In Peak Form
January 20, 2007
He made history this season as the first skater to land three quads in a single program under the new scoring system, and so far has taken the gold at every event he's entered. The twenty-two-year-old from France finally stands poised to reclaim his 2004 European title as the championship gets underway this week in Warsaw, Poland.
When last year's Torino Olympic Games left a disillusioned Joubert in sixth place, he rallied the following month to come in a close second at Worlds, after reviving The Matrix, an old friend and program he's always felt comfortable with.
Now the five-time French National champion displays the best physical conditioning of his career, and a mental edge of confidence that is less swagger and more certainty. After surviving a cavalcade of coaching changes, style difficulties adjusting to Code of Points judging, and the scrutiny of a disappointed French media, a tougher and wiser Brian Joubert has emerged, ready to rack up some big titles on the long road ahead to Vancouver.
Kathleen: Everyone was hoping for a big battle between you and reigning World champion Stephane Lambiel at the European championships. Suffering from burn-out he's withdrawn, leaving his future plans undetermined.
Brian: I'm not so happy with this news. I wanted to have a good fight with him during the competition. Of course, it is going to be easier for me with Stephane's withdrawal, but I still have to be focused because anything can happen.
Kathleen: During the holiday season you were able to skate in a big show held at historic Red Square in Moscow. By the time you took the ice it was snowing, and amidst the glowing lights and St. Basil's Cathedral in the background, it looked very magical. What was that experience like?
Brian: It was so beautiful to skate in Red Square at night. I was very proud because this show presented all of the Russian skating team - the country's very best - and I was so happy to be invited to be a part of it. The show was great, and I skated two numbers. I found it a little difficult because it was very cold and I could barely open my eyes on the ice with so much snow coming down. I only found out two weeks ahead of time that I would perform in Red Square, so it was a big surprise, and an honor. Getting back to France was difficult (laughing). I left quite early in the morning, around 6:00 a.m., to catch my flight at the airport, and in the process forgot my passport at the hotel. When I had first checked in, the front desk said they require that travelers on a Visa leave their passport with them. As soon as I got to the airport I realized my mistake, missed my flight, and got back into a taxi to head back to the hotel. However, the taxi dropped me off not at the hotel but a short distance away.
As I was standing in the street with my suitcase, two policemen stopped me, I guess because they recognized I was a foreigner, and wanted to see my passport. Of course, I didn't have it on me, but we couldn't find a language to communicate in. They took me to the passport control office, and over and over, kept asking for the document. This went on for an hour, and I was very nervous. Every time it was the same question, "Where is your passport?" I was alone, and even though I tried to speak with them in English, they were speaking in Russian and it wasn't working. Finally I showed them my skates, explaining that I was a skater. One policeman recognized me and then thankfully drove me back to the hotel to get the passport. Air France still had one more flight to Paris that day, so I was able to get home.
Kathleen: Why didn't you just make it easier on yourself right away and have them contact one of the Russian skaters? They're heroes in their homeland.
Brian: (Laughing) When I finally thought to show them my skates, I did. They didn't speak English but as soon as I said I knew Alexei Yagudin, they said, "Good, good!"
Kathleen: Alexei told me that at the Russian show you asked him to work with you again sometime, but he doesn't know what there would be left to teach you. I would call that a good compliment, probably stemming in part from your recent three-quad free skate. At Cup of Russia you became the third man, after Timothy Goebel and Takeshi Honda, to successfully land three quad jumps in a single program. Under the new judging system, you're the first. Tell us a little about that pinnacle moment in your career.
Brian: You know, before Cup of Russia I knew I could do it because I was able to often do it in practice. At the competition, I was first after the short program, and I was the last skater to take the ice for the free skate. I knew that all of the skaters before me did not skate clean, which left some room to attempt the third quad and even fail at it and still win. When I took the ice, I was focused only on the first two quad jumps, the toe and the salchow. As I was approaching the point in the program where I could insert the third quad, I remember thinking, "Do it. Even if you miss it, you have nothing to lose. Nobody else was clean, you can still win." When I landed it I was so happy, but it was hard because I really wanted to just stop the program and say, "Yeah, I did it!" but of course I couldn't and had to keep skating. I could feel the crowd was with me. The Russian people were so great, very supportive.
Kathleen: Back in 2005 at the Moscow World Championships, Evgeni Plushenko withdrew, leaving the door wide open for you to claim a world title. That didn't work out, and instead Moscow became one of the lowest points of your career. How important was it for you to go back and redeem yourself in Russia this season?
Brian: When I came in sixth at the Worlds in Moscow, it was devastating, and was definitely not a good memory for me. At that time I felt abandoned by many around me, in addition to losing an important event that held such an opportunity for me to win. I was very disappointed, and did not perform as I hoped to. Now to be able to go back and show my best for the Russian people was fantastic. I enjoy Russia, and felt that the fans supported me in Moscow and at the Grand Prix Final in St. Petersburg. At Cup of Russia Evgeni Plushenko congratulated me backstage, which also meant a lot to me.
