Peizerat still 'Peaking'
It was a gorgeous afternoon in rural France when I caught up with the 2002 Olympic Ice Dance Champion, Gwendal Peizerat. While we talked, a shirtless Gwendal relaxed in the sun. In the background, Mrs. Peizerat (his mom), busily attended to her duties as den mother extraordinaire of the French tour. The combination provided an endearing sight and snapshot into the rich closeness of family life and show skating, French style, and a contrast with the dynamic life of adventure Gwendal has undertaken since he and on-ice partner Marina Anissina's victory in last year's Olympic games. The tour, - Les Etoiles de la Glace (Stars of the Ice) - was coming to a close after a successful thirty-city run. The atmosphere was decidedly casual as some of the world's top competitive skaters - Sasha Abt, Stanick Jeannette, and Brian Joubert - kicked around a soccer ball in the long grass.
Kathleen: Gwendal, how has life changed for you and Marina since winning the Olympic gold medal, now that some time has passed?
Gwendal: "Since becoming Olympic champions, we've stopped training for competitions, and we have a lot more time and opportunity to actively participate in things that people ask us to do. When I'm in training I have to say "no", but now I feel more free and more available. I feel more in charge of my life when dealing with things and having a busy schedule, but I run it myself. Usually when we were skating and preparing for competition, everything was so tight that I really couldn't decide on things."
"The biggest change was right after the Olympics. We did all the tours and such just like as usual, and it was longer, but because we didn't have to go back to the ice to train in the fall. I decided to go and hike in Ecuador. I went there and did three high mountains about 25,000 feet - in meters it was 5,000, 5,800, and then a 6,300 - the highest point on earth if you referenced it to the center of the earth because it is so near the equator. In a way, it's higher than Everest."
Kathleen: So these are snow covered peaks...
Gwendal: "Yeah, ice covered!"
Kathleen: Oh, so you had to use cramp-ons and all of the special climbing gear?
Gwendal: "Everything - it was impressive!" (laughs)
Kathleen: Here you are, a newly crowned Olympic Champion. What made you want to take such extreme risks?
Gwendal: "I don't feel it was anything risky for me - it's just things I want to do. Really, risk is in your own mind. If you just do things very quietly with people that are really precise in their work, you can manage the risk. I went there with my aunt; the trip was actually a present from her for my gold medal. The Christmas before the Olympics, she gave me a letter saying that if I won a gold medal, she would in return grant me a trip "far and high". And we went together - she did it too."
Kathleen: What was that experience like?
Gwendal: "I was very interested in the climbing, and in the preparation, you really find yourself. In the way of controlling your emotions, and in the concentration, you can find all that you have in competition really. When people ask me well, "Do you miss competition?" I say "No, I don't" and maybe the reason is because I have something new to replace it with. My next project is in the Himalayas (for a 7,500 meter climb). I'll do it with skis on - both going up and down! Then in October, there's another peak I'm looking at in Nepal. It's only 3,000 feet below Mt. Everest."
Kathleen: I've flown airplanes off the Kahiltna Glacier on Mt. McKinley in Alaska, our highest peak in North America, from a place at about 7,000 feet where the climbers would set up base camp. Like skating, mountain climbing is a fascinating sport. People frequently say that elite ice skaters have big egos, but I would say of any single group I've met, the mountain climbers have the biggest egos - just a huge overwhelming sense of self. Did you also find that to be true?
Gwendal: "Yes, that's what I really didn't like. When we got there, my feelings were we should all be there as a team and helping each other. I just find this way of competition between these people that want to be the first up, find the best route - it's a competition I don't need now. I don't need that feeling of beating the others. What I find is that you have to be very concentrated and you have to feel yourself, and believe in yourself to do stuff like that, but, (laughs) the ego thing I don't like. Maybe I've got it too, but I don't feel like I need to have a big ego to succeed in life. I'm trying more to share with the others."
Kathleen: So often with ice dance it seems that in many couples one person is dominant, one partner is clearly better. Yet with you and Marina, it appears an equal match. How did you find and maintain that?
Gwendal: "Its hard to find and it depends on which way you're looking at it. We're so different. We bring out different parts of each other and to the programs. Some would say Marina is dominant; some would say I am; and others would say 'they skate as one person'."
Kathleen: In the skating world, the public sees the rock star life - the jets, luxury hotels, international travel, and filled arenas. What's the down part of that life? What is the unglamorous side that remains hidden from the audience and fans?
Gwendal: (laughs) "Everything - especially the constant practice. But the big thing that is unique to our sport is what also makes it the hardest, and the most interesting. That is every season you have to go back to the start. You start from ashes every year, because you have to find a new idea, a new way of expressing yourself, new elements, new lifts, and find the idea that will take the audience with you. It's very hard and very interesting too at the same time. It takes months to decide, and when you finally start the new season you can't predict what is going to happen. You create something and try to sell it to the audience, and wonder, will the people like it or not?"
