Joubert isn’t joking

So it now seems to be real: 2007 world men’s champion Brian Joubert is coming back as a pair skater at age 29 – and probably for Russia to boot.

How intriguing is this going to be in the coming months? Of course we’ll have to wait a year to see how it all turns out, because he can’t skate for another country for a year, and neither can his new partner Katarina Gerboldt, who used to skate for Russia with Sasha Enbert, who has found greener pastures with a new partner and will train in Russia’s most powerful stable, headed by fabulous pair coach, Nina Mozer.

We’ll see which country releases who. Gerboldt and Joubert are turning to a top coach, Oleg Vasiliev, an Olympic pair champion who also has coached Olympic pair champions. Vasiliev would like to see Joubert skate for Russia, if for no other reason than financing and training opportunities will probably be better. Pair skating in France always seems to follow a rocky path. In France, Joubert has sometimes tread a rocky path.

None of this surprises me. At the 2013 world championships in London, Ont., Joubert told me that he planned to try pair skating after Sochi. I laughed, but I stopped laughing when I looked at his face. It wasn’t a joke.

But desire and actually making it happen are two different things, and now he seems to have made this step towards turning his dream into a reality. Joubert also told me that he wants to start a singles and pair school in France, and that skating pairs would help him learn to teach it. But I think the desire goes beyond getting some credentials to be a teacher. He’s a competitor at heart and he wants it.

He will have so much to overcome, but like some top pair coaches say, it can take only four years to turn a pair career around, if you are dealing with skaters with some experience.  Look at Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, who incidentally will be in Joubert’s path to the top if he skates for Russia at the 2018 Olympics, which seems to be in the plan. So will Tatania Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, the Olympic champions who are not retiring, but continuing. Mix that up with a few other Russian pairs who at least have experience with the risky discipline and Joubert will have his work cut out for him. But it will be fun watching it all evolve.

Will France release Joubert? Will Russia release Gerboldt? Where will they train? (Joubert has always preferred to train at home in Poitiers, near mother, Raymonde. Any attempts to skate elsewhere have been short-lived. He’d have to cut the apron strings and change his life. Perhaps he’s ready. ) How will Joubert’s back hold up to all of this new, strenuous activity? Gerboldt missed a year of competition in 2012 with torn ligaments. Will her body hold up to the work, too? Can Gerboldt and Joubert adapt to each other? Will Joubert be willing to change his citizenship to Russian for the next Olympics? He says he wants to retain his French citizenship. He’s a major star in France. Will his French fans forgive him? Will they embrace his new challenges? Joubert says he has many fans in Russia, perhaps more than he has at home.

He’s already had dinner with prolific French actor Gerard Depardieu who has been accused to abandoning his homeland to avoid a 75 per cent tax on millionaires in France, departing first to Belgium, then giving up his passport as Russian leader Vladimir Putin signed an executive order giving citizenship to Depardieu.

Depardieu apparently knew Joubert was in Moscow, called him up and dined with him. He told Joubert that if he wanted to move to Russia, he shouldn’t doubt it for a minute. Depardieu backs Putin’s treatment of the Pussy Riot group. Depardieu has been described as a “beautiful runaway truck of a man.” Joubert has always been his own man, always himself. Maybe not quite a runaway truck, but interesting, all the same.

The pair skating itself? How will it turn out? Gerboldt had never skated pairs before she teamed up with Enbert with whom she finished fourth at the 2011 European championships. She can show him the way. In an interview, she said she was pleasantly shocked by what he was able to do, without any previous experience, and in fact, went so far as to say she felt more comfortable with him than with Enbert.

Joubert had never done a death spiral until last week with Gerboldt and by all reports, it wasn’t bad at all. In an interview with a Russian newspaper, Vasiliev said five years ago, Joubert’s mother asked him to teach her son how to skate pairs and he thought it was a joke. Over the years, it’s become less of a joke. When Vasiliev suggested he try out with Gerboldt, Joubert didn’t hesitate.

Joubert is the most decorated French skater in history. Gerboldt hardly speaks English. It’s the stuff made of bad movies, but it’s actually happening. But with so many athletes pondering their future and taking the year off, and with a bit of a wasteland of big names in the Grand Prix series this year, Joubert and his quest will make things interesting. Thanks, Brian.




