As their stockpile of medals and accolades continues to grow — and the scores they post keep rising upward — almost inevitably a burning question begs to be answered when it comes to Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.
Perhaps it is the most vital question left to ask, and it is this: how much better can the reigning king and queen of the ice dance world possibly get?
That question was posed to the man who knows them best, the one who has guided them through the past seven years of their career. The response does not come easily from their coach Romain Haguenauer. He finds a definitive answer difficult to produce, given that Papadakis and Cizeron are both only 24 years old, with many years of greatness no doubt still ahead of them.
“It’s a bit difficult for me to answer that,” Haguenauer admitted. “Skating and ice dance is not just a sport. It’s an artistic sport, so there is no limit to that area of improvement. Yes, you have the technique, but you also have the composition, you have the artistic, and every year, it’s a new artistic project. Technically, they are at the top, but each year they have to put their technique at the service of the artistry. At their level, it’s what they do. And the reverse, if we have a new choice, like we do every year, to express that artistry and to be able to perform it, you have to improve your technique. Different lifts, different twizzles, different transitions … so for me, there is no limit to their improvement.”
The 2018-2019 season surely offered some evidence of that. The French team, who own the historical records for the short (now rhythm) dance, free dance and overall scores, spent the previous campaign raising the International Skating Union’s scoring bar from their first competition to the last. Four times they established a new standard for the overall total, pushing that number to 223.13 points at the 2019 World Team Trophy, their final event of the season. Along the way, they pushed the record scores for the rhythm and free dance to 88.42 and 135.82, respectively.
Papadakis and Cizeron also continue to win major titles at a dizzying rate. They claimed their fourth World title in five years in Saitama, Japan, and made it five straight European crowns with their triumph in Minsk, Belarus. Only a minor back injury to Cizeron — which caused them to withdraw from NHK Trophy, the second of their two Grand Prix events last fall — prevented them from possibly adding Grand Prix Final gold to that list.
It was as impressive a leap into a new Olympic quadrennial as they could make. “We had a really good season,” said Cizeron. “We couldn’t do both the Grand Prix events because I was injured, but we had some really good results. We liked the programs and everything went pretty smoothly. It was a nice transition season, but we still managed to do some programs that … we were able to challenge ourselves without pushing ourselves to death.
“It was a little bit more chill than the Olympic season, once that pressure dropped. It’s also nice to have time to plan the next four years and take some time to settle down and just think about what we want to do for the next Olympic season.”
In the wake of the physical and emotional strain that the season leading up to the 2018 Olympic Winter Games placed on Papadakis and Cizeron, Haguenauer thought it best to give his prize pupils an extended break before preparing for the next season. It was nearly August before they began the hard work toward a new campaign, and both skaters agree now it was the right choice for them. The results, if anything, bore that out.
“It was a good idea,” said Papadakis. “It was a bit stressful when the Grand Prixs started approaching because we were very, very late in our preparation. But we managed to do well, and this year we’re much in advance compared to last year, so it will be fine. I’m not worried too much. We always find a way.”
Perhaps most crucially, as Haguenauer pointed out, “they were very fresh, even at the end of the season. It was very important to start the Olympic cycle in this condition. It was a very easy season (in terms of stress) and it went really well. They performed at a super good level every time, at Europeans and at Worlds and even at the World Team Trophy. So I’m very pleased with that. They were more relaxed, but at the same time, very serious with the way they worked and performed.”
Maintaining that ability to stay “chill,” to use the skaters’ words, is something Papadakis believes might have been the most vital lesson to come out of that season. “It was important for us to re-think the way we prepare for competitions. We were way more relaxed, and now we see more of a big picture,” she explained. “It used to be ‘the next competition is the most important competition of my life!’ It was pressure all the time.
“But we kind of dropped that, and now if we’re not ready, we’re not ready, that’s it…it’s not the Olympics and it’s fine. We still have more than two years ahead of us. It was very important to think that way — it showed a more mature approach.”
One might suggest that, given their current elevated status in the ice dance world, there will always be pressure for Papadakis and Cizeron to produce something that is uniquely theirs each season. But it is a chase that excites them as they toil away during the summer months at the Gadbois Centre in Montréal — their training base since 2014 — and prepare to create new magic with Haguenauer and fellow coaches Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon.
