Figure Skating Interview : Romain Haguenauer
After we talked with Tiffany Zahorski and Alexis Miart at French Nationals in December, we went to meet their coach, Romain Haguenauer.
Annecy-Infosports : How many ice dance couple are training under you right now ?
Romain Haguenauer : A dozen, to which you have to add solo ice dancers waiting to find partners.
AI : You have had, in Lyon, the greatest European couples (except for Russians) and a famous Canadian couple. When will you coach Asians or Americans ?
RH : We have had a Japanese team. But Americans, never. They tend to stay in their country. We have had tries out between some of our boys and a few American girls, but they are don’t feel like staying. Europe is still the Old World in their eye. And they have all they need in their own country. But its is essentially because they don’t want to live away from their family.
AI : Since when haven’t you been to Worlds with a team assured to rank in the top 10 ?
RH : It will be the second time, after last year. (cf with Carron/Jones).
AI : Should you go back to figure skating yourself, all rules set aside, to what music or theme would you like to dance ?
RH : Oh no, I’m not going back to figure skating ! (laughs)
AI : Come on, just a try, « suppose » you go back to competitive skating…
RH : This is really not the right question ! I’ve been a coach for 15 years now, and I never regretted my choice. I really cannot project myself in such an eventuality.
AI : Then I am asking the coach, a theme that you dream of ?
RH : Answering is just as difficult for me because, precisely, these days, I’m right in the middle of the thinking process regarding musics for next season, and it is a real brain-teaser. I think we have already been through a lot of things - « we » as in figure skating as a whole -. To make the best of a programme, of its elements, and above all to be highly competitive, we are even more limited by the new system than we were in the past. It is very difficult to head for complexity, for something that would require a huge choreographic work, and the taking of new gestures, while remaining highly competitive.
AI : The ultimate goal is to get high marks…
RH : Absolutely. These past years, couples who tried to be more innovative with intricate choreographies, I’m thinking of Crone & Poirier for instance, were not rewarded. The difficulty of the sequences in their programme was phenomenal. It was Christopher Dean’s work, in his own way, i.e. without pause, without logical or easy impetus. And they lost some of their elements qualities. When you have excellent skaters, you can always try, but it’s a risk. Today, even the very best don’t take this risk. I’m not saying it is easy. On the contrary, what they are doing is very difficult, but there is no risk taken in the interpretation. What is physically taxing, is the interpretation. I’m not talking of expression, but of interpreting new things, through new body movements.
AI : Is short dance a new format you like ?
RH : No. Well, as a coach, work-wise, yes. It is still interesting because we work on compulsory dance in a very technical way. But I think that, visually, the redering is nil, a true disaster !
AI : A bastardized version of two former dances ?
RH : Totally. If I put myself in the shoes of a viewer, I can’t watch it. The skating authorities wanted to settle a dispute between the old generation, who still holds the reins of the ISU, and who did not want to give up on compulsory dances – not only them by the way, it was also the opinion of many coaches, including me - and the IOC who was imposing its suppression. We ended up with a Norman-French solution : not yes, not no. We keep compulsory dance but not really. And in passing, we slaughter one of the seminal works of our discipline : the original dance. Work-wise, on a stricto sensu level, compulsory dances are still there. I would even say that, in the short dance, they are now better skated, thanks to the key points effect, and to the necessity for fine precision in edges. What couples are doing now is technically much finer than before. But it is not what will make figure skating evolve. Nor would it made it regress if short dance was suppressed, because we work on practice patterns, on repetitions, in the form of exercizes equal to what former compulsory dances were. But I’m still in favor of supressing short dance, it’s a strictly personal opinion.
AI : Does the turn that ice dance took this past years suit you ? Without saying « it was best before », but…
RH : It always seems it was best before, true. I think that the programmes under the former system were a lot more spectacular, they were conveying a lot more emotion because it was the ultimate goal, the only goal in fact. Still, it had to be well performed. Today, the focus has switched completely. Maybe the technical marks are too decisive compared to the artistry marks. If only we could indulge in being a little bit less thorough on the elements… Well, if an excellent couple could take the liberty to be a little less competitive in technical components, maybe they would favor artistry.
