may find that Nice is surrounded by the close-by Alps to the north and Italy to the east. Wandering in the streets of the old city, she will be able to reminisce the time when Nice was still Italian: It was given to France as a recognition for the French efforts to turn Italy into one country against the Austrians, back in 1860.

For the first time in years, these world championships set the stage for duels in at least three categories. The skating world had not been treated to such specific battles in years, maybe since the "Battle of Brians" and the "Battle of Carmens" at the 1988 Olympic Winter Games or, more recently, the "Battle of the Czars" between Alexei Yagudin and Evgeni Plushenko, in 2002.

This year, strong favorites have emerged over the course of the season. They have earned gold medals from Grand Prix events and the Grand Prix Final, national championships, the European Championships and the Four Continents Championships.

In pairs, it will be the "Battle of the Tricky Names": Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia and Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkovy from Germany. Ice dancing may again turn out to be the "Battle of the Training Partners," with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada and Meryl Davis and Charlie White from the U.S. The ladies competition may bring the "Battle of the Music Fiancées": Italian Carolina Kostner and American Alissa Czisny.

Only in the men's category is the field more open ... although everyone is chasing 2011 world champion Patrick Chan.

Ladies

"I will make no predictions as far as the result is concerned," Wagner said last week. "But the results at Four Continents speak for themselves. If I skate the way I skated there, I should be rewarded.

"My main goal is to bring that third spot for the American team back from Nice. Alissa [Czisny] and myself are strong enough to achieve this goal, granted that we provide the right skating performance."

The ladies field may be one of the most beautiful ones in years. Czisny and Kostner both are true music lovers and wonderful interpreters on the ice. Kostner will skate to Shostakovich and Mozart. Czisny has elected to skate her free skate to Sibelius and her short to French music: Edith Piaf's "La Vie en rose" should send the audience to the bottom of its collective hearts and, she hopes, to its feet.

The French fans will also love to see Japan's Mao Asada back, after the pain she endured at the end of last year. Asada will fight for a third world gold medal with her trademark athleticism. Nice is also known as the "City of Flowers," and Japanese skaters are sensitive to those. Maybe they will do them good.

Men

"I really do think that this is his year to break through," 2012 U.S. gold medalist Jeremy Abbott told icenetwork.com about his Detroit training mate, Adam Rippon, after his short program at the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. "I would love to see both of us on the team."

Abbott's dream has come true, as he and Rippon are on the verge of leaving for Nice.

"I am feeling right on track for worlds," Abbott said.

Much has been said about the rivalry between Abbott, Daisuke Takahashi from Japan and Chan. The next round will take place on the ice.

Rippon will appear in Nice as yet another crowd favorite. His curly hair, his emotions, his sensitive skating and his artistry have always appealed to the European taste -- although the precision and determination of his skating are definitely American made.

The French audience will never forget that he landed his first "Rippon Lutz" in Paris, at the 2009 Trophée Eric Bompard. His sixth-place finish at the 2010 World Championships in nearby Torino also earned him thousands of fans across the border. They should rush to Nice to see him again.

France's Brian Joubert, the 2007 world champion, is not a favorite to win in Nice. For the first time in 11 years, he was not able to medal at Europeans, where he finished eighth. There, he had to skate half of his free skate with one leg of his pants up to his knee, as the lace under his boot broke.

"I am still quite proud of my performance," Joubert said afterward. "I feel better and better on the ice, and confidence is coming back. This is quite encouraging in the perspective of worlds."

Joubert, who won his eighth French crown last December, should never be ruled out before any competition. He is now skating with two coaches in his home rink of Poitiers, and he won the International Challenge Cup in The Hague, Netherlands, two weeks ago, ahead of Abbott.

Florent Amodio was also skating in The Hague, but he did not fare as well as Joubert and Abbott. Amodio's season started in a rough way, as he missed the podium at his two Grand Prix events and had to change both of his programs in the middle of the season. His quad still eludes him regularly. His surprise win of the bronze medal at the 2012 European Championships nonetheless shows that Amodio can be ready when it counts.

And it will count in Nice.

"Skating at home will be such a thrill," he said earlier in the season.

Pairs

"I wish everybody can be healthy and give everyone a show," 2012 U.S. champion John Coughlin offered recently, proving his sportsmanship. "We'll be skating with very strong teams, but no one trains for second place."

With Volosozhar and Trankov and their irresistible Black Swan free skate on one side, and Savchenko and Szolkowy with their Pina Bausch program on the other, the pairs should bring a grand spectacle to Nice, just like they have throughout the season. Their battle at the Grand Prix Final last December in Québec will remain one of the greatest moments pairs skating has ever offered: a complete mastery of the most demanding technical elements of the time, harmoniously packaged in the most superb artistic pieces.

Nice's bright sky and clean air have attracted numerous artists in the last century, among them Matisse and Chagall, both of whom have a museum of their own in the city. If indeed Volosozhar and Trankov are in good shape, and if Savchenko and Szolkowy are in top form, art should be everywhere you look in Nice.

The North America pairs will bring their technical elements, strength, incredible lifts and throw triples to town. Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, whose delicate and almost sensual skating was so warmly applauded in Paris last fall, will try to overcome what has been a rather disappointing season since. Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov, from Russia, should also be back in Nice, after Smirnov's appendectomy caused them to miss the 2012 European Championships.

"Neither of us has ever been to Nice before," Coughlin said. "But we've always had good competitions in warm places this year (Skate America and the U.S. championships). Also, Caydee [Denney] is from Florida. If there is a palm tree, she'll be happy!"

In just a few days now, Denney and Coughlin will find out that the Promenade des Anglais is lined with palm trees for at least three miles!

Ice dancing

"We want to make sure we're exuding the excitement throughout [our] program," Davis had said after her and White's winning short dance at the U.S. championships.

Just like Rio de Janeiro, Nice is also a carnival capital, although with its own Riviera touch. Rumba and samba should feel at ease there.

Davis and White have not competed in France since 2007, when they were just a promising, young team. Today, they are one of the favorites to win and are holding the world title.

Who will take the gold medal in 2012? Virtue and Moir or Davis and White? If the two teams skate their best, as they know how to, the real winner will be fans of ice dancing.

If these teams take the two top spots on the podium, the battle will be fierce for the bronze. Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat, who ranked third at the Grand Prix Final, will have hopefully overcome the broken nose Péchalat suffered last week in practice. They are so eager to skate in their home country, in front of an audience which loves them, even though they left France five years ago to train first in Russia and now in the U.S.

In what represents a seismic shift in the discipline of ice dancing, if Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, the Canadian team, and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, the U.S. team, skate to the level they can, the first five or six teams at these championships could all be training in North America!

The ice is now ready at the Palais des Expositions (or "Exhibition Palace"), where the event is going to take place. It is not far from the beach, the aforementioned "Promenade des Anglais," which was named after the first-ever "tourists" to come to the city: They were from England.

The Palais has been transformed into a world-class rink in a little more than a month. Stands have been brought in, surrounded by dark blue velvet. The ice is ready, with the ISU logo painted in it, as is the city.

Welcome, skating world! Even though Saint-Tropez and Cannes are just around the corner, the best movie this time will be shot in Nice.