French ice dance coach Romain Haguenauer has played a major role in the success of some of the World’s top teams over the last decade.
James Cowling caught up with Haguenauer recently to talk about all things ice dance in this exclusive interview for IFS.
How did you first get into coaching?
I was very young, 21, when I finished my skating career. At that time I never asked myself if I wanted to coach, but I had done quite a bit of coaching when I skated, so the transition was very natural for me. Skating is my passion and when I competed I had ideas about how to do things, maybe a little bit too much because sometimes it created tension. I always took charge when my sister Marianne and I skated together, but it was difficult at times if I said or did too much.
When I retired, one of my coaches also quit, so I said, “OK, why not take his place.” I began working with a couple I used to compete against. It was kind of strange to teach them at first, but everyone got used to it. It was funny but almost immediately I was on my way, I think.
You and Muriel Boucher-Zazoui have become quite a team. What makes the two of you click?
Muriel was my coach since I was 5 years old. So, of course, we are really close, like a family. We work very well together because we have the same tastes. But she is a woman and I’m a man, so though our views are different, we never argue, we usually always agree. I think we are a very complementary team. We know where we want to go.
Muriel has more experience, but I bring maybe more modernity, a different view of skating, especially since the new judging system was introduced. Skating has changed a lot in the last 15 years, and I think it has been easier in that time for me because I am a little younger. So it’s a mix of experience and the future. I think that is one of the keys to how we work.
What has been your greatest achievement so far?
There is a lot because for me everything is important. I started to work with Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat at the end of their career. They were so great.
Then it was Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, the  European and  World champions.
I also had great moments with the Canadians, Patrice Lauzon and Marie-France Dubreuil. It was really a pleasure to work with them not only because of the results they achieved, but also the personal relationship we developed.
What made Anissina and Peizerat, Delobel and Schoenfelder and Dubreuil and Lauzon so special?
Anissina and Peizerat were superstars in that they were technically good. They were passionate and had a lot of expression and maturity.
Delobel and Schoenfelder, their quality was that they were very good competitors and very athletic. I worked with them a lot on their lifts. Most of the lifts you see today were created by the three of us. At the end of their career we worked more on the artistic side because they needed it to be World champions. It was not enough to be the best technically. But their first quality was their power.
Dubreuil and Lauzon were very special. The incredible lifts they did were amazing. I was watching an old video a few days ago and I had forgotten how difficult their lifts were. Also their sense of fair play, kindness and the relationship they had on the ice and how they shared the emotion between them.
For me they were the last couple in the transition from the old system to the new. They blended what ice dancing was before the change with really difficult elements.
What was your reaction when you learned Delobel was pregnant in 2009?
It was a big shock. I was on vacation in Las Vegas when Muriel called me very early one morning. It was April 1st so I said, “I know you. It’s a joke of April.” But it was not.
How challenging was it to get Delobel and Schoenfelder prepared for the 2010 Olympic Games?
For Muriel and I it was easy to say, OK, let’s go, but at first it was really difficult to make them believe that it was possible to compete in Vancouver. We did a lot of work psychologically so that they really believed it inside them. We did the program very early and Isabelle skated until she was seven months pregnant.
It was crazy sometimes to see her do twizzles and steps because at seven months she was very big. The baby was expected in mid-September, but he arrived in early October. She stopped skating two months before he was born and for one month after.
Isabelle didn't imagine it would be so hard to come back after giving birth. She thought she would be fat but didn’t realize how difficult it would really be. She had absolutely no power in her muscles for three months and worked more than 12 hours a day between ice sessions and specific physical training that we had planned for her. So it was day-by-day, hour-by-hour.
In Vancouver we rented private ice and worked until the last moment. They performed really well at the Olympics for the level they were at. I think maybe with one month more they could have competed for a medal.
Now, more than one year later, I can say I am very happy because the story is nice that she could skate four months after giving birth. It’s incredible what she did. I’m very proud of what Isabelle accomplished.
Last season was a long one. How hard was it to keep Pernelle Carron and Lloyd Jones motivated?
It was difficult. When the earthquake happened in Japan we were on standby for one week, then two weeks. We all took a little break.
When we learned that Worlds would happen in Moscow, we had a little more time to work on details and on the new program. After Europeans we decided to start the free dance from scratch because the other one just wasn’t going over with the judges very well. For them it was not too bad, but we started at the same time to work on programs for next season, so for the coaches it was a little bit busy.
As a coach you invest a lot of time in your students. When skaters leave you, how difficult is that to deal with?
It’s part of the game. It’s always difficult, but it has happened to every coach. Two years ago there was a jealousy problem between Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat and Isabelle and Olivier.
Nathalie and Fabian were second in France, and they wanted to be first, which is absolutely normal. I completely understand that. They said they had to move somewhere else, but we said it would be better if they stayed with us.
At first we were very angry about the situation. But when one team leaves, another arrives.