AI : I’m afraid the average viewer can no longer get something out of it, since a lot of the technical difficulties aren’t obvious in the eye of a profane…
RH : Totally. I cannot speak for the average viewer, I’m too involved professionally. But, true, there is no more spectacle, except maybe with one or two couples. And still, they could go farther.
AI : What would you say to those who foretell the death of ice dance ?
RH : That I wouldn’t go that far, at least I hope, or I am out of a job (laughs). I would switch to a new type of employment but it would be hard (more laughs). No… Speaking of technical performance, what is being done is terrific. If you set nostalgia aside, you realize that, before, there was nothing ! For my skaters, who haven’t competed under the former system, youngs like Zaorski and Miart, who never even saw it on TV, when they happen to see videos of the Duchesnays or even of Anissina & Peizerat, their reflex is to say : « but they don’t do anything ! » Which is, in today fresh eye, true ! In today fresh eye only of course… At the time, there was a totally different difficulty in attitudes, research, dance, sequences, steps transitions, we were trying to be creative every single second. Today, programmes are technically rich, too rich, there is no room for constant creation. We can only throw a few images in the middle of a mass of elements.
AI : Who are the dancers who won over you the most in the recent past ?
RH : (he hesitates…) Hard to tell. My skaters have been directly competing against the best teams in the recent past, consequently, I didn’t have a 100% objective eye on them. I can’t say I have been flabbergasted by a couple who’d remain etched in my memory. Again, I no longer have the eye of someone who enjoys the show, I’m too much inside it. I admit that Virtue/Moir and Davis/White are fantastic. Technically, what they manage to do is incredible. OK, it’s the North-American style, you like it or you don’t. Add to that they are North-Americans coached by Russians, and you can’t expect a contemporary, innovative approach (from them)…
AI : It is a strange mix by the way, since North-Americans are generally expressing their emotions modestly when Russians are more into theatricality…
RH : Yes but with Russians, it’s the classical, tragic style…
AI : When you were yourself a skater, with your sister Marianne, who were your heroes ?
RH : (Instant reply) The Duchesnays ! When we started competition, it was the Duchesnays’ great era. I’ve known Torvill/Dean on video only.
AI : Torvill/Dean, it was in 1984…
RH : Marianne and I started to compete in 1986/87. Before skating with her, for 2 years I had another young partner whose parents had lived in Canada. They knew a lot about Canadian figure skating.When the Duchesnays came to France for their first Nationals in 1985, here in Lyon, my partner’s parents already knew them from Canadian TV. Since the very beginning of my career, I heard of them in very flattering terms, they were fantastic, brilliant. When at the time, they might not yet have been, it was their debut, they were ranked 15th at Worlds. But they were so different. As a matter of interest, my partner’s parents did their best so we would be the ones giving them their flowers on the National podium. I gave Isabelle her flowers. I reminded her of the anecdote a few years back and I don’t know if she really appreciated, it made her look older (laughs)… That’s how it all started. It’s true they were fantastic. I watch a lot of old videos and I still watch them often.
AI : They were indeed something big in ice dance. Torvill/Dean had already done some dusting in the discipline, but the Duchesnays were a revolution…
RH : Oh yes, really, a true revolution. Torvill/Dean, that was something already good but the Duchesnays were something else. OK, Dean was behind them but… I know a lot about Torvill/Dean, I watched all their videos, including their competitors. What they were doing was quite progressive, but not revolutionnary. The Duchesnays swept all the constraints away. Torvill/Dean were British, they had this refined and classy touch when the Duchesnays… Of course, I’m not saying they were vulgar, if they didn’t have this class, they had something else and it was something very impressive. The Duschenays are the reason why I came to love, to adore ice dance.
AI : Could you have skated in another discipline ?
RH : I tried individual skating. I think that… (he stops and laughs), I would have liked it.
AI : You had the required body type.
RH : Maybe, and since I was always fighting with my sister, maybe I would have been better off on my own (he bursts into laughter) ! No, I’m kidding of course… But I would probably have been reasonably good because I had good rotation skills when we were being tested, I was spinning very very fast. This is purely anecdotal !
AI : When individual skaters come to work with you, how do things go ?
