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Behind the scenes at Grand Prix France: Day 1

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Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Grenoble to cover Internationaux de France, the sixth and final Grand Prix event in the series before the Grand Prix Final. This is his behind-the-scenes look at the competition on the first day.

 

Soupe du Jour

Take the best and freshest vegetable on the market. Of course, you should use some pure spring water coming directly from the Alps. The best recipes request that you start early in the morning and boil those vegetable as gently as possible, not to lose their vitamins and nutritional power. Hopefully there won’t be any tomatoes (thrown to the skaters), but maybe we’ll find some iceberg lettuce along the way (although the ice is carefully wiped every hour or so). To add some taste, we can trust skaters to provide enough spice to it. These daily columns will bring you behind-the-scenes stories from the Internationaux de France, which are due to start Friday. They should be fabulous, as those two days will give away the last spots for the first Grand Prix Final of the Olympic quadrennial. Welcome to Grenoble, and thank you for joining!

Welcome to the French Alps!

Grenoble is hosting the Internationaux de France, the French leg of this season’s Grand Prix, for the second time. The city holds a specific place in itself, as it hosted the Winter Olympics in 1968. “Yesterday during our team meeting,” Team USA team leader Ann Barr said, “I played a message from Peggy Fleming to the team. Peggy is a good friend of mine, and she graciously accepted to record it for them.”

“I want you to know that Grenoble is a special place for me. This year marks the 50th anniversary of winning my Olympic gold medal in Grenoble. I hope it will be a special place for you also,” the Grande Dame of American skating concluded. Thank you, Peggy, and a big hello from “your” golden city! “Everyone was very inspired by her message!” Barr added. For sure!

Skating is a dangerous sport

“Where can you get your press accreditation?” journalists ask security when reaching the ice rink in Grenoble. “You’ll have to walk around the building and find the accreditation room on the other side,” they explain. “You can’t miss it, really, you’ll see a big sign stating ‘The Wolf’s Throat’” (or “La Gueule du Loup,” in French). Would skating be like throwing yourself into the wolf’s throat? Beware, skaters and journalists… Rest reassured, however, dear skating fans, “The Wolf’s Throat” is the name of the rink restaurant.

Warming up can be quite an event as well!

Skaters have access to the second rink of the Grenoble rink, on the side of the main rink where the competition is to be held, to warm up before their practice or competition sessions. The ice of the practice rink has been covered by plastic tiles for skaters to run and stretch. Thursday morning, just before the first practice session was due to take place, Russia’s Dmitri Aliev and Israel’s Daniel Samohin were already launching double Axels up in the air – skateless, just like ballet dancers. Canada’s Nicolas Nadeau even launched a back-flip right there, just to entertain himself and his coach, Yvan Desjardins, who exploded in laughter. Nadeau is coming to France for the first time. “The French should love him,” Desjardins said: “He’s such a showman!”

Nathan’s early Christmas

Nathan Chen is undoubtedly one of the main favorites in Grenoble. As he was jogging around the practice rink in Grenoble, he suddenly faced a Christmas scenery that was laid there. Chen didn’t hesitate a second and climbed its stairs, running across an igloo, a Christmas tree, a couple of deer, a polar bear and a wooden hut. Santa Claus however didn’t show up from there with any golden toy for him. Not yet, at least!

Chen’s dual career

Nathan Chen is not only the current World Champion, he is also a bright student, currently enrolled at Yale University. He managed to fit the Grand Prix into his heavy schedule… Thanks to the calendar of the event!

“Right now, it’s Thanksgiving break at the University,” he explained, “so I was able to fit this in,” he kindly explained just before the men’s draw. Still, Chen brought some homework (or, rather, “rinkwork”!), however, to Grenoble.

“My final exams are in two weeks. My Spanish final is next Tuesday, and I have a paper due next week. I brought my textbooks here. It’s a lot of new experiences!” He concluded smilingly. Don’t expect many interviews from Chen: as soon as his skating time is over, his university time takes over.

An American pair trio

It was a long time since Team USA last sent three of its best pairs to one Grand Prix event. It was due to be this year, however, as Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov, and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, were registered to take the ice in Grenoble. Unfortunately, Denney and Frazier couldn’t make it to Grenoble.

“They got injured just ten days ago,” John Zimmerman, who coaches them in Florida, explained. A big hello for them, however, the French audience will miss them!

