It was always his rink of dreams, a favorite patch of frozen water that was ever so familiar to Brian Joubert throughout his illustrious career. Today, when he gazes across that ice surface in his hometown of Poitiers, a city of 87,000 located in west-central France, it is filled with aspiring young talents the French skating star wants to guide along the same successful path he once walked.
Brian Joubert sees it all from a completely different perspective these days — that of a coach who could not be happier with his current place in the skating world. While he has not quite hung up his own blades for good, it is clear that his focus is in a different place now. “I love coaching. It’s so interesting and it’s so difficult,” the 34-year-old said with a broad grin. “It’s very difficult to be a coach, but I love it and now I don’t want to skate anymore. I still do some shows in France, but I want to be focused on my students and so I don’t practice. And if I don’t practice, I cannot do shows.”
Joubert last skated competitively at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, where he placed 13th in his fourth and final appearance on an Olympic stage. Immediately following the free skate Joubert retired from the sport. Throughout the remainder of that year he skated in shows and for a short while contemplated switching to the pairs discipline.
But, ultimately, becoming a coach was something he had dreamed about since childhood and was an “obvious step in my involvement in the sport,” Joubert said. “I have extended experience as a high-level athlete, and I hope to be able to pass that on to the next generation of French figure skaters.”
His biggest dream had always been to start his own skating school. That became a reality a little more than a year ago — and naturally it came to life in Poitiers, where he was based throughout his competitive career. Joubert’s club is now home to about 100 young figure skaters of all ages but the training environment is not exactly ideal in his eyes.
“The situation is a bit difficult because there are two clubs using the same ice rink,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of ice time, like three hours per day. But if we have good results, we will have more for sure.”
Joubert’s current prize pupil is helping with that push for more ice time. Adam Siao Him Fa, a 17-year-old from Bordeaux, enjoyed a breakthrough season on the Junior Grand Prix circuit in the fall, producing a gold medal at his first event in Armenia and a bronze at his second in Canada. That qualified Siao Him Fa for the Junior Grand Prix Final in Vancouver, where he finished just off the podium in fourth place.
Joubert said this success exceeded any expectations he had for his student at the beginning of the season. “I didn’t expect to be here,” Joubert told IFS at the Final. “It’s a big surprise. But I am so proud of him. I am very happy for my student and for the (French) team. I hope it’s just the beginning for him.”
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]″I love coaching. It’s so interesting and it’s so difficult.″[/perfectpullquote]
While all his current students are from his homeland, Joubert envisions a day when he will have an opportunity to teach young skaters from other parts of the world. “I would love to open a bigger school, an international school,” he said. “For now, I have French skaters, but I hope skaters from other countries will come. But I don’t want to be growing too fast. Step by step, and it will work out.”
During his heyday, Joubert enjoyed a well-earned reputation as one the sport’s most fierce competitors. That mindset went a long way toward making him a three-time European and an eight-time French champion. Joubert collected six World medals, with the 2007 global crown marking the pinnacle of his career. Many have suggested that athletes such as Joubert, who possessed great talent and a mindset to match, often struggle to become successful coaches — especially when they work with skaters of lesser natural ability. Joubert said he is very aware of this and admits it is a daily obstacle that he must work to overcome.
“The biggest challenge for me is that I was a skater, but my students, they are not like me,” he said. “So, I have to do what they like and give them what they need. What I needed — maybe they don’t need that. So, I have to know exactly my students. Sometimes, when you give them advice, one will understand and the other one will not understand. So, you have to change the way you explain things, and that’s very difficult. The quad jump was easy for me to do. But when I explain it to my students and they cannot do it … when I did it, I tried three quads and on the third one, I landed it. But it’s not the same with my students. Sometimes I don’t understand, but we are all different.”