RH : Always very well (laughs). Last summer we had Daisuke Takahashi. He is incredible ! He is exceptionally gifted. He had never practice dance off ice and we enlisted him in ballet, hip-hop sessions. You would have thought he had been dancing all his life. He has this innate musicality and he works relentlessly. To have him here was exceptionnal.
AI : Female ice dancers are often considered as being « divas ». Do you have to be more theatrical, more of an actor/actress than in other disciplines to succeed in ice dance ?
RH : That’s something I have been thinking about : with the new system, there are less and less divas. Tessa, or Meryl, aren’t divas at all. When you see them at competitions, they look very plain, laid back, very cute. The Barbara Fusar-Poli, Marina Anissina, Natalia Bestemionova were a lot more conspicuous. It’s no longer trendy. Except maybe Ilynikh, she oozes something special, she is superb… But she is still very young. I think the new system killed the divas. A diva is a girl who blows a fuse, who loses it, who cries, who screams. Today, with CoP, you have to be consistent, precise, as regular as a clockwork (he draws a square in the air with both hands), tic tic steps sequence, twizzles, you need to be Cartesian. When you practice, there is no room for feelings. It’s only repeating again and again until it’s perfect. This kind of rountine doesn’t attract people with an explosive temper. Fighting tooth and nail à la Marina and Gwendal, or Fusar-Poli and Margaglio, is no longer possible. Before, you could have a fit while practicing or backstage, then you’d get to the competition and everything would be fine again, there was none of this requirement for technical precision, this absolute and mandatory focusing that kills the feeling. Maybe it’s a shortcut, my analyze is as good as yours, but the requirements of the sport have changed and accordingly, those who now succeed are those who are rational, collected, Cartesian. Example : the Shibutanis. Not a hair gone astray. I saw them training in the US when they were very young. They never raise their voices. Somewhere it helps to perform.
AI : As a coach, do you miss divas ?
RH : Oh no ! We – I’m speaking for Muriel and myself – no longer accept what we’ve been through in the past. When a skater leaps aside, and it happens, they need to let off steam, we are now extremely intransigent (on discipline).
AI : When I listen to some of your colleagues, it sometimes seems they are afraid to see their skaters leaving after the slightest dispute or the first bad result.
RH : Unfortunately, there will always be people who leaves. It’s an immutable rule. As much as you will try, and I’ve seen it all, in France and elsewhere, written contracts, affective relations exacerbated to the max, which is massively wrong, etc., you will never be able to make someone stay if they aren’t happy. The door is opened both way, in and out.
AI : Is it something hard to deal with ?
RH : It is always very difficult to lose skaters for whose career you put 200% of yourself into, who you helped to evolve, who you watched growing up. You inevitably bond with them and « divorces » are always painful. Bringing a skater from his first steps on the ice to elite level is extremely rare because the coaching staff and the training organization must evolve along said skater’s increasing needs. Due to its history and great past results (notably with Anissina/Peizerat), today the Pôle de Lyon enjoys quasi-optimum conditions for elite work. This inevitably attracts very good skaters already trained but also others skating at a lesser level, that we try to make evolve. It was the case for, to name only the best known, Nathalie Péchalat, Fabian Bourzat, Pernelle Carron and more recently Zahorski/Miart and Elizabeth/Legac who all came to us when they were very young. To draw forth a potential, to get the best out of everyone, is an extremely difficult and highly specific task that rests with a vision, a strategy and that goes way beyond simply teaching to skate properly ! This is elite ice dance. This competence, hard to acquire and to retain over the passing skaters and years, is rare. All the coaches don’t have it, for multiple reasons : lack of professional experience, lack of stuctures in their club… ? But elite level must not be, in my opinion, an end in itself for everyone ! It is also very difficult and very rewarding to teach the rudiments of figure skating and ice dance. French figure skating in general needs good formative clubs like the ones you can find in Russia and in North-America, because I think we are becoming less competitive compared to these great nations.
AI : Is the problem resulting of the way detection is organized ?
RH : In France, to settle a real detection system is difficult considering our working conditions and our facilities. Figure skating isn’t a mass sport in our country. Real detection would be to pick up kids who haven’t yet started competition, to check them out, watch them, then to say OK, now we help them in a convenient way, we give them the real means (to work/succeed). Interesting actions are carried out by FFSG (French Federation) – National plan of League detection – there is some active detection but, for now, we lack some of the necessary means to help, to follow up, hence to educate more.