Canadian national team chosen

Hearts skipped a beat when Skate Canada’s national team for the coming season was released early Tuesday: Patrick Chan and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were on the list.

However, both have indicated that they will skip the Grand Prix season, but they have not decided whether or not they will take part in the second half of the season, which would include the Canadian championships, the Four Continents and the world championships in China.

There’s always hope.

Michael Slipchuk, director of high performance for Skate Canada, said the national team list is built upon results from the previous Canadian championships – and you have to be top five to get on this team. Unless somebody announces a retirement, they are still included. Neither Chan nor Virtue and Moir have made any such announcement. If Skate Canada needs to make changes later, they can. They have an option to add others to the list, based on discretion.

Note: there are only four rather than five women on the national team (Kaetlyn Osmond, Gabby Daleman, first-timer Veronik Mallet, and Alaine Chartrand), but Amelie Lacoste retired and Skate Canada left the team at four.

It was a different story in the pairs event. There were so many partner changes and retirements that Skate Canada had to reach down to find some new teams, or they would have been left with only one team: Meagan Duhamel (just engaged to coach Bruno Marcotte) and Eric Radford.

That means Kirsten Moore-Towers can breathe a sigh of relief, because she’s been included on the national team with her new partner, Michael Marinaro, whose previous partner Margaret Purdy, hung up her skates at the end of the season.

Skate Canada also reached out to a relatively new team, Brittany Jones and Joshua Reagan, who finished seventh at the Canadian championships last January in their first season together. The American-born Reagan has had more partner switches than a square dancer. Originally a promising U.S. skater, he’s leaped the border to skate with a Canadian. He and Jones had to sit out the international season last year until Reagan got a release from U.S. Figure Skating. That happened this spring.

Reagan, partnered with Ashley Cain, won the 2011 U.S. junior championships and finished fourth at the world junior championships for the United States. The same year, Jones, teamed up with Kurtis Gaskell, won the Canadian junior title and then finished sixth at the world juniors.

In Feb. 2012, the Cain-Reagan partnership ended, and a month later, he teamed up with 2011 U.S. senior pair champion Caitlin Yankowskas. They were assigned two Grand Prix but never made either of them. The next season, he teamed up with Becky Bereswill, but before long, they split. And now he’s come to Canada.

Jones was a precocious young pair skater. She and her junior partner were capable of doing triple twists and throw triple Salchows and loops.

There will be more of a waiting game for Dylan Moscovitch, whose brilliant partnership with Kirsten Moore-Towers ended last spring. He’s since teamed up with Lubov Illushechkina, a 22-year-old Russian who was wildly promising when she skated with Nodari Masiuradze. Together, they were 2009 world junior champions, as well as Junior Grand Prix Final champs and they also won Skate Canada in 2010. But the partnership ended in March of 2012. A couple of months later, Illushechkina wanted to skate pairs with a French skater, but Russia would not release her. She hasn’t competed internationally since.

“She needs to be released from Russia,” said Slipchuk. “And at this time there is no release.”

Under ISU rules, skaters must wait a year after their last international competition for one country to skate for another country, but the skater’s home country has the right to hold them in its fold longer, Slipchuk said. “It’s their prerogative.”

Slipchuk said his federation is keeping in touch with the Russian federation, but Skate Canada will honour any decision that the Russian body makes, he said.

What happened in Canada at the end of the Olympic season to the pair discipline is happening world-wide, Slipchuk said. “We didn’t see a lot at the past Olympics,” he said. “But there is a lot this time. United States is going through it. Russia is too. It will be an interesting season this year.”

Jones and Reagan got a wonderful opportunity with all of the switch-ups, and they have lots of international experience. But they just need mileage and time to hit their stride, Slipchuk said. They train with Kristy Wirtz in Waterloo, Ont.

Canadian ice dancers are going strong, according to the national team list. Aside from Virtue and Moir, there are world silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam, Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier and Nicole Orford and Thomas Williams.

Among the men, 16-year-old Nam Nguyen has made the national senior team for the first time and will join Kevin Reynolds, Liam Firus, and Elladj Balde.

