We’ll start with the end: the pairs event at this year’s edition of the Europeans was a treat, a thing of beauty; by the second day of competition in Ostravar Arena, the audience had already been spoiled with amazing performances – especially from the three couples medaling (but not only from those). And so this is an inventory of joys – bits of stories, episodes – as they happened, on January 25 and 26, on and off the ice, in the press room, in the mixed zone, in all spaces you could find pair skaters. And do trust us: to experience such a high level pairs event at 2017 Europeans was a joy in itself.
by Florentina Tone/Ostrava
The unbuttoned shirt of Christopher Boyadji. And now that I got your attention, I’ll tell you this is not about the shirt, but about the fact that he and Zoe Jones didn’t miss a beat in their short program after the button-incident. Not to mention the new form of shirt seemed to go much better with the character of the music, „Malaguena” by Ernesto Lecuona. In the mixed zone, Christopher talked about it with a smile: „I think it must have happened after the lift, Zoe must have ripped it off. When I saw that, I thought I couldn’t do anything about it anyway, so I started to play with it and added a bit more choreography. Anyway, I enjoyed skating half naked and the audience seemed to have liked it too”.
But there’s a lot more to this pair than this funny incident: they have been skating together only from June last year, she is a former single skater and, at 37-year-old, the mother of three children. Zoe spent nearly a decade coaching in Canada before thinking to return to competitions – and now she’s here, in Ostrava, representing Great Britain in the pairs event alongside Christopher Boyadji. She told the story herself, the short version of it anyway, in the mixed zone, after SP: “Pair skating was always my dream but it never happened. Then, after I had my children, I chose skating to get back into shape. I have never lost the passion for figure skating and, last year, I was even 2nd at Nationals in the singles. When Chris first asked me for trial, I didn’t think it could work”. Christopher: “We started to skate in June and it is just great what we achieved in only 6 months. I was looking for a new partner and in the end I chose Zoe because she had so much commitment. With her, nothing is really difficult”. They finished their first Europeans together on the 14th place.
Just that: Natalia Zabiiako is a princess. And if you haven’t seen their short program this season – she and Alexander Enbert skate to “Snowstorm” by Georgi Sviridov – do yourselves a favour and look for it on youtube. Their lines, their elegance – this team has fantastic potential.
The energy in Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot’s short program to “That Man” by Caro Emerald. It was pure perfection… until Aliona’s fall during the step sequence. What fall? I didn’t see any fall – that must have been my first reaction, since they kept the routine going, playfulness and fun included. They didn’t see the fall coming either, that’s for sure. Aliona in the mixed zone: “It never happened to me before. I think I relaxed too early, because it was going well. Falling is easy, but getting up is harder. The important thing is to get up again”. Truer words have never been spoken – especially from Aliona, who sprained her ankle in Trophée de France, in November, couldn’t attend the Grand Prix Final in Marseille in December because of this particular injury, only started doing the throw jumps a week before the Europeans, and now she’s here, in Ostrava, showing guts and determination, and doing, with Bruno, what they could possibly do to show they’re medal contenders.
And Bruno himself is a huge fan of Aliona and her perseverance. Hear him in the mixed zone after SP – and notice he also threw a gauntlet in the air: “It was tough for Aliona, but she fought through it to the end. She is so motivated that sometimes you have to slow her down. I know she is thinking about the quad throw Salchow and the throw triple Axel, but she knows it is important to be careful now, so we’ll be ready for Worlds. We’ll be at Worlds with throw quad Salchow and throw triple Axel”.
Meanwhile in the arena, Anna Dušková and Martin Bidař representing Czech Republic take the ice for their short program – and, doing so, they set the house on fire. But there’s additional nervousness for Anna, other than the one that comes from skating on home ground at Europeans. She’ll talk about it with a laugh in the mixed zone, right after their program: “It was a big thing to compete after such a great personality as Aliona Savchenko, as it is our first major championships in the adult category. I was even scared to say Hello to her as I did not know whether she would say Hello too. I was shy”. And then: “Our result overcame our expectations”. Last season’s World Junior champions, Anna and Martin finished the 2017 Europeans on 7th place.
There’s this lightness in Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov’s skate, one that we’ve never seen before. And Debussy’s Clair de Lune, their choice of music for the short program this season, might have something to do with it. We loved the flow, the musicality – a beautiful skate altogether, even with that fall on the throw triple flip.
Well, it’s freezing cold in Ostrava on January 25, but the ice is hot with Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and their short program to “Glam (Electro Swing Remix)” by French singer Dimie Cat. And by the time we get through the middle of the dance – yes, they dance, these pair skaters – we start mumbling the refrain: “Some like it hot, some like it hype/Some like it hot, I like it glam”. That good this program is, that well it suits Evgenia and Vladimir. …and this might be a good moment to confess: I’m in love with two triple twists in the pairs events: Evgenia’s and Aliona’s. As for the Russians’ scores, they’re absolutely huge: 80.82 points, allowing them to enter the Top 3 SP highest scores in the history of the discipline, behind Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov (84.17 points, 2014 Olympics) and Wenjing Sui and Cong Han (80.85 points, 2016 Worlds).
