It has been the trickiest dance of all for the French team of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, navigating the many challenges produced by a once in a lifetime pandemic and tangoing through times filled with doubt and uncertainty about what a tumultuous figure skating season would or would not bring.
Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron needed to find some calm within the seemingly relentless stormy waters of the past year. And with one major decision they made in January, the French ice dance duo settled the seas for what will be the most important year of their skating lives.
Choosing to skip the 2021 World Championships in Stockholm was anything but an easy call for the four-time World champions to make. But as they cast their eyes a year down the road toward the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing — an event where anything less than gold will not be acceptable to them — it seemed the most sensible one. “For us, it was a very strange feeling to consider not going to Worlds. We are so used to going to Worlds and that is what we wanted to do. Fighting for titles is always very important to us,” the 25-year-old Papadakis said from her home in Montréal. “But we talked about all the options and what is more important to us. Is it to compete at Worlds or become the best that we can be for the Olympic season?
“Training for Worlds and being ready for a competition in a couple of months — and having the first competition of the season be Worlds and be at a championship level in two months with no other competitions — it just felt like it was a big risk, with too many difficulties and too many struggles. Not a lot of good things for us. So, we said, let’s make the best of the situation. And when we made the decision, we didn’t know if Worlds would happen or not.”
Papadakis and Cizeron were aware that if the competition did take place it would do so in an empty arena in Stockholm, Sweden, with no fans in attendance. That held little appeal for the French team, for whom the connection with audiences has always been especially important.
“When you start thinking about no public at Worlds … how fun was it really going to be to skate in front of no one but the judges?” Cizeron asked. “Going to a competition knowing that none of our family members would be present, and no fans were going to be there, seemed a little sad.
“It’s a big part of why we do what we do. We love to share that moment with the public and a virtual audience is not going to cut it. It’s really not the same.”
There was also another factor looming in a large way over their heads. While Cizeron and their coach, Romain Haguenauer, both have permanent residence in Canada, Papadakis does not. Given the current COVID-driven travel restrictions in that country, it was almost certain that, as a French national, she would not be allowed to re-enter if they had gone to Worlds — or any other competition beyond Canada’s borders. It was a risk she was not willing to take, fearing it might jeopardize their preparations for the Olympic season.
“The uncertainty of that was too much for me to handle,” Papadakis said. “I don’t want, when we need to train for the Olympic season, to be stuck in Europe and not be able to come back home. I did not want to have to deal with that.”
Efforts were made on her behalf to speed up a change in her residency status, according to Haguenauer, but none of them bore any fruit. “The French federation tried to help Gabriella get this situation resolved, but it was impossible. It is still the same today,” he explained, adding they also got lawyers and the French consulate involved, all to no avail.
“It is the main thing that made them decide to skip Worlds and wait until the world restarts normally with a minimum of stress. They want to do good work and in this situation it was not comfortable for them, which I totally understand.
“They are already four-time World champions, and they want to be able to skate and be mentally sure of what will happen in one week, two weeks or three weeks. Their focus is the Olympic season, and they don’t want to miss the start of their preparation. That’s why we made this decision.”
Haguenauer, however, did make the trip to Stockholm, as one of four coaches from the Ice Academy of Montréal (I.AM) that accompanied the club’s 11 ice dance teams competing at Worlds.
For Papadakis and Cizeron, it was the second consecutive year they missed the biggest event of the season, both times for completely different reasons. The duo was extremely excited about 2020 Worlds being held in their adopted hometown of Montréal, but that feeling changed to bitter disappointment when the event became a casualty of the early days of the pandemic.
“We were really, really looking forward to it,” said Cizeron, 26. “Our families were going to come and visit. It was going to be a really great celebration. I am just sad that it was not rescheduled. It sucks but that is life, what can we do? We cannot control anything.”
Haguenauer called it “a big disappointment for them because they didn’t skate their best at Europeans. Coming back from the European Championships, they trained super hard, and they were super, super ready to win the World title in Montréal, in their home city. But it was canceled, and it was tough to accept. It’s not every day that you have a World Championships where you live.”
Shortly after that cancelation, the province of Québec went into a full lockdown to help contain the spread everything, we were quite reactive to the situation,” Haguenauer explained. “They did all their training online. They did six hours of Zoom instruction a day, and in between yoga, ballroom and theatre we did some work to prepare new programs. We found the music for the rhythm dance for next season, which was never performed in competition before. So, they were quite busy at home. I can say that when they came back on the ice after three months, everybody was quite in shape.”
Papadakis and Cizeron resumed on-ice training in mid-June, but a month later the pandemic became even more personal for them. Both were hit with COVID-19 in July after coming into contact with an asymptomatic person who tested positive a few days later. When they learned that news, Papadakis and Cizeron went to get tested, which confirmed both had contracted the virus.
“The day I went to get tested, I started feeling sick. I knew that I had the virus. It was not a surprise when I tested positive,” said Papadakis, who talked about having “a heavy fever for a couple of days. Like big, big fever like I have never had before. For a day, I had tightness and a bit of pain in my chest, which gave me a lot of anxiety … I would say I was sick for a week, something like that. For a month, I had a bit less cardio. If we had been in a moment of our season where we had to do run-throughs, it would have been really, really hard.”