“Honestly, I love this part of the year,” Papadakis told IFS in early July, when the couple and their coaching team were still in the process of building their new programs. “We’re going to the rink and we’re exploring ideas and searching for inspiration and it’s just so exciting. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, wow, we could do that! It would be awesome. I’ve never seen anything like that before.’
“The creative energy is the best. I love it and it’s my main motivation. And then we get to perform it in front of thousands of people — I feel very, very lucky to be able to do that. It’s not a dream for everybody but for me, it’s the way I want to live my life.”
But long before they are bathed in applause for the magic they produce on the ice there is the matter of finding that special vehicle. It is no small challenge, especially when you are four-time World champions, and the expectation level that goes along with that is about as immense as it can get.
Papadakis and Cizeron, however, hardly shrink or cower in the face of it all. Rather, it is their fuel and their driving force, and they crave the opportunity to take themselves and the audience somewhere new each time and each place they perform. It is, quite frankly, the only way they know how to be.
“We just try to keep being ourselves and do things that really inspire us,” said Cizeron. “It’s not hard to be inspired, but it’s hard to make it fit the requirements of the competition. We try to do things that feel natural but are a little outside the box — like something that hasn’t been done before. It’s not just trying to be different just to be different.
“It’s more being inspired to do something that hasn’t been done before, because it’s more exciting. It doesn’t make sense to do something that’s already been done by somebody else. It’s just about our vision.”
That vision has been given a unique test for the 2019-2020 season with the theme of musicals that has been mandated for the rhythm dance. “We probably would not have chosen to skate to that,” said Cizeron, adding “but you don’t really have a choice.”
Haguenauer, who crafted their rhythm dance, saw it as an opportunity to show audiences a side of Papadakis and Cizeron that they haven’t seen before — at least in a competitive program. “For Gabriella and Guillaume, we decided to pick the musical ‘Fame’ (a 1980s American production set in a dance school),” he said. “It’s a choice for them that is very, very different and we wanted it to be something that’s a little more fun than usual to show people that they can show a different type of self-expression and rhythm … I wanted, for them, something not very serious, so this musical I liked a lot.”
As it turns out, the skaters themselves had their share of fun with it, too. Papadakis said they are “excited to do it.”
“It’s the first time we picked something because we think it’s funny — not funny in a clown way, but just fun. Usually for us it’s something that is moving, it’s touching, it’s poetic. But for this one, it’s more like it’s funny, let’s do it, we’ll see how it turns out.”
Haguenauer said they wanted something different for the free dance, “something very artistic and very contemporary. It’s what they wanted to express, and we wanted to explore this type of program. I don’t think it has ever been done before this way … but if there is one team that can do it, it is them.”
The program set to “Danny” by Olafur Arnalds, “Find Me” by Forest Black and “Suspects” by Olafus Arnalds was choreographed by Marie-France Dubrueil and Samuel Chouinard. What makes it so different is the risky move the trio took to insert the spoken word in place of music in a section of the program.
RIDING THE WAVE
Their margin of victory at Worlds in Saitama was nearly 11 points and, to an outside observer, it would seem inevitable they will ride one long victory parade all the way to Olympic gold in Beijing in 2022. Just don’t suggest that to Papadakis and Cizeron, though, who are quick to note it will hardly be an easy path. “People always say, ‘Oh my God, you’re so much ahead of everyone else.’ I don’t think that’s true,” said Papadakis. “A lot of couples are amazing. I watch them and go ‘oh crap, they’re good.’”
It is fair to suggest, however — and in a way that is not disrespectful to their competition — that Papadakis and Cizeron have reached a point where they do compete, for the most part, against themselves. It is what the best in any sport do. Their standard is set almost impossibly high, yet they savor the opportunity to try to surpass it. “In the end, there’s scores and a result, but we’re not fighting against anyone. It’s really getting through the performance and leaving that moment,” Cizeron explained. “It’s pretty intense, and it’s also something we share between us two and the coaches. It’s a performance, and it takes a lot of commitment and trust.
“So, focusing on the others … that’s never really worked for me. I suppose it’s a source of energy for other skaters. People react differently during competitions. But I don’t really do well with competition. I’m tentative, but it makes me want to push myself more. When the competition comes, it’s about being grounded and focused and doing what you have to do.”
That is an ability that figures to get a test next March, when the World Championships come to their adopted home in Montréal. For Papadakis, the Bell Centre, the venue for the event in the city’s downtown core, is literally a 10-minute walk from her apartment. But it presents more of a challenge than one might think. “It could not have been closer,” she said. “Not only is it in the same city, but it’s in the same area. It’s crazy. It’s so weird. At this competition, it’s going to be hard not to feel like we’re at home. I don’t want to have this too relaxed feeling like when you’re at home. I want to feel like I’m away at a competition, and that’s going to be hard.