AI : Is it a matter of finances ?
RH : Yes essentially I think. The sport world, depending on the State subsidies, is consequently in a crisis.
AI : What are your duties as a technical executive in charge of Pôle de Lyon ?
RH : A part is training of course, as well as all the management in relation with the DRJS (direction régionale de la Jeunesse et des Sports – Regional Management of Youth and Sports), the atheltes’ social and occupational follow up, the follow up of their studies in relation with the federation. This is for the Pôle de Lyon. Then, I also have other missions with the federation. For instance, I am going to be in charge of the training of coaches in Nice before World championships, I’m teaching young coaches who have obtained their national qualification, and I’m taking care of the detection of young skaters in my regional league (Rhône-Alpes).
AI : Regarding Tiffany Zahorski and Alexis Miart, was their elimination at Euros qualifying round a handicap ?
RH : Not a handicap, no. But it was a shame. We had decided to outclass them as Seniors, a bet they could take up without difficulty. Alexis got injured and all their preparation was put off. This couple is extremely talented, but they have worked together for only 18 months, so they need competitions. They were perfectly ready, physically sharpened, we had done a tremendous amount of work after Nationals, particularly during the Christmas break . You saw them at Ice Dance Trophy of Lyon (in January 2012), their skating was very good. They had the hang of things in practice, they were as regular as a clockwork. And yet the clockwork went wrong in Sheffield. They made mistakes. They will learn, it’s a matter of experience. We talked about it later. A qualifying round is something difficult to handle, all the more so as they were favorites, they had to win. I think they projected themselves in what was next a bit too quickly. They are competitors who always commit themselves totally…
AI : They look extremely determined.
RH : They are. They really went for it and they actually went too much. On the first lift especially, he was too rough, she was as well in order to keep balance and they couldn’t stop themselves. It is a matter of experience indeed. The situation was serious but not (yet) desperate, had they been more experienced, they could have gone away with it, thinking « we just made a big mistake but now we’re going to be careful til the end ». There is no logical and squared explanation, it is the sequence of events. They were ready and fit, they had the willpower and they are talented. But greenness and lack of competitions this year served them badly. I made a calculation, roughly, every couple messed up at least one competition since the season started. The stress is harder to handle because of all the required elements. Before Euros, I had also enlisted Tiffany and Alexis in Mont Blanc Trophy (Italy – March 2012) in order for them to store up points and now they are losing the benefit of this event.
AI : Canceled because of financial difficulties, right ?
RH : Yes. Tiffany and Alexis are still very young. Tiffany is about to pass her baccalaureate (junior high school leaving certificate). She came to France 5 years ago and immediately entered a French school curriculum although she didn’t master French at the time. It was a bit difficult for her. Right now, she is totally into her studies, but of course she is practicing too. Her mind will be lighter once these exam is behind her. But they are both mentally mature in spite of their young age, and they are always very positive. We have had to be strict with Alexis at the beginning because, if he had ambitions, he was also a bit scatterbrain. But they already have a true charisma. And we want them to keep their freshness.
Alexandre Navarro, Romain’s life partner, joins us to talk about the book they co-authored : Le P’tit ABC du Patinage, (The Lil’ ABC book of Figure Skating) published by éditions Fleur de Ville.
Annecy-Infosports : There was no book on Figure Skating in France, for the expception of skaters’ biographies and photo albums. How did you make this, who did what ?
Romain Hagenauer : I did everything ! (general roar of laughter)
Alexandre Navarro : No , it all started because of another sport : tennis. I come from a family involved in this sport, my parents were in charge of the Tennis Club de Lyon, my mother was a coach. One day she phoned me to tell me that a publishing firm had issued a « Lil’ ABC book of Tennis ».