Joubert said many of his students are keenly aware that their coach is a legend in French skating and know all about his many competitive accomplishments. “Because they know, I think it’s not easy for them. Because they know I’ve been World champion they are scared to disappoint me. They put extra pressure on themselves — they want to do so well because I am Brian Joubert. But it’s stupid to think that way … now I am just a coach.”
He believes his own personal ups and downs are a valuable resource in working with his skaters. And he is a coach that has many high-level experiences to draw upon — both good and bad — that not many others can claim. “The good point with my experience is that I did so many competitions — I did some good competitions and I did some bad competitions,” he said. “And now, I use my bad competitions (to provide lessons for) my students. So many things happened to me, and now it helps me to be a coach.
“After a bad performance, I just try to understand why it happened and I talk to my student. Maybe it was just a bad day, or maybe we made some mistakes in the practices. Then I just try to fix the problem.”
While his trip to the Final brought back some memories — Joubert claimed the title in 2006 — he said the stress he dealt with back then hardly compared to how he felt watching Siao Him Fa compete in Vancouver. “To be a coach, it’s more difficult, more stressful because you don’t control everything,” said Joubert. “You are outside of the ice and when you see your student going in a bad way, you just have to wait.”
The Final in Vancouver also provided an opportunity for Joubert to cross paths with Stéphane Lambiel, his old rival who is now also a coach. The Swiss star, a two-time World champion, was at the boards to watch his student, Japan’s Koshiro Shimada, claim the junior men’s bronze medal. Lambiel and Joubert had epic battles during their competitive days, most notably at the World Championships. In 2006, the Swiss skater prevailed by less than four points in Calgary, Canada. A year later in Tokyo, Japan, Joubert turned the tables, winning his lone World title, with Lambiel placing third.
Now they have begun to compete in a different way — at least in Joubert’s eyes. “I’s funny,” said Joubert as he pondered the thought of the two warriors duelling again. “We did so many competitions together, we did so many shows, and to be next to Stéphane for this competition, it was great. He did a very good job also at this competition. But next time, I hope my student will beat his.”
During his competitive career, Joubert was always a major proponent of the quad and believed it should be an integral part of any figure skating program. Seeing the explosion of quads throughout the sport in recent years makes him smile, although he admits even he is surprised by how fast the technical side of skating continues to grow and improve. “There are too many quads now. It’s difficult for the French skaters,” he said with a laugh. “No, I am so happy. I always said the future is the quad jump. Of course, it’s not only jumps — you need to have the confidence, too. But for the audience, to see skaters push the limits … maybe in a few years, we will see quad-quad (combinations) or quad Axels. That’s the sport. It has to be like this.
“It has happened so fast. I stopped in 2014 and one year after, it was crazy. I didn’t expect it. We couldn’t have had this level with the old judging system. Without the new judging system, we couldn’t do three or four quads in a program.”
Joubert said watching a skater such as reigning World champion Nathan Chen land five or six quads in a long program “is unbelievable. He does the quads, the spins, the steps, the transitions and the quads — they look so easy.”
He is also convinced the revolution, so to speak, is far from complete. “It’s always like this. When somebody does one thing, the rest of the people say ‘OK, he did it, then I can do it.’ And it goes like this,” he said. “When I was competing, it was the same. One quad, two quads … if he did two quads, then I can do three. We can push the limits like this. And it’s not finished.”
But that will be for other competitors to accomplish — perhaps, someday, maybe even one that he is training in Poitiers. It will surely not be Joubert, for whom competition is long in the past. When it was pointed out that one of his former contemporaries, Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi, was competing at his national championships, Joubert chuckled and said, “He is crazy. I cannot imagine myself getting back on the ice to practice every day. But he’s a great skater. His confidence is good, and he has all the triples, it’s so easy for him …I think he will try his best to be on the top level. I hope he will do it. I love him as a person, and I love him as a skater.”
As for Joubert, he has no regrets about his change of career. “I don’t miss competition,” he said with a smile. “I prefer to be on my couch watching TV. It’s much easier.”
(Originally published in the April 2019 issue of IFS)