And then there’s that: a wow, hats-in-the-air skate from Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès, to “Earned It” by The Weekend. A languid, sensual routine, full of highlights – and no better way to end the pairs short program in Ostrava. They nailed it, the French – and they’re thrilled about it. And so is John Zimmerman, their coach, whose smile is bigger than everyone else’s. The scores, 74.18 points, put them in second place for now, behind Evgenia and Vladimir and ahead of Aliona and Bruno – and Vanessa’s reaction in the Kiss and Cry when seeing the marks is utterly priceless.
Backstage, the joy is even bigger. “On est dans les nuages la…” [We’re in the clouds…], she happily tells the French journalists surrounding her and Morgan, while he adds (in French, and we translate): “We’re in the clouds, yes, because it’s absolutely super what happened to us today. We have made many changes, many sacrifices, but here we are now, in the clouds…”. Maé-Bérénice Méité comes to congratulate them – a smile to her ears – and so is Stéphane Lambiel. “Je suis journaliste aujourd’hui”, he tells Didier Gailhaguet, who’s also backstage. There’s almost a party in the mixed zone – a French one, of course – a joyful end to the first day of competition at 2017 Europeans.
One thing we’ll definitely remember: the fantastic enthusiasm of the crowd while Anna Dušková and Martin Bidař skate their long program, to “La leyende del beso” by Raul di Blasio and “Historia de un amor” by Perez Prado. These two seem to have a wonderful future ahead – and they might want to follow into the footsteps of their famous predecessors, Radka Kovaříková and René Novotný, World champions in 1995.
Just that: we feel privileged to have been in Ostravar Arena watching this, witnessing this – Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot reaching for the light. That was one of the defining moments of these Europeans, goosebumps included. And if you haven’t seen it, allow yourself a couple of minutes of pure beauty.
That was the end: Aliona and Bruno won the free skate in Ostrava (with a personal best of 148.59 points) and finished the overall event on the second place; a second silver medal after the one they got last year in Bratislava. But what scores and rankings fail to show is that their long program, to “Lighthouse” by Patrick Watson, was an emotion from top to finish. And that was their clear intention from the start, to focus on emotions, since with Aliona’s recent injury they had to put their technical highlights into temporary brackets. Bruno said it clearly in the press conference after the skate: “We are back from this long time injury of Aliona, so we came here with a soft program, so it was pretty hard for us, but we fought, and we just wanted to give a lot of emotion, so I think that today we gave a lot”.
A “soft program” in terms of technical content – considering they haven’t inserted, at this stage of Aliona’s recovery, the throw triple Axel or the throw quad Salchow – but so rich in everything else. Let’s just go back to the first seconds of their skate: the attention to details, the nuances, he and she allowing themselves to breathe in the same rhythm as the music, allowing the program to breathe. Pure poetry and a choreographical masterpiece altogether, one that has meaning for Aliona and Bruno. She explained it herself in the press conference after the event: “It’s like the light at the end of the tunnel. When you’re in a tunnel, you see the light, when you’re injured, you see a light, when you fall, you stand up. This music gives us so much energy and makes us emotional”.
Flow, fluidity, loose arms, beautiful story. But there’s more to it than that, of course: every time she’s in the air – twist or throw – an involuntary Wow! comes from my mouth, that good she is. And you do see the throw triple Axel and the quad Salchow even though they aren’t there yet. They’ll be at Worlds, Bruno assured us, but even without those this free skate is a joy. As for the medal here, to them it is worth more than gold, given the difficult times they have been through after the injury in November. Bruno: “The last three months and the comeback were really difficult and painful for us. We are overwhelmed, everything went better that we could have imagined”. Aliona: “Every medal has a special story, every year is a different year, every year there’s something behind. I am really happy for today”.
A bit rough around the edges at this point of the season – Ksenia Stolbova dealt with a severe injury herself, one that kept her off the ice for quite a while –, the Russians’ free skate captures your attention and runs away with it. It’s dark, intriguing, to peculiar music by Rene Aubry, “Apres la pluie (Vertige)” and “Pomeriggio”, and, if everything goes well, we might see a brilliant package at the Worlds in Helsinki. So far it looks more than promising – it’s just Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov haven’t had sufficient time to polish it.
And it’s Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov’s time to fly – and they do just that during their free skate in Ostrava, to John Miles’ “Music”. And after being third at the last two editions of the Europeans, they finally win the continental crown, a month after they had won, in grand style, the first Grand Prix Final of their career (in Marseille). And with these two big wins this season, they establish themselves as medal contenders at the Worlds in Helsinki, at the end of March, and, for whoever has eyes to see it, medal contenders at the Olympics in PyeongChang next year.