Kathleen: It seems as if this last coaching change has worked to your benefit. How did you end up working with the former 8-time French National champion Jean-Christophe Simond?
Brian: Last summer my coach at the time, Andrei Berezintsev, announced one day that he felt he had nothing left to contribute to my training, and that he was leaving. I was not surprised. It had been his dream to go and coach in Canada, and so he moved there. One day my mother called Jean-Christophe Simond only to ask about my skate blades, because we needed to have something done and he knows a lot about these matters. She mentioned that I had no coach and asked if there was someone he could recommend. He recommended (laughs) himself, and so we became a team. I worked with him when I was 10 years old, and also sometimes during summer practices, so I knew him. He had never coached any big names, but in France he is very well liked, and is considered a good skater and trainer. Even in just the first few days we knew it was a great combination right away.
Kathleen: And he created some unique color-coded schedule for you?
Brian: Yes. From the beginning of the season all the way through this year's worlds, he has prepared a schedule outlining every day what I should be doing. Seeing it all on paper ahead of time makes it an effective plan. Each day on the ice I have two practice sessions, each a minimum of one-and-a-half hours, but they could last as long as two or three. We work very hard but everything is organized, as Jean-Christophe is a perfectionist. Now I know ahead of time what I will do at the tomorrow's practice and I come prepared. This is different from working with other coaches. Last season I would come to the ice and not know what I would be doing. This rigid system I enjoy. I don't have to think about it, rather I can use my energy to focus on my figure skating as Jean-Christophe always knows exactly what we will be doing and it helps my confidence to build.
Kathleen: On the day of the free skate at Cup of Russia, whose decision was it to attempt the third quad?
Brian: My coach is a lot like me. He said, "If you feel good, then go ahead and do it, and you'll see how it works for future events." There was no question to not do it.
Kathleen: This season has been fantastic for you; you've come in first at every event you've competed in, and congratulations on that. Take us back to February and talk about what the Olympics - where many considered you a favorite to medal - were like.
Brian: The Olympics are difficult even now to think about. I learned a lot after the Games. Now I want to be focused on the next ones in 2010, and to be ready I have to start now. We have almost three more years to work toward the goal that I missed in 2006. I made mistakes in Torino. My free program, Lord of the Dance, was not good. I liked the music, but the program was too difficult in some ways for me so I never felt truly confident in it. I should have fixed that. Also, Andrei Berezintsev was not a coach to get me to the top of the Olympic podium.
Kathleen: Two weeks before the Olympics, when you were doing last-minute training in Grenoble with choreographer Nikolai Morozov, he told me that you were not going to medal in Torino.
Brian: Nikolai was not alone. I did not feel confident that I would make it either. Nikolai and I had been close, that's why I chose to go back to him for my Olympics programs. But after he went and also worked with Evgeni Plushenko, I was hurt and disappointed. After Torino we parted ways. I'm not completely surprised he said I wasn't going to win, because at the time he told me I was bad technically. It was easy for him to see that. But really I was mentally bad. The program was too hard for me to skate well. If you look, for example, at The Matrix, you see that it starts very slow, then has a fast portion, and then slows again. In Lord of the Dance it was just fast-fast-fast! By the end of the first part and the quads, I was too tired, I was finished. I didn't really believe in that program.
Kathleen: You went back to The Matrix for worlds, and skated it brilliantly. If they had dropped the qualifying round requirement, which they have now, you would have beaten Stephane Lambiel for the title. Why did you not just go ahead and use The Matrix for the Olympics?
Brian: Looking back, I should have. From November on that season, my mother tried to talk me into it. Two or three days after the Olympics I decided to return to The Matrix for the world championships, and both mentally and technically I was able to skate it like it was back in 2004.
Kathleen: What was it like to face the French media after the Olympics?
Brian: It was very difficult. After Torino, I was disappointed. I finished in sixth place, and returned defeated to my home, Poitiers. It seemed that all of the French journalists - television and newspaper - wanted to kill me. Before the Games it was a honeymoon, everybody saying I could be the next Olympic champion, and that I was France's only hope for a gold medal.
Afterwards everybody had bad things to say not only about me, but about my family too. Before the Olympics I was treated like a god, and after it was like I was a criminal. By that I was surprised. I mean, it wasn't as if I had done something bad to anyone, I just didn't skate my best, didn't perform well. I didn't kill anybody. But they said all of these stupid things, and bad things about my mother's influence, that sort of thing. Thankfully I had some friends in the French journalism corps who could say that it was a bad competition, but they didn't crucify me - they were nice. Even the Sports Minister of France, who is the President of the Sports Ministry, said many negative things. I no longer speak to him, and I don't plan to.
Kathleen: On to happier topics. How is your bulldog Blade?
Brian: He's now a father! He's doing very well. About one month ago we bred him with another English bulldog and he fathered six puppies. Blade is a good dog, but I have to watch him closely outdoors because he doesn't like other males and will start a fight.