Kathleen: Is there a program Marina and you created that you both loved, that you thought everybody would be crazy about, and then it just completely fell flat? They didn't see it the way you saw it and you had to abandon it?
Gwendal: (long pause) "Beethoven's Last Night in 2001. Great at the start, a very strong idea, it could have been a winner. The problem is that you can't master everything, so that was very difficult. Also, when you've been winning everything the year before, there is a tendency for people to not want you to win again. It's like, 'Okay, they've had enough'."
Kathleen: I thought Alexei Yagudin put it well when he said it's much easier to fight for the title than to defend one.
Gwendal: "Yes, I agree completely."
Kathleen: On the converse, is there a program you weren't sure about that in the end worked out?
Gwendal: "No. Well maybe, yeah, with show programs. Not with competition programs. You just can't get to a competition if you don't believe in the program - if you don't believe it's good. If you do so, you're dead already."
Kathleen: You've done choreography this year (The Little Prince) for Stanick Jeannette. Did you enjoy this?
Gwendal: "Yes, I couldn't believe at Europeans, being next to him when he won the bronze. I was so amazed! I was feeling even more excited than when I was winning a program!"
Gwendal: "Because you don't have that pressure before that goes down right after competition that makes you feel almost like you've been drugged (laughs), you know? You see people so happy to win a medal. You're next to those people and you've got all that energy that you didn't let go during the program. The skater let's go of his energy when he's out there skating, and you're at the boards filled with this energy. This guy you've been working with and love, seeing his face and that he gave everything for himself and for you, you feel the joy that's just exploding inside. I was shivering. I had goose bumps. It was a great night and I loved it! I couldn't believe that you could get that kind of feeling as a coach or choreographer."
Kathleen: What do you think of Nikolai Morozov's choreography?
Gwendal: "He's a good worker - very good. The kind of guy that didn't have the chance to have really good results as a skater, and he has so many good ideas to give to the sport. He's interesting."
Kathleen: You're very expressive. Your command of English is so strong. Do you read a lot?
Gwendal: "Yes, mostly now about building yourself, self-help things, both in English and French. I also just read The Alchemist which I really liked. A spiritual fable for all ages - not unlike The Little Prince."
Kathleen: It seems then like you're on a journey of sorts...
Gwendal: "Definitely. After the Olympic podium it's like "Okay, now what?" It's frustrating because that part of life is done and the question becomes, "Now what?" I didn't have that feeling as much as others because I knew having this medal was just an opening to the door of Ali Baba's cave of riches - but from the inside. We'd been inside that cave, with all that gold and jewelry, and you don't see the light but you can take the gold with you. You can look at it, take it with you, and put it in your pocket. I did that. I saw the gold, opened the door, and my pockets are full of that wealth from being inside something like that and building myself all these years. Now I see the light and I have time to do all I want."
Kathleen: That's such a unique perspective. Other Olympic champions endure a huge let-down after winning. What would be your advice to skaters who experience the sometimes inevitable let-down of having accomplished their life's dream so early in life?
Gwendal: "Try to be a champion, but more importantly, a champion of your own life. And I would say to believe that everything you learn along the way will prove to be useful afterwards. So don't just try to be the best without knowing how you did it, be aware of everything you do and what will be useful later not only as a skater, but in your personal life."
Kathleen: To what do you attribute your and Marina's global appeal and popularity?
Gwendal: "I hope that it is our skating quality, and the fact that we've got an unexplainable way of making people feel something different. I don't know what it is. A lot of people tell me that they don't understand really where it comes from. They speak to me using the word "magic", so maybe it's impossible to explain how we've been working together and working out our own emotions on the ice. With a couple that is not dating each other, and being so different, we are two people that see life in very different directions and when we are on the ice together, it is another story. It's not Gwendal, it's not Marina, it's something else. I don't know...it's magic."
Kathleen: I've proposed to U.S. television producers a show called "Adventures Off Ice". This would depict figure skaters performing outdoor activities of an adventurous nature. Would you be game?
Gwendal: "I'm in - I'd love that! I have an idea for it - a secret," he said with a grin.
Gwendal then clicks off the tape recorder and shares his idea - something so unusual, he would be the first man on the planet to accomplish it. For now, let's just say it definitely involves ice - and lots of it. In fact, tons and tons of it!
Annisina and Peizerat can be seen next performing October 25 & 26 in Japan. In addition to their busy winter appearance schedule, they will again headline the French tour, with over fifty performances, beginning April, 2004.