AI : I noticed it’s a whole collection actually…
AN : Right. When we got in touch with them, they had only published three books : about tennis, rugby and judo. I knew the author of the tennis alphabet book who advised me to call the publishing company. For these « Lil’ ABCs », the publisher was aiming at not too popular sports, for the exception of tennis. For that matter, they had issued a « Lil’ ABC of Football » (soccer), that didn’t sell well because of the high number of publications regarding soccer already available on the market. They are currently refocusing on more specific sports like rock climbing, rowing, archery, which aren’t necessarily highlighted in libraries. Fleur de Ville was very interested in our project when they noticed there was nothing available on figure skating besides a few biographies and photo albums as you just said.
RH : True, there was absolutely nothing…
AN : We found it interesting to do something else than a class book, (classically) educational, complicated, we wanted something that would appeal to the public in general. At the root, the project was rather designed for young children, 7 to 12. But we also thought of the parents, of a book that would explain figure skating very simply, of a translation of the language for the general public, allowing people who are watching a programme to know what is an element, a step sequence, a spin, a flip, a lutz. Our goal was to make figure skating more than a show, to make people see that behind the show, are important technical elements. We kept a language peculiar to the publishing firm, whe have had to go by what had already been written, to explain like you would do to a child but without making it sound like baby talk.
RH : I logically took care of what was a bit more technical and I didn’t want to simply say : « the axel is the jump that goes forwards », which doesn’t teach anything to anyone. I am a professional in the field, I wanted to be precise. Have you read it yourself ?
AI : Of course ! As soon as it was published !
AN : We had a a charter to follow, we had to define about a hundred words. I think we were the first for whom they used a larger format and glossy paper.
AI : The drawing are a success !
RH : The illustrator, Marie-Pierre Oddoux, is wonderful. We chose our words, wrote our definitions but she didn’t know anything about figure skating. For each definition, we found pictures on the Internet, for instance, three Bielman spins, the first ones that would show up…
AN : And she picked up the one she prefered for her inspiration. Then she sent us her drawings for validation, so we could check if it fitted the definitions. As for the choice of words, we opened an Excel sheet, we sat down and had a brainstorming together, and wrote down every word coming to our mind.
AI : There are crowds of terms, how did you make your choice ? The result is rather complete.
RH : I’m not saying that we had a hard time finding them but we had to search a bit all the same…
AN : We had to, yes. We had layout restrictions, for instance, there was a minimum of three words a letter, and it had to fit on a single page along with a drawing. That’s how Anissina/Peizerat became Peizerat/Anissina. No mor room at letter A, not enough words at letter P and we couldn’t let the Olympic champions aside ! About the method, we really shared the work in two. Romain took care of the technical terms and I was in charge of music, outfits, synchronisation, competition, Worlds championship, and all what was biographic as well.
RH : And we would proof read, correct each other…
AN : To see if we were keeping the same line of work.
AI : I made my research, do you know that in fact, a lot of adults have read the Lil’ ABC of figure skating ? Around me, some adults and even seniors, who have been watching figure skating on TV for years, were thrilled to finally have someone explaining them what was what. Nobody had ever done it clearly enough before. They were hearing about loops, salchow, lutz but couldn’t make a difference.
RH : Then it makes me happy because the jumps were my great problem, it is very difficult to describe them both clearly and synthetically.
AN : Rather then dissecting everything in professional terms like « inside, outside edge », we wanted the readers to picture themselves skating, going backward, leaning on the left, and so on…
RH : I chose this trick because it was descriptive and eloquent.
AI : It is indeed very clear and educational. Congratulations, it is really neatly done. Everybody had told me it was a very good little book but rather for children. After I read it, it’s the adult in me who say kudos.
RH : Our publishing company is a small organization, so we have also worked a lot to get it known. Today you can find it in large distribution networks, like Fnac. But at the beginning, the book was mainly designed for skating clubs, children and their parents.
AN : Our luck, compared to the other Lil’ ABCS’ authors, is that figure skating is a small universe where Romain is professionally well established, he knows many people. This is what allowed the book to be presented by Nelson Montfort on TV (NFTT : Philippe Candeloro wrote its postface). This book was also, for Romain and I, the opportunity to work together, to have a mutual project, since our regular jobs are in different fields.
RH : Alexandre knows a lot about figure skating nonetheless. He is very interested in my sport. Anyway, I would never have had enough time to bring this project to fruition on my own.
AI : In every case, congratulations to both of you for bringing this super little book to completion.