When Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat were crowned European ice dance champions in Bern, Switzerland earlier this year, they had no idea of the impact their victory had in their French homeland.
“We went home for just a few days because our schedule was really tight,” Péchalat explained. “We were guests on some TV and radio sports shows and we also traveled to Castres [in southwestern France] to celebrate our gold medal with our club and our sponsor, Ictyane.”
The duo spent some time with family and friends in Lyon and with their first coaches, Anne Sophie Druet for Péchalat and Dominique Kernersson for Bourzat.
A week later, they returned to Moscow to prepare for the remainder of the season.
“In Bern, Sasha [Zhulin] and Oleg [Volkov] were very happy,” Bourzat said. “But just one hour after we got our medals, they told us that the European title was great, but being second or even first at the Worlds with such a performance would then mean something.
“They said that we were not ready at that time to challenge Meryl Davis and Charlie White [who defeated the French duo at the Grand Prix Final in Beijing in December] but that we had the potential to beat them at Worlds. The message was clear: work as hard and as crazy as possible and then, perhaps, catch them.”
In mid-February, Péchalat and Bourzat received an invitation to perform in a series of gala shows in North Korea.It was their second trip to one of the world’s most remote and secretive nations, having performed there in 2009.
The event, known as the 20th Paektusan Prize Festival, marked the 69th birthday of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il.
“We flew from Moscow to Pyongyang [the capital of North Korea] with Air Koryo, which operates three flights a week,” Péchalat said. “The other skaters included Evgeni Plushenko, Tomáš Verner, Surya Bonaly, Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov.”
Upon arrival in North Korea, they were required to relinquish their cell phone SIM cards to police agents. “We did not know why at first, but when we met with some French expatriates later in our stay, they told us North Korean authorities feared we would lend them to the local people, who would then use them for calling their relatives in South Korea,” Péchalat explained. “And, of course, we had no Internet access!”
The expatriates also detailed their lifestyle to Péchalat and Bourzat. “They told us how they lived in buildings with heavily controlled security access, which isolated them from the rest of the country,” Péchalat said.
“This was our second visit to this country. Traveling there was not a political act at all,” Bourzat added. “We came as open-minded people, who wanted to discover and exchange. Our hotel might not have been the best in town as we had hot water only three times during the week we spent in Pyongyang. Most of our meals were cold, but the rooms were heated.
“I noticed a large number of foreign cars including Toyotas and Hummers, that there was some food in supermarkets and there was no electricity shutdown after 8 p.m.”
Péchalat and Bourzat were chaperoned throughout their visit, except for two evenings when they met with volunteers of the European Union, UNICEF and members of the international non-governmental organizations.
“Two years ago we visited all kinds of memorials dedicated to the ‘Great Leader’ [Kim Jong-il]. Not surprisingly, we went on the same tours again,” Bourzat said with a laugh. “But this time, they added a trip to see an American warship, the only one they captured.”
Both agreed there were many surprises when it came to the ice shows. “Every routine was strictly monitored and rehearsed, especially the one when we had to bow to Kim Jong-il’s picture,” Péchalat recalled.
“Our costumes were carefully checked. The authorities were perhaps afraid we might show too much nudity. We were also surprised by the musical choices and the outfits of the local skaters. It was then that we could really see that we had very different cultural backgrounds.”
Bourzat, who was fascinated watching the audiences, explained how it all worked. “In a corner, there was an orchestra that performed patriotic songs at the beginning and end of the galas,” he said. “In the middle section, the high dignitaries were seated, and close to them were the ‘rewarded’ members of the Party. There were also some students dressed in military or folkloric costumes.”
There was no charge for the third and final show and no privileged access, Péchalat recalled. “These were the people who would watch the show again on TV as there would be many reruns of it on their only national channel.
“The best memory I will keep is perhaps when we practiced the final number. We had to switch partners and we, the foreign skaters, were totally accepted by the local group. It was a very nice picture, even though communication was difficult because they barely spoke English. But by showing or miming we were able to understand each other.”
More than just a simple border separates the North and South Korean nations. There is also an Olympic champion named Yu-Na Kim.
“A year ago, during the 2010 Worlds in Torino, we were on the same bus as Kiira Korpi. At one point, Yu-Na’s manager spoke to Kiira and invited her to participate in their shows,” Péchalat recalled. “Fabian and I looked at each other and said: ‘One day, our turn will come.’
“In February we were contacted by Yu-Na’s agency, AT Sports, through Brian Joubert [who performed in Kim’s gala in Seoul during the summer of 2010]. Yu-Na’s agent saw our performances in North Korea on YouTube and invited us to perform in the shows this May. We were on cloud nine!
“These galas are considered a dream for figure skaters,” Péchalat explained. “Some of our skating friends told us that they are the best produced and most well organized in the world and that you are welcomed and treated like rock stars by the fans.”
Originally published in June 2011