An American in Paris

In a matter of two seasons, John Zimmerman and his team have managed to position their school in Florida as a premier location for French figure skating. In Grenoble, Zimmerman and Silvia Fontana are coaching Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès, who won their European and World medals under their tutelage (a bronze both at the 2017 Europeans and 2018 Worlds) and are strong favorites here, after their clear-cut victory at Skate Canada. They are also coaching French hope Kevin Aymoz and Maé-Bérénice Méité, the current French National Champion. “I have seen how much Vanessa and Morgan have improved in just a couple of seasons,” Méité explained, “and I wanted to join a real coaching team. I just found that in Florida.”

“It’s good for the group to have them all,” Zimmerman emphasized. “I’m happy to collaborate to make them feel confident, which will make them express themselves. But now we need to deliver!” he added in a smile.

Cheaper tickets for bigger volumes

The initiative needs to be promoted. “We have strongly dropped the ticket price of the event,” Gérard Balthazard, who heads the Grenoble skating club, explained. “It’s quite significant, actually: tickets are twice as cheap as last year! (they run from 5 to 30 Euros, or $6 to $36). We decided such a move together with the French Federation. But we should have quite a good surprise in terms of capacity. You know, you have to adapt to your market. It has been years since Grenoble hosted major skating events. The local audience has lost the habit of coming to the rink, and we need to change that. Also, the French leg of the Grand Prix has changed names, from the Eric Bompard Trophy to the Internationaux de France. So we need to install a brand new image and new habits in people’s minds.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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MORE: Grand Prix France TV/Stream schedule

Hirscher leads by 0.56 seconds after first run in World Champs slalom

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Marcel Hirscher swept into the finish area and wagged his finger triumphantly in front of the camera.

The message was clear: The ski king is back.

The Austrian produced an emphatic response to relinquishing his giant slalom title two days earlier at the world championships by taking a 0.56-second lead after the first run of the slalom on Sunday.

Only Alexis Pinturault of France was within a second of Hirscher, who was on course to win a record-tying seventh career gold medal at the worlds.

Marco Schwarz of Austria was in third place, 1.22 seconds off the lead.

Hirscher, the seven-time overall World Cup champion, showed no ill-effects from the cold that has been affecting him this week. After the giant slalom on Friday, he said he would be going straight back to bed to rest up for the slalom.

He looked in good working order on Sunday.

As the third skier on the course, Hirscher took 1.70 seconds off No. 2 starter Henrik Kristoffersen, who beat Hirscher to GS gold on Friday, and more than two seconds off Clement Noel, who came to the worlds in form after wins in Wengen and Kitzbuehel.

Save for Hirscher crashing, only Pinturault looks capable to denying the Austrian a third slalom gold at the worlds — something only the great Ingemar Stenmark has achieved. Pinturault was only 0.06 seconds behind Hirscher at the third checkpoint but he went wide at the first turn on the final descent and lost half a second.

“I’m still in the fight,” Pinturault said, “and still have a chance in the second leg. That’s the essential (thing).”

Daniel Yule of Switzerland was 0.28 behind Hirscher at the last split before falling at the start to the final descent.

Hirscher also won the slalom at the 2013 and 2017 worlds. A seventh career gold at the worlds would tie the men’s record held by compatriot Toni Sailer from the late 1950s.

Austria, a storied Alpine skiing nation, needs Hirscher to deliver in the final event to avoid finishing the world championships without a gold medal for the first time since Crans Montana, Switzerland, in 1987. The women’s team has already finished with no medals and that hasn’t happened since Schladming, Austria, in 1982.

Watch an encore presentation of the first run on NBCSN at 7:00 a.m. ET. The second and deciding run can be seen live starting at 8:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold.

Mikaela Shiffrin proving she’s in league of her own

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There are ski racers, and then there is Mikaela Shiffrin.

NBC Sports essayist Tim Layden calls Shiffrin the “rarest creature,” a prodigy who continues to get better with age.

Shiffrin’s stardom took off with her heart-stopping slalom gold medal in the 2014 Olympics. It looked like she would ascend to an even higher level four years later in PyeongChang when she claimed a gold medal in the giant slalom, but then she lost a battle with her nerves and failed to win a medal in the slalom. She did capture a silver in the combined event.

That Olympic disappointment has fueled her historic World Cup season. She became the youngest skier to pass the 50 win mark. She broke the women’s career record for slalom victories, and she became the first skier ever to win four-straight world championship titles in a single event.

A true prodigy indeed.