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Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron on training with three American ice dance teams

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Three-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron started a trend when they moved to their Montreal training camp. Now, they train with three American teams – which includes their top competitors.

After winning their fifth consecutive European Championship title (no other team had ever won five in a row), they sat with NBCSports.com/figure-skating to discuss how they see ice dance changing since they’ve come to dominate the field, what it takes in order to do so for so long, and how to keep things fresh.

The world championships are in Saitama, Japan from March 18-24. Papadakis and Cizeron are chasing their fourth World title.

You’re now training with three American teams – Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. How is it going?

Cizeron: The atmosphere in the Gadbois rink has not changed. It’s still quite a sportive one!

Papadakis: They were already good friends before coming to Montreal. You can feel that Madi and Zach, and Madison and Evan had a good relationship together. It’s not like they would compete against one another and were acquainted through competition. They had a sheer appreciation of one another. Each one is quite friendly and has a lot of respect for the others. Each one works his or her best. Each one is fun to share the ice with.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue were the first ones to join you: how did you see them improve?

Cizeron: Madi and Zach are relying on speed more than on glide. Their approach has been unique.

Papadakis: They were coming from quite different backgrounds than ours. They have more of an American approach, they went to hip-hop and opened several other fields. They really exploded at the highest level with their short dance to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” They had such an incredible connection to this program. They may have discovered at that point the huge capacity they had to be connected, which in fact very few teams have. They’ve developed from then on.

MORE: One-on-one with Hubbell and Donohue before Worlds

How do you train together? Do you feel like everyone is following your lead as the pioneers in Montreal? 

Papadakis: We have the ice from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Each one of us has one’s share of it for three to four hours. That allows us to practice together – or not.

Cizeron: We don’t really feel that we would be leaders there. Each one has one’s own style, and that’s what matters most. You keep your eyes concentrated onto your own work, really. Daily routine is always the same: you have some runs, you have some exercises to practice, you have some private lessons. There’s no surprise. You just support each other. It’s just like what we do at competition: you are concentrated on your own work. If you think of what the others are doing, then you’re doing your job!

On the bigger scale, do you see the landscape of ice dance change under your leadership?

Papadakis: We don’t try to make the sport change. But we certainly don’t want to follow paths that have been already opened by others.

Cizeron: It’s the same question as who, from the chicken or the egg, which came first? Do we win because we’re doing what we do, or do the others follow the doors we’ve opened because we win? It may be something we’ll realize later, when we have more perspective. The real challenge for us is to renew ourselves, and never be contempt with what we do, especially as we’re opening a second chapter in our career with this new quadrennial.

The good thing with ice dance is that you learn your technique forever. Once you get your steps, you keep them for life.

Papadakis: It’s not like with ladies, for instance: you don’t lose your choctaws at puberty!

MORE: Hawayek, Baker on what Montreal means to them

What does it take then to stay at the top in this sport?

Cizeron: Of course, you need to preserve oneself, both physically and mentally. Have a superlative team. Then keep your curiosity and will to learn. Just as in any field when you want to perform.

Papadakis: As success comes, you need to give up things. Then you may fear to let go things that were key to your success. Will it work the same way, if you leave them away? The new things you take on board have not proven themselves. But don’t be frightened. We could certainly make up a list of everything that works and get points, and derive a formula for success. Maybe some do that. We can’t. We’re not into marketing.

Cizeron: In fact, durability is also a fight with people’s opinions. We’ve always changed costumes many times during the course of a season. People told us: “No, don’t it’s so good!” And then once we had changed, they would say: “Oh yes, it’s better!” You need to believe that you can always do better. You need to believe in your instincts for that. That’s a major point: listen to your instinct and never doubt it. You’re growing and encompassing different phases, just like in your life. Some things become more important. Our coaches listen a lot, and then they have a filter and a funnel to decide what to discuss with us.

Papadakis: We’re lucky to have several faces in front of us. You’re better off with five people making a decision than with just one.

Cizeron: Then we need to devise programs that will please us and will please the audience. We like to bring a density, a depth to every program. We love movement, we love dancing extremely, both of us. We don’t do things because they are trendy. When we skated to Mozart concerto, in 2015, it was not that trendy. But people loved it. We created a kind of a fashion, without even knowing it.

Papadakis: Still we need to pay attention: we may create a fashion, but we shouldn’t stay in it. You can’t create a fashion and be stuck with it.