Cizeron described his bout with the virus as being “similar to a bad flu. I was really sick for a few days with a fever and cough. I also lost my sense of smell, which came back gradually. Even now, it’s not fully back to normal. It is really slow. But other than that, I was kind of tired for a few weeks.”
The fall should have brought with it their annual season debut at French Masters in Villard de Lans, followed by their lone Grand Prix assignment, Internationaux de France in Grenoble. But owing in great part to Papadakis’ travel issues, they pulled out of the first event, while the second was canceled. In November, they chose to withdraw from French nationals and the 2021 European Championships (which was eventually canceled) and placed their focus on Worlds. It left them with an empty fall schedule.
While Cizeron had the opportunity to return to France for three weeks to visit family and friends — and celebrate his 26th birthday while he was there — the lack of competitions did little for the couple’s motivation level.
“It was very hard because we are so used to being on a tight schedule, and the season being very well organized. Our lives have always been like that,” Papadakis explained. “It’s hard enough to train for a competition that for sure is going to happen, but when you have to train every day and do run-throughs for something you are not sure is going to happen, it is really hard. And I was also really scared of leaving Canada, of not being able to come back, and a lot of things like that.
“It was a hard year for us, both in skating and in our own lives, as it has been for everybody. It’s been a tough season and we have accepted it, but sometimes we will go train for a week and not be motivated at all. That’s why we decided, let’s let go of this season that is ruining our mood and is so depressing, and move on to focus on the Olympics, which is more certain.”
Cizeron agreed, adding, “It was a waste of energy and unnecessary stress to prepare for things that were not going to happen. It is really hard to be motivated to train for something when, in the back of your mind, you are 50 percent sure it is going to be canceled. That is not a positive approach.”
Haguenauer also kept reminding his students of the Olympic goal and believed the time away from competition would allow them to further refine their skating skills and explore new ideas. In his mind, it was hardly wasted time.
“In a sport like figure skating, if you don’t have a short term goal like a Championship or a Grand Prix, you always have the Olympics in one or two years. Now it is one year,” he said. “We knew there was a big chance for events to be canceled, and it happened for the Grand Prix (in France). On the other hand, Gaby and Guillaume appreciated having the time to work on and develop new concepts. A regular season always goes by super-fast. It finishes at the end of April with the exhibitions and then at the beginning of September, you have to be ready again.
“So I spent that time working with them to improve their skating skills. We usually have no time to spend weeks working on that. It helped them to stay motivated, to work and to improve.”
Given how the entire season played out for Papadakis and Cizeron, who have not competed since the 2020 European Championships in Graz, Austria, it almost seemed normal they were not part of the group that went to Worlds.
By the time the 2021 pre-season rolls around, it will have been 20 months since they last stepped onto competitive ice, but Haguenauer, for one, believes the rust will quickly come off his skaters. “I have a positive outlook, and Gaby and Guillaume do, too. I am sure they have grown up from this and have taken the good things from it,” he said. “I hope the world will start normally this summer.
“They plan to start with the Masters in France, a B competition, then their two Grand Prix events and the Grand Prix Final. They have skated together for 20 years and they have the experience. Yes, when you don’t compete, it can be stressful, but they will have a lot of competitions before the Olympics to feel comfortable, so I am not worried about that.”
Papadakis believes that, if anything, this past year has prepared them to handle whatever the coming campaign throws at them. “Honestly, I have stopped hoping for anything,” she said when asked about her optimism level for the new season. “I am not in any way working in the government and I don’t have any more information than anyone has. I have no way of knowing what this season is going to look like, but we will try to be as ready as we can for whatever happens, and hope that the Olympics happen.
“We know that it is not going to be a normal season. I do not know how different it will be and how it will manifest, but I am ready for the fact that I don’t know what is going to happen. We will do the best with whatever happens.”
One thing Papadakis and Cizeron will carry with them into the new season is the memory of their last competition in early 2020, and the lessons learned from it. They arrived in Graz riding a streak of five straight European titles and had comfortably won the Grand Prix Final six weeks earlier in Torino, Italy. But shockingly, they finished second at Europeans by a scant 0.14 of a point behind the Russian team of Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, who they had beaten by more than 16 points at the Final.
Papadakis and Cizeron were left to contemplate their first setback since finishing in the silver medal position at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, behind Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
“We were mostly disappointed that we were not as ready as we wanted to be, but we decided to go anyway. They were not the greatest performances, and we just did not have a great time, but it happens,” said Cizeron. “Our mentality is usually to work hard enough so there is no place for it being close. This time, we knew we were not ready. We had some challenges in training in the few weeks before that competition.
“Considering we probably did three run-throughs
since Christmas, it was pretty OK. We were just in a low.
It is really hard to stay at the top for many years, and sometimes you forget why you are skating. It becomes a
little dark and it is hard to train. The silver lining is that it motivated us to not do that again and kind of address the issue.”