National team skaters are eligible for international assignments, and it’s important for all of them to get out and earn points and improve their world rankings for other assignments.

“It’s definitely a new look for the team,” Slipchuk said. “There are new faces. We shall have a good mix. After the Olympics, you never know. I think in the next two years, you will see an ebb and flow, but two years before the Olympics, you get a clearer idea of who might be on the next Olympic team.”

South Korea embraces anonymous judging at ISU Congress

Say what? Are you kidding me? Are you really reading that headline correctly? Say it isn’t so!

But it is. South Korea, the country that presented a petition with two million signatures protesting the results of the women’s event at the Sochi Olympics – and which certainly wasn’t served well by anonymous judging – voted to keep it at the Congress, held in Dublin, Ireland this past week.

The proposal intending to do away with anonymous judging which has so frustrated and angered skating fans for the past 15 years or so, needed a two-thirds majority to pass at the ISU Congress. And the vote was very close, according to sources: 30 voted in favour of banning it, 24 were in favour of keeping it and two willy-nilly members abstained altogether. How can you not have an opinion on it?

Why is it so important to do away with anonymous judging? Originally, it was brought in supposedly to keep federations from pressuring judges at events, like the Salt Lake City Olympics. In reality, having such a clause isn’t going to stop federations from pressuring their own judges anyway. And the optics of it are terrible: it’s not transparent. Nobody can dispute results. Nobody can call things into question. It looks like a coverup. If there is anything that really bugged fans and people in the sport, it was this anonymous judging thing.

Case in point: The ISU disciplinary committee, in their ruling into the South Korean protest of the women’s Olympic event, were told by the ISU’s Officials’ Assessment Committee that the scores of Russian judge Alla Shekhovtseva were “within the acceptable range of scores.” Her judging therefore was not considered “unacceptable.” She got no assessment from them, with the panel deeming that her work was neither “biased nor partial to the Russian skater Sotnikova.”

I guess we have to take their word for it. We don’t know what this acceptable corridor was. Nor do we know which countries created it. In the old 6.0 days, the majority rule wasn’t always correct. A good referee would look at results of all judges and sometimes declare that a judge who was out of line had actually judged the event correctly and the others had missed it (or were perhaps colluding.) Everybody could learn how to be better from it.

While the fan base for skating is not in any way in trouble in Japan or South Korea, it is in other parts of the world, where skaters sometimes perform in empty rinks and TV deals aren’t what they used to be. This anonymous judging thing is vitally important to the future of the sport. Trust has been disappearing.

So what countries voted to do away with anonymous judging at the Congress? The ones you’d expect, mostly: Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Britain, Hungary, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, United States, Andorra, Argentina, Armenia, Boznia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Serbia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine, and a little more surprising: Russia, which has been well served by anonymous judging.

Countries that voted to keep anonymous judging, according to sources close to the Congress were: Austria, Sweden, Finland, Germany, both North and South Korea, all southeast Asian nations, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus, Georgia, Poland and Slovakia.

It’s entirely distressing to see countries like Sweden, Austria, Germany and South Korea voting to keep anonymous judging. Perhaps some members just don’t understand the implications? Do they want to keep judges’ scores secret? Why? What could possibly by in it for South Korea, especially with the 2018 Olympics coming up? The nobleness of their petition regarding the women’s event at the Olympics – at first they didn’t ask for medals to be reassigned, only that results be investigated “immediately and transparently” to ensure fair judging in the future – takes a bit of a hit, knowing that they want anonymous judging. It’s hard to comprehend. Open judging could have helped their case against the results of the Sochi event.

The Koreans must have been entirely frustrated in their protest and petition to the ISU. It certainly fell on deaf ears. First they were told that their original protest for a general investigation was outside the jurisdiction of the ISU disciplinary committee, who said a complaint must be directed at an individual or a federation. The committee invited South Korea to answer this. In total, it took South Korea 69 days to file the second one, against Shekhovtseva as the offender. Russia complained, because rules say you must protest within 60 days of the event. The committee countered, saying they had invited the Koreans to take a second crack at the problem and the second complaint was an amendment of the first.

