by Klaus-Reinhold Kany
(7 November 2022) The pairs competition at the French Grand Prix was named “Les Internationaux de France”, then was renamed “Grand Prix de France”. It took place in an arena in the beautiful city of Angers, about 200 miles southwest of Paris, which had been built only three years ago. The competition like all pairs events in the whole Grand Prix Series had a relatively low level due to the lack of pairs worldwide without Russians, Chinese and six of the seven best North American pairs who had finished their career after last season.
The only top pair in Angers were Canadians Deanna Stellato-Dudek & Maxime Deschamps who won gold with 185.84 points and qualified for the Final after being second at Skate America. But even they made mistakes. They had taken the lead in the short program to the Tango “Oblivion” with only 64.33 points, which is low for a Grand Prix first. After an excellent triple twist both performed a shaky toe loop, followed by a very good loop lift. But then Stellato-Dudek fell on the triple throw loop. The components were around 7.7. Stellato-Dudek commented, “We had a rough and difficult short program skate, but it can’t be perfect every time. We’re going to start fresh tomorrow, it’s going to be a new day.” Deschamps added, “For this season, our goal is to improve our score every time we come out. At Skate America we were very pleased with the score we got, but our goal was still the same. Unfortunately, it was not like this today, but we still improved some stuff that we wanted.”
The opened their free program to “Cleopatra” by South African composer Trevis Jones with a stellar triple twist and a good combination of triple toe loop and double toe loop. The three lifts were excellent, but they both doubled the Salchow. The triple throw Flip was deeply landed and, like in the short, she fell on the triple throw loop. In an interview they had explained they had trained the death spirals on a frozen lake in Canada when they were not allowed to enter an ice rink during the Pandemic. They performed the rarely seen and technically demanding forward outside death spiral in the free, which worked well. Their components were around 8.0.
Deschamps said, “It wasn't the easiest week of competition this week, it was pretty challenging. But we fought together this week, we have learned from each other. We're pleased for all the fight tonight and now we're qualified for the final. So we're looking forward to going there and still improving.” Stellato-Dudek added, “Every experience that we've had has been new. The first time being in the lead after the short, the first time skating last, the first time not having a good short. So it's been a lot of new things each time. This is the experience that we need to gain to be the type of team we want to be. We're very excited to qualify for the final.”
French skater Camille Kovalev & her Russian-born husband Pavel Kovalev won a surprising silver medal with 179.85 points, their first Grand Prix medal. Since the 27-year-old and her 30-year-old partner changed coaches and now work with renowned trainer Laurent Depouilly, they have improved a lot. In the short program, they competed to a medley of the two Billie Eilish songs “My Boy” and “Bad Guy” and were the only pair without any mistake. They had no spectacular but clean elements and more than 60 points for the first time internationally. Camille Kovalev, whose former name is Camille Mendoza, said, “We are happy with our performance today, it was close to what we have been doing in practice. Tomorrow (in the Free Skating) we just want to relax and take pleasure. We feel no pressure.”
In their free program to “Caruso”, they made no big mistake either. Triple twist, combination of triple toe loop and double toe loop, three lifts, triple throw Salchow, everything was good. She only touched down her hand on the triple throw flip. The pair combination spin had only a basic level and they planned and did the Salchow only double. The components were around 7.5 and they improved their personal best by more than 20 points. She explained, “It's the first time for us to win a Grand Prix medal. When we came here it was just to skate and improve and tried to show what we can do. We changed our coaching team and the way we work in practice. I had a lot of injuries before, so we are very careful about this not to stop (training) every time.”