Kathleen: Six puppies? I would think you could definitely make some money advertising "Brian Joubert Puppies for Sale."
Brian: I hadn't thought of that, but we're not keeping any of them, so I don't know (laughing).
Kathleen: Earlier in the season you were quoted as saying that your father would be happier if you were a soccer player. Does that affect you?
Brian: It's true, he would like it better because he watches soccer all the time and doesn't like figure skating. He only came to events when I was young, but he didn't enjoy them and never wanted to come - we always had to ask him. In the beginning it was difficult for me, and I was sad, but now I understand. It's okay. I'm a twenty-two-year-old man and don't need that.
Kathleen: What's the nicest thing he ever said to you?
Brian: After I won the European title in 2004 I called home and he answered the phone crying. He had been watching the championships on tv. He said he was proud of me.
Kathleen: Had he said that very often in your life?
Brian: No. But it's okay, (laughs) because he's also like that with my sisters, not only with me. He likes to be alone, but he's a good father.
Kathleen: What's the best present you got last year?
Brian: From my fans, it was a Formula One T-shirt I received in Russia. From myself, it was the motorcycle of my dreams, a big, fast, Suzuki. Just got it two months ago. I'd like to take it on a road trip to the south of France this summer, but for now I've been riding it only close to home. It's really fast - 300 kilometers per hour.
Kathleen: To prepare for this season you've also taken up a new sport, fencing. I did that a few years ago and discovered two things: it's uncomfortably hot with all of the gear on, and it's surprisingly much harder than it looks. What has fencing brought to your figure skating?
Brian: I actually did some fencing in school back when I was young, I think nine years old, and I wanted to do it again. With both school and skating I never had time for other activities and had to let fencing go because of my skating schedule, but I always thought about taking it up again. Then over the summer I went to work in Toronto with Kurt Browning for new choreography. He told me I needed to become faster on my feet with the footwork portions, and that's when I thought of it. There is a fencing club in Poitiers, so I called the president of it and started training in September. One day I worked with the former French Olympic fencing champion, a woman, and it was really fun to play against her. I fence about two or three times a week. It's hard to do, but good for footwork because you have to move quickly with your legs. It's very similar to skating when you're fighting with someone. It's like when you have to do a big jump on the ice, there is no question what you have to do. When I fence and fight with someone - it's the same - I must touch them, I must beat them.
Kathleen: You certainly picked the footwork king when going to Kurt Browning. What was that like? Did you know him at all?
Brian: When I came to Calgary last year for worlds, I saw him working as a commentator with ESPN television. At that time I thought of approaching him to be my next choreographer, but never had the chance to speak with him. I had never actually seen him skate, not even on TV. But, I knew his reputation. We later contacted Kurt and he agreed to help me in July in Toronto. When I arrived he showed me some of his videos and for the first time I saw him skate, and thought his programs were extraordinary.
Everything was so clean, and the quality of his skating was so good. I loved his triple Axel - the technique of it and the height - he makes everything look effortless. When we first worked together he thought I was too slow, and said that I needed to speed it up. For my 'Metallica' free skate I selected the music for the beginning and the end, and he chose it for the footwork parts in the middle. For the season I have kept my 'James Bond' short program. After Euros, I'll go to Canada to work with him again and prepare for Worlds.
Kathleen: With World's being held in Japan this year, a couple of your closest threats - Daisuke Takahashi and Nobunari Oda - will have the home ice advantage.
Brian: I've beaten both of them, at the Grand Prix Final, but this will be their home ice and I know that will make it more difficult. If I do my job I believe I can win. Even being in Japan will not be enough to beat me if I do my job. I've improved and am stronger now both technically and artistically. With Kurt's help I'm using all of my body now, and I know how to use my blade for the skating to get better speed. The blade control has improved everything, not just my speed. The spins are better because I'm more flexible now and can do more positions. Off the ice I work on it everyday doing stretching and flexibility exercises.
Kathleen: How come we haven't seen you out there on the big skating tours?
Brian: I think it's always good to do shows because they are good practice for the competitions. For instance, I have two shows in Moscow the end of February. But a long tour can be too much and takes away from the training and my goal to do well at the competitions. After the next Olympics I hope to join a major tour, but until then I will continue to do occasional shows, but it's too much to tour while still an amateur.
Kathleen: Most unusual destination of 2006?
Brian: Turkmenistan. I traveled there to do shows for the opening of a new ice rink last May. We stayed one week, and it was just French skaters. It was strange. When you arrive you feel there is a lot of money, because the downtown area is very rich with a lot of growth and beautiful modern buildings. But just outside of that it is extremely poor. It can be a dangerous place, so I traveled with the organizers of the event.
Kathleen: Favorite movie of 2006?
Brian: I loved Casino Royale and really like Daniel Craig as the new James Bond. The action was so good, I think it is my favorite Bond movie ever.