Their first reaction after the free skate, in the mixed zone? Vladimir: “We were emotional while skating, but feel empty now, like squeezed lemons. This is a pleasant exhaustion though. We are very satisfied as we demonstrated good skating in both programs, even despite a tiny mistake at the end of the free program today. We certainly did not think about our advantage in points when preparing for the free program, it did not have any impact on our performance today. We are getting better and better with every year, we are growing up and our skating becomes more mature. I think that even judges’ perception is different now, as our skating has been evolving from competition to competition, we are not juniors anymore. We show senior level technique, we just need to be more mature in mind and emotionally”. They sensed it too, the change of perception – and, apart from being happy they had just won the European crown, Evgenia dreams ever bigger: “We believe that our main victories and gold medals are still to come – this motivates us to grow”.
During the press conference later on, Vladimir hints at a special plan for preparation towards World Championships: “I think it’s a good plan to be in good shape in Helsinki”. Outside the press conference room, a smiling Robin Szolkowy is waiting for his students. A new victory for him at Europeans, but the first one as a coach.
And just when you felt you didn’t have any emotions to spare, these two enter the ice: Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès. And to many people watching the competition, live in Ostrava or in front of the TVs around the world, the French were the real stars of the event. How could they not be? They skated a lights-out routine to “Sound of Silence” by Disturbed, leaving everyone in awe.
As during previous night in Ostrava, Vanessa and Morgan are the last to take the ice, an immense pressure on their shoulders: they’re second after the short program, and they must have heard the cheering and applauding, not to mention the high scores of Evgenia and Vladimir. Still, they manage to brace up for this long program ahead of them – a sign of growing, of maturity – pulling together the free skate of their lives exactly when it mattered. And though they perform to “Sound of Silence”, there’s no silence on the last seconds of the routine, just a general, enthusiastic uproar during their trademark lift. Is it as if the audience wanted to carry them on its wings till the very end.
And then there’s the relief: instead of cooling down in the final pose, Morgan’s hands are in the air, his face saying it all – they have finally done it. Won that medal. That long-awaited, stubborn medal. And they had surely thought of it before, since Morgan is fully prepared for a short analysis in the mixed zone: “This is the first medal for a French pair skating team in 14 years”. He’s right: the last French to win a European medal, the silver, were Sarah Abitbol and Stéphane Bernadis in 2003, in Malmö.
But first there’s Morgan who finds it difficult to leave the ice. He simply doesn’t want to go – to let that wonderful feeling of winning go. As thrilled as his students is John Zimmerman – who, hurrying to take his jacket and reach Vanessa and embrace her, doesn’t even notice his phone fell out of his pocket. The item is recovered shortly – and the euphoria continues in the Kiss and Cry: 145.84 points, the third program of the night, and a bronze medal overall. And the excitement of having been the only pair in Ostrava to attempt and land, even if two-footed, a throw quadruple Salchow.
“We were never as happy as we are today”, Vanessa will say, minutes after the skate. And later on, during the post-event press conference, she’ll dissect the day, the performance, their thoughts going into the free skate, in front of the journalists in the room. It’s almost 23:00 – but no one leaves the area yet; a touching confession follows: “We were not expecting anything really, especially today, because two years ago we were third in the short program, and then we had a catastrophy: I forgot the program, the long program. Horrible experience. But we learned from this. And today we just stayed very concentrated and focused on what we had to do, on what we’ve been doing in practice. And I told Morgan after the program: It doesn’t matter what the result is, cause I am very proud of us. So it was a good surprise, I wasn’t waiting for it. I didn’t want to expect anything, and I expected these amazing skaters to skate the way that they did, so I was prepared for anything, just to fight. So I think we shouldn’t expect much, and maybe it will all just come now”. She laughs and continues: “We’ll continue to progress, I hope”.
As for Morgan, his mind might still be on the ice of Ostravar Arena: “It was just amazing for us. Standing ovations – it’s not like this every day. I think sometimes we can have this in France, because we are French. But here it was a dream, I wanted to stay on the ice… maybe till tomorrow. I want to say thank you a lot to this amazing audience today and yesterday”. And then, his voice trembling: “It wasn’t really easy every day, but we have trained a lot and we believed in ourselves every day. Our new team believes in us, and we believe in them, also the federation believes in us, and I think it is because of everybody who believes in us that we try to do our best…”.
The music itself “was a really good pick from our coaches”, Vanessa explains it: “This music really builds. So it helps push us and I think the audience helped also. You never get tired of this song, so we can play it as much as possible and still be as motivated to skate to it”.
In the press conference room, John Zimmerman is a happy, proud coach. And not just that. The team in Fort Lauderdale, United States – Silvia Fontana, John Kerr, John Zimmerman etc.– is actually responsible for all programs of the silver and bronze medalists at 2017 Europeans: both Aliona and Bruno and Vanessa and Morgan had their short and long programs choreographed in Fort Lauderdale. Additionally, John Zimmerman also coaches the French. He smiles while listening everyone’s answers – but no one asks him a question, one that set twitter on fire during the last hour: will he shave his head, as he promised to do if Vanessa and Morgan claimed a podium spot at Europeans? We’ll just have to wait till Helsinki to see if that happened or not.