“We’re going to have to work on boundaries. I’m going to tell my friends to act like I’m in a different part of the world. I’m going to act as if I was somewhere else … not go to my regular cafés or stuff like that. Not do anything that makes me feel like I’m at home.”
Cizeron echoed that sentiment, saying “it’s kind of hard when it’s home because there’s a little bit of competition energy that’s not there.”
But the duo will be staying in a hotel with their French teammates, and Cizeron said they would not be seeing their friends and family “at least not more than usual. It’s just going to be a very nice party when it’s over.”
While he did not use the phrase “victory party,” the figure skating world expects that is exactly what it will be. Not only in March, but every step of the way to Beijing, where the biggest prize of them all awaits — the only one they have yet to capture. But there are goals to achieve along the way, and Haguenauer has found one in particular that interests him — something that is most worthy of he and his skaters’ attention.
“For them, the Olympics is the only title they don’t have. It’s the goal in two and a half years and they are working for that. But I don’t think it’s the only thing,” he said. “There are some World Championships before that to win and, if everything goes well, they can win the most ice dance golds ever. It is one of my goals for them to beat the record for gold medals at Europeans and Worlds.”
ON A HISTORICAL TRACK
Lyudmila Pakhomova and Alexander Gorshkov, who represented the Soviet Union in the 1970s and were Olympic champions in Innsbruck in 1976, hold the record for World and European ice dance titles with six of each. The opportunity is there for Papadakis and Cizeron to surpass both of those standards by 2022 (they could be seven-time European champions a year sooner by winning the next two).
Though Papadakis and Cizeron are aware of such things, they admit to only thinking about it when someone asks. That being said, winning titles and being the best in the world is the end goal behind everything they do, and they remain as enthused as ever each time it happens. “We love working, we love doing choreography and making things perfect and stuff like that. But you don’t want to do that for nothing,” said Papadakis. “We have this opportunity to win competitions and it’s the goal, right? It’s realistic, so we just go for it and we don’t question it too much.
“Just because we’ve won Worlds that many times doesn’t mean that it gets easier. It’s as hard now as it was the first time. Every year, there are good competitors and it’s also a battle with yourself, with the pressure in your head. It’s always a challenge for different reasons every time, and it’s always a big challenge.”
Cizeron suggests that winning all these titles has never been easy, just that the expectation level has changed, and the challenge is always there in some form. “It’s a different kind of stress now,” he said. “There’s the stress where you’re new and really don’t know what you’re doing, which is terrifying. And then there’s a stress where you kind of know what you’re doing, and you’re just really focused on doing a good performance and you know what you should be focused on. There’s still pressure because it’s a competition, and there’s the audience and that moment is a lot of pressure. But I feel like with experience, it’s a different kind of stress … a little less anxiety.”
Beijing figures to take all of that to another level, in what could be a crowning moment to end their careers. But Haguenauer, for one, is not convinced that will be the finish line. After all, Papadakis and Cizeron will only be 27 in 2022, and still in the prime of their careers. “It’s maybe not the last goal they are going to have, to win the next Olympics. Nothing, of course, is decided, but everything is open after that. It’s not automatically the end of their career,” said Haguenauer, who believes they could have another cycle in them. “I can definitely see them doing two more Olympics. I don’t know if they will do it.”
Papadakis and Cizeron, however, will not go so far — at least not yet. They prefer to enjoy the creative journey they will take between now and Beijing, and the decision about what comes next after that … that is for another day. “We’ll do the next one and then we’ll see. It’s hard to know now,” said Papadakis. “We weren’t even sure we wanted to keep going after PyeongChang. Maybe four years ago, I wanted to do PyeongChang and then retire. But then we did those Olympics, and it was obvious to us we had another Olympic cycle in us — we weren’t ready to retire, so we are going for another.
“But it’s kind of impossible to know beforehand. Some people are so tired that they won’t last another couple of years. So, I don’t know — I have other things I want to do with my life, too. We’ll see after the next Olympics.”
Papadakis and Cizeron are heading to the Grand Prix Final in Torino, Italy, next week, and are odds-on favourites to capture the title.
(Originally published in the IFS October 2019 issue)