Perhaps the Koreans should have thought more carefully about what they needed to take on. The new Korean complaint apparently dealt only with Shekhovtseva’s embrace of Adelina Sotnikova after the event was over. The problem with going after Shekhovtseva was that there are apparently no rules that prohibit her from judging, even if her husband is Russian federation director-general Valentin Piseev, according to the ISU. None of the rules apply to a family relationship, and Shekhovtseva and her husband weren’t officiating in the same event, the panel said. Perhaps it should. Isn’t that the spirit of ethics? (And no, perhaps federation presidents shouldn’t be judging their own skaters, as happens in other countries, which may not have enough judges to do so, by the way.)

The committee did note that “it would be obvious and reasonable to assume that she was under the influence of and had an emotional connection to the FSFR [Russian federation] in the pursuit of glory that a gold medal would bring to FSFR in an Olympic competition held in Russia. In a glaring testimony to the interest Shekhovtseva would have in the outcome of the competition, Shekhovtseva was seen embracing Sotnikova backstage …..”

Yet, the panel unravelled those assumptions. It differentiated between a judge on duty and off duty. (Who is ever “off duty” in ethics situations?) And they figured that Shekhovtseva was off-duty when she embraced Sotnikova. And the skater initiated the embrace, not Shekhovtseva. “A violation of the ISU rules requires a deliberate act,” the panel said in its decision. “The Alleged Offender [better known as Shekhovtseva], did not deliberately or negligently breach the rules. She responded reflexively.”

Boy they were splitting hairs. At the end of the day, the marks just didn’t make sense, and didn’t match what was seen on the ice.

The biggest question is: why didn’t South Korea ask the ISU to look into the actions of the technical controller, Alexander Lakernik, who is also a vice-president of the Russian federation? “Even a blind person could see the wrong edge of Sotnikova on her Lutz,” said one observer. “Except the technical controller and the technical specialist for whom the edges were correct. Nobody complained.”

The ISU should have appointed a special committee to verify the marks awarded by the judges and to have examined them. The rules allow this. The “extra” panel could have opened the mark vaults and evaluated them. But no, it’s easier for the ISU to ignore problems, especially if they want to avoid ruffling the feathers of Russia, a powerful voter in elections.

All in all, a sad day in the skating world.

Manley finding her true calling

Elizabeth Manley is a little engine that could. Her history reads like that and so does her future. Despite pestilence and famine, Manley chugs on, one blade in front of the other.

Evidence: during rehearsals for her Elizabeth Manley & Friends ice show in Peterborough on April 5, Manley broke her back in three places, when she fell from a lift. Her friends saved her from hitting her head on the ice. But she had an inkling, as soon as she hit the ice, that she had done some damage.

The Peterborough Petes’ trainer happened to be at the rink and began to treat her. Miraculously, she skated in the show. Later she found she had indeed fractured her lower No. 1, 2 and 3 lumbar vertebrae.

“It was the weirdest situation because when you’re falling and looking up at the ceiling, you don’t know you’re falling,” she said, remembering that she was held up by two skaters, fully laid out, with her face upwards.  “I didn’t know I was falling. It happened so fast. But I’m okay.” She had to pull out of a Kitchener-Waterloo 75th anniversary show that followed, the first time in 40 years that she’s had to bow out from a performance.

Manley’s number in her show was to Glass Tiger’s Alan Frew singing live. “Artists take it seriously when the show has to go on, it has to go on,” he said to the crowd. “Liz just had a serious accident during rehearsal, but she’s going to do her best.”

Manley went out and did not jump or spin. She did a corkscrew spin, but it wasn’t easy, because the pain was in her left side and she couldn’t do anything to the left. Doing crosscuts to the left hurt, too. Manley manipulated her body through the routine and didn’t go to the hospital. “You know me,” she said. “It’s my show. I’ve just got to keep going.”

When she returned home to Ottawa, she had Dr. Don Chow, team physician for the Ottawa Senators, examine her. Doctors put her in a protective brace for 10 weeks. It looked a little bit like a strait jacket, she said. “It’s not the prettiest looking thing,” she said. It had 15 velcro straps to keep it on. But she avoided surgery.