Haguenauer was also puzzled by the result, given what he had seen earlier in the season. “The beginning was fantastic. They won their two Grand Prixs and they won the Grand Prix Final for the second time,” he said. “But they arrived at Europeans maybe too tired. It is hard to tell. I had the discussion with them right away that night at the hotel, and I asked, ‘What happened?’
“They were not happy with their performance, of course, but they told me it was good that it happened because they were tired in one particular way. It is not that they don’t like to win, but it is the pressure of being the leader … and they have that pressure. With Gaby and Guillaume, it is not noticeable with them to have that feeling of nerves. They are usually really relaxed but inside, it is another thing, and that is what they expressed to me. So it is fine, it is good, too. It is normal. They have been, for a long time at a lot of competitions, close to perfection. Every performance has always been at the top, but it was not the case in Graz. We had to take that and work on it.”
And work they did, with the thought of redemption always front of mind as the World Championships in Montréal drew closer.
“It was hard not to win Europeans. We were disappointed, for sure,” Papadakis recalled. “After that, we went back to Montréal and started training like crazy people to win Worlds. We were very happy with that preparation, we felt very ready and we were excited about going to the competition, about trying to win and skating better than at Europeans. So it was very sad to end the season with a competition that we were not happy with.”
Now, however, comes the chance to write a new ending to a new season — with an Olympic gold medal in Beijing that eluded them four years earlier in PyeongChang.
While that competition was essentially between the French and the Canadians, it is likely to be a wider battle next year, with teams from the United States (Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates), and Sinitsina and Katsalapov.
“It is true that in 2018, there were two leaders who pushed themselves toward the top and maybe made the gap even bigger behind them. But years later, I think Gaby and Guillaume are maybe better than they ever were,” said Haguenauer.
“The problem is to win the competition. If it is close, it’s good. If it is not close, then it is a little more comfortable, but it is still a competition for everyone. I don’t know any athlete in any sport who was untouchable for their whole career. So that is totally normal and you have to accept that — and don’t think it is normal that you are 15 points ahead of your closest competitors, particularly if you don’t skate your best.
“I am pretty sure if they are at their best, they skate their best and they are well trained … I am not saying it will be easy, but they can win without a problem. I hope the other competitors will push them to be even better.”
Should that Olympics provide a golden finish for Papadakis and Cizeron, the question will be: Is that it? The 2022 World Championships are in Montpellier, France, and that may be too enticing to pass up. But after that, do they close the book on a rich competitive career? It is a decision both say they are putting off for another day. “We don’t want to decide anything right now. It might be (the end), it might not be,” said Papadakis. “We both agreed, since the last Olympics, to go for another four years and then we would see. We are both in that mindset of let’s do this season, let’s train for the Olympics and then we will see.”
In the past, Haguenauer has said he believes his prized students could have one more Olympics in them beyond 2022. But right now, he admits “it is hard to predict” what comes next for them. “Maybe it will be their last season. It depends on how they feel about preparing for another season. Maybe it will be the result and where they are after the Olympics, or what their feelings are. I don’t know. It is still open. I will be very pleased if they want to continue. You don’t have students of this quality every day, but I will also respect if they decide to quit at that time.”
Perhaps, if all is right with the world, their farewell will be met with wild cheers from an audience. It is Cizeron’s greatest wish for the season ahead. “I am just hoping there will be spectators at the events. Even if there are only a few people there, it will be better than if there is nobody,” he said. “Even if there are not a whole lot, it would be better than if you finished your program and nobody is clapping. This is what I am hoping.”
The team has yet to perform the two programs that were created for this season — music from “The Artist” soundtrack by French composer Ludovic Bource for the rhythm dance, and Jalousie “Tango Tzigane,” by Danish composer Jacob Gade, for the free.
While a new rhythm dance, set to hip hop music, must be constructed for the Olympic season, Papadakis and Cizeron are seriously considering the idea of keeping their tango free dance alive — perhaps with some modifications. “We might keep it for the Olympics, but we are not 100 percent sure. We still have time to decide,” said Papadakis. “We love it, so we will keep working on it and see where it goes. We will decide later if we want to keep it or make another free dance.
“A couple of weeks ago, we hit a point where we asked ‘can we do something else?’ We had not started doing any rhythm dance work and we were just spending three hours a day working on the same free dance — since June or July — so we were like ‘can we do something else?’
“When we work on our programs, there are usually highs and lows.There are highs like ‘we love our ideas, it’s amazing; I love this; I can’t wait to work on it.’Then the next week, it’s like nothing works, it’s the worst program in the entire history of ice dance. So then we started working on the new rhythm dance.”
The spectrum of hip hop music is quite broad, Cizeron said, leaving their creative souls plenty of room to come up with something both will find enticing. “There are so many styles that we could choose. There are literally hundreds of them. It is a matter for us of finding out what feels good in our bodies and what would be something that we would personally like to do.
“We are trying to get into the skin of being dancers. If we were dancers, what would we be doing? So that is fun. We have a lot of time and it is kind of fun to actually take the time and really learn and explore different styles of dance.”
It is surely more invigorating than a season of uncertainty, cancelations and worries over travel issues — the type of things that everyone involved hopes will be in the past by the fall of 2021, when the journey to Beijing and the 2022 Winter Games truly begins.
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