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Meryl Davis and Charlie White have rocketed up the ice dance standings in the last couple of years. How do you and Muriel plan to catch them?
These two teams will be very difficult to beat because I think they are absolutely great and have exceptional talent.
Tessa and Scott, in my opinion, were fantastic last year but I think it will be hard this year to stay on top, as we saw at Worlds last season. They lost the title but she was injured. This kind of problem happens when you are at the top. But they are excellent, technically, and have great posture.
I think if they continue to compete they have a lot to bring to ice dancing. They have the maturity of being the Olympic champions. You skate differently after that than when you are chasing a title. To catch them, teams will have to be perfect because Tessa and Scott are nearly perfect.
It is the same with Meryl and Charlie. For me, they are more technical than artistic. They deserve to be World champions because they performed better than Tessa and Scott in Moscow. But the relationship between them on the ice I think is lower than the Canadians. They have emotion because of the performance but not real interpretation.
Talk about the rising ice dance stars in France and your plans for their programs next season.
We have for the future two excellent couples, Pernelle and Lloyd and a junior team, Tiffany Zahorski and Alexis Miart, who finished fourth at Junior Worlds. Both are very charismatic.
We’ll try to be different than the North Americans next season, to give a different expression with the choice of programs, and be modern. The goal is always to give something new, just as Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean and Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay did.
I started skating with the Duchesnays when they became French champions. They were lower technically than the Russians at Worlds in 1991 but they were able to beat them because they were able to show something new, something different.
2002 was a decisive year with the judging scandal. What were your thoughts at the time?
There was no question that Marina and Gwendal were the best at the 2002 Olympics, so we did not really understand the scandal that surrounded them. I can say, yes, there were some questions about the pairs event but for me it was not a question in ice dancing. Marina and Gwendal had won everything that year.
That scandal caused the judging system to change. How do you think it is working for ice dance?
It’s difficult to say as a coach. In one way it’s fairer. If you miss some elements you lose points. If you are better at elements, like twizzles or lifts, you get more points, so in this way it’s good. On the other hand, artistic impression is not worse than before but there is less diversity in what the skaters can show.
You look at a lot of programs and they are all very similar because of the elements. You see a lot of stereotypes in what couples show now, which is a pity, I think, compared to before.
What I hope is that stars like Tessa, Scott, Meryl and Charlie, the ones who have already achieved top results, will continue and try new things. They have nothing to prove, so I hope they will work on this to make the general level higher. Champions are imitated, so if they give the best examples of creativity, difficulty, etc., everyone else will follow.
If you could make one suggestion for improving the judging system, what would it be?
The judging system is good. Sometimes it is the judges who are not good and maybe do not use the system fairly. My idea for a long time has been that the judges should be professional. I think it would be better if they were more independent. Federations decide which judges go to competitions, so they are not really independent.
The ISU should have a professional cast of judges who have knowledge of what they are judging, because that is not the case sometimes. The current judges are not technicians; they were not coaches. They were skaters, sometimes not at a very high level.
At the European Championships I asked Didier Gailhaguet about rumors he intends to run for the ISU presidency. Do you think that would be good for figure skating?
Didier is the president of my federation so I know him very well. I can say he is a man with a lot of ideas about skating, and if he will be president I think he could offer a lot of new ideas. He’s not conservative. I think the ISU needs, and I don’t say they need Didier especially, but they need someone who wants the sport to improve and change because when it’s too conservative it’s not good for the public or for the media.
You’ve written a book called “Le petit ABC du patinage.” What is it about?
It’s a little book I wrote with Alexandre Navarro. We decided to do it because there is absolutely nothing written about skating in France except the biographies of some great skaters we had. So I decided to write this little book for kids and their parents so they can better follow skating on television and understand what they are watching.
Looking to the future, what would you like to be your greatest achievement?
I don’t know. It’s difficult to say. I’ve done a lot in 12 years. I have coached some World and European champions. I’m passionate about skating and working with high-level skaters. I love it. Year after year I always think, “Yes, OK, I’ve done that and now it’s finished,” but then there are always new things to do when new skaters come along.
I work with young teams that are very talented. I want to continue coaching and try to bring my young skaters to be European, World and Olympic champions if possible.
For the moment, I’m okay with that. I’m happy with my life. I don’t think too much about the long term.
Listen to the live interview.
ABOUT ROMAIN HAGUENAUER
Romain Haguenauer was born in Lyon, France. He and his sister Marianne were ice dance competitors for 10 years. They retired in 1996.
After graduating from the Université Claude Bernard in 1998 with a master’s degree in science, sport and physical education, Haguenauer spent a year teaching at a high school in Lyon and coached figure skating part-time. In 1999, he became a certified coach.
The 35-year-old has worked with Muriel Boucher-Zazoui at Le Club des Sports de Glace de Lyon for 12 years.
Originally published in October 2011