The show wasn’t just a show to Manley. Aside from being an attempt to create work for skaters, (“Skating is really tough out there right now,” she said), the show was her chance to give back, to help others “It’s my time to be able to make a difference,” she said. The show was in aid of community living in Peterborough, to raise money to help the intellectually challenged live in homes, and with some support, learn how to live on their own, how to cook, how to find a job. She fell in love with the charity.

Manley’s current work tends to centre around mental health and depression issues, conditions that afflicted her when she was a competitor. “I’m a firm believer that everything happens in your life for a reason,” Manley said. “My mom really made me a strong believer in that. I feel everything I went through with depression, my place is to give and to help. I tried to expose it with my book after the Olympics, and people didn’t really want to hear about it. I find my calling now is exactly what I’m doing right now.”

Even 26 years after winning her Olympic silver medal, Manley is busy on the talk circuit still. She’s talked at about 40 schools in the past season, and probably 20 to 30 other events. She’s spoken at a military families’ organization in Cornwall, and she’ll probably speak to a similar group in Alberta next year. She’s done some talks with the Coaching Association of Canada and Skate Canada, too. While still wearing her uncomfortable support brace, she spoke to 1,200 students at a college at Belleville, Ont. during the spring.

The topic has become much more open since Manley was dealing with dozens of issues as a teenager: the separation of her parents, being sent to Lake Placid to train and feeling very alone, losing her coach Bob McAvoy to illness, feeling like she couldn’t cut it. The stress caused her hair to fall out and she grittily competed at the 1983 Canadian championships in Montreal, not looking her best in a sport that treasures beauty.

“I’ll never forget it in 1983, when people saw me coming down the hallway of the arena, they just dispersed into other rooms,” Manley said. “They didn’t want to understand. They didn’t want to know. They didn’t get it. They were scared of it.

“It was hard, because I felt like nobody loved me and that is really tough on a teen and that’s what teens are going through today. They don’t feel loved for who they are. That’s how I was feeling. If I hadn’t embraced the help that was given to me, who is to say where I would have ended up?”

Athletes are always trained not to express their feelings, because if you do, you’re considered weak, Manley said. Figure skaters must always make the difficult look easy, to hide the sweat behind the smile. So Manley kept everything inside. That’s when her body physically broke down and said: “Stop.”

But with Olympic cyclist/speedskater Clara Hughes going public with her depressive issues and rower Silken Laumann speaking of her troubled youth, too, the tide has changed about mental illness. And it wasn’t until Manley started talking about her issues that she realized that it wasn’t just skating that caused it. Now, young people are her target, and she stresses to them to reach out for help, that they are not alone, that they can change their lives.

Sometimes, when Manley speaks at high schools, she’s seen teens begin to cry. It scared her, at first, because she feared she had scared or upset them. But then after the chats, the kids come up and ask to speak to her alone. “They literally say to me: ‘Thank you. Thank you.’” Manley said. “They say they are going through something themselves and I’ve made them realize they can get help and that they can change. And that’s what is so great.”

She’ll get emails from people telling her that her words are inspiring and heart wrenching at the same time. Manley jokes that she does it for therapy. “It’s very therapeutic for me to be able to express and tell what happened.”

It’s not as if Manley has found a straight path to a cure from her youthful depressions. She’s not always happy. Nobody is. When her mother, Joan, died five years ago, Manley hit rock bottom again. “Completely,” she said. She’s not afraid to tell people that she’s in therapy again, having had to deal with a lot of changes in her life. She’s lost her father, her mother, her dog, feeling a little lost sometimes.

“Honestly, when things get hard as an adult, doing these talks and speaking to people really brings me back to smarten up,” she said. She tells herself that if she could pull herself out from the bottom of her boots then, she can do it now.

People in society generally are under too much pressure, Manley said. Pressures to do well. Pressures to pay the bills. Pressures to have a life. Part of her talks to women include not being afraid of change or of starting over again. Manley seems to do it every 20 years: first the skater, then the professional, then the grownup, finding her way to the next step.

“With everything I’ve been through, I think my place now is to give and to help,” she said. “And that’s really what my motivation is right now. To help, especially our youth. I see so much going on with our youth right now.”

So once again, Manley is winning, always seeming to show up with a sunny, bubbly disposition, buoyed by her experience of how to cope with life’s bobbles.