Fashion designers do take the trends they perceive in society, and they create a fashion to push them forward. Aren’t you saying that you are aiming at becoming like the fashion designers of ice dance?

Cizeron: Ice dance may not be an art, but it’s an artistic field. Fashion needs to be renewed all the time, just like for clothes. In order to succeed, you need to be fully yourself, but not stick to the same forever. If you’re too much of yourself, people will say “they don’t change.” We aim at creating timeless pieces. We would like to create fashions, not trends. A dress designed by Christian Lacroix may become out of fashion, but still be remarkable on anyone. Those who follow fashions are easily forgotten. Those who create them are remembered forever. We don’t really invent anything. We listen and observe, we go to theater and ballet and to the movies. The whole process is not a conscious one, but that’s how it works.

MORE: Chock, Bates planning on peaking at world championships

As a reminder, you can watch the world championships 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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Vanessa James, Morgan Ciprès mark sport with innovative and rewarding lifts

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Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès were the first French pair to win the European Championships since 1932, and the first non-Russian team to claim gold there since 2011.

The pair also won the prestigious Grand Prix Final title in December in their first appearance at the event.

Now, they could be well on their way to what would be their first-ever world title in March. They’ve stood on the podium at Worlds before; last year, they earned a bronze. But could a world title for James and Ciprès spur their retirement?

They sat with NBCSports.com/figure-skating following their European Championship victory to contemplate such a question.

One year ago, you mentioned that you wanted to retire after the Games, especially if you won one Olympic medal. Where do you stand now?

Ciprès: We would definitely have retired if we had won an Olympic medal [laughing]. We are very happy of the decision we made to be on the ice again this year. We had an amazing start of the season. We won the Grand Prix Final, which was amazing. It was our first Final and we were really happy to be there and win with a big fight in the long program. Our European title was also an accomplishment for us. We may have felt old, but now we’re young winners! As sportsmen we want more. We’ll keep going… Until there’s no more!

James: It’s always difficult for any athlete, physically, mentally and emotionally, to give everything you have and not to get the results you were aiming at. Winning like this can continue for four more years without any problems [laughing]! I’ve not done all this stretching for stopping now. But we’ll take it one year at a time.

What is the creative process for your lifts? What drives you to be creative and make them special?

James: First, I work a lot on flexibility with a rhythmic gymnastics coach. It’s not easy, when you are 31 years old. She also helps me strengthening my back.

Ciprès: I go with her sometimes [smiling]… To encourage her!

James: We also work on extensions and on our body lines, so that they don’t look like broken lines during the lifts. We aim at presenting extended legs during the lifts and landings, even when I hold my foot above my head: the other leg shall be extended. So that’s a different perspective from what we were used to.

Ciprès: I must emphasize Vanessa’s imagination and research capacities. She’ll go look on the Internet from gym, circus, roller skating or any other field. We discuss what she found, and try when time permits. I did bring our final lift, the one when I hold her in lunge position. But she brought the lift on an outside spread eagle. That one is really difficult for me. It requires a lot of energy and control. She also created the choreographic sequence, when I hold her on an inside edge.

James: I thought that it would be neat if we could do that, but I didn’t want it to be counted as a lift. I tried with Morgan, then with John [Zimmerman, their coach], and it was so cool! So, we included it in the choreographic sequence.

Ciprès: At first that one would take me as much energy as a real lift! Now it’s almost a moment of rest in the program – well, almost.

It seems that pair skating is taking a lot from ice dance – positions, transitions, steps… Is it a trend you are pursuing yourself?

Ciprès: We get a lot of inspiration from ice dance, it’s true. But ice dance gets a lot of inspiration from us as well, most notably in lifts! They are doing more and more acrobatics, and a lot comes from us pairs. May I tell you? At French Nationals, two dance teams came to me and asked me to teach them one of our lifts! They’ll have to deserve it, though! [smiling]

Some years ago, you said that you wanted to push the sport through more difficult jumps, like quad Salchow or triple-triple side-by-side combinations. Now you’re pushing the sport with lifts?

Ciprès: Indeed, we wanted to mark the history of our sport with our attempts of the riskiest elements. The other day Vanessa saw another competitor landing a throw jump with her arms over her head. That’s something we started, and we have to take it as a compliment. Actually, keeping the quads off means also less risk of injury. Landing quads day after day in practice was physically exhausting and very risky.

What do you think will determine victory at Worlds?

Ciprès [straight-faced