The German pair of Annika Hocke & Robert Kunkel, who trains in Bergamo, Italy now, won the bronze medal with 179.73 points. They had won the Finlandia Trophy four weeks before but both got sick afterwards (he with Covid 19) and could fully train only one week before the French Grand Prix. Therefore they were not in top shape yet. After a good twist in the short program, they missed the side by side Salchow because she doubled it and he stepped out of a triple one. The triple throw loop was landed very deeply, but the four other elements were good. Being fifth in the short, they could move up to third place in spite of mistakes tanks to more plus points on the good elements and the other pairs made more mistakes. In their free program to “Without You” by Ursine Vulpine. most elements were good, two lifts even very good, but he stepped out of the double Axel after the combination with triple Salchow and she landed the triple throw loop on two feet.
Hocke explained, “We are very pleased with what we could show and we know what to work on, We had a tough time coming here because both of us have been sick and that was more mentally demanding than I would have expected, because when you know you're not 100% ready, it's definitely harder. But for us it was a great learning experience and we're happy that we, like everybody today, showed a fight. We were not perfect, but we will work on that.” On the post event press conference she told Stellato-Dudek that she found her single skating programs from 1999 and 2000 on Youtube from the time before Hocke was even born.
Rebecca Ghilardi & Filippo Ambrosini from Bergamo finished fourth with 174.72 points. They did not look as stable as they were in previous months. In the short program to “Somebody to Love” by Queen, their twist was not clean, she fell on the triple Salchow and landed the triple throw Lutz on two feet, but said afterwards they are happy that the other elements were good. They started the free program to Giuachino Rossini’s opera “The Barber of Seville” with a twist which was not 100 per cent clean again, followed by a Salchow which he tripled and she doubled and stepped out. In the combination of two double Axels her first one was downgraded and she singled the second one. The other elements were good, the Choreo Sequence even excellent.
Karina Safina & Luka Berulava from Georgia, the present Junior World Champions who live in Moscow, were third in the short program after performing a good triple twist and a good side by side triple Salchow. But Safina went down on the triple throw loop. In the free program to “Exogenesis Symphony” by the British pop group Muse, they dropped to fifth place, earning total 162.44 points after making several serious mistakes. Safina went down on both triple throw jumps and fell a third time, she doubled the first toe loop in their jump combination which he tripled and she popped the Salchow which he tripled. Their lifts were almost clean, but they only had a basic value in their spin and their death spiral. At the end of the free program, Safina hardly could stand up again because she seemed to be too exhausted. After Russia mobilized theoretically all young Russian men for the war, they quickly left their home country because Berulava, who has Georgian and Russian citizenship, did not want to risk to be enlisted for the Russian army.
Now they train in Berlin, Germany, together with the other Georgian pair of Metelkina & Parkman with Alexander Koenig, the coach of the 2018 Olympic Champions Savchenko & Massot who the German federation had fired as head coach in 2021. But being head coach of German speed skating now, he had no time to come to Angers with the Georgians. Therefore Sergei Dudakov from the Tutberidze group in Moscow cared about them who still has a valid visa for the European Community and who had come with the Georgian single skater. As there are no more flights from Western Europe to Russia and back, they had to fly to France via Istanbul in Turkey whose borders are still open.
The U.S. team of Maria Mokhova & Ivan Mokhov of Grand Rapids, Michigan, are sixth with 162.16 points. They were invited because France has not third senior pair. They are coached by their father Andrei Mokhov and were fourth at Skate America. In Angers. They began their short program to “Malaguena” with a good step sequence, which is unusual. Her triple toe loop was wobbly, their triple twist not quite clean, the triple throw toe loop and the lift soso. In their free program to “Die Fledermaus” (the bat) by Johann Strauss, ten elements were relatively clean, the death spiral even excellent, but she fell on the triple Salchow which was planned as a combination with the double Axel.
The new French pair of Oceane Piegad & Denys Strekalin had several mistakes and therefore ended up seventh and last with 144.71 points. The Chinese pair of Cheng Peng & Yang Jin is said to have problems with the Achilles tendon and therefore withdrew, but so late that the French federation could not nominate any alternate. It would have been difficult anyway to find a pair in the whole world who has the minimum which is required for Grand Prix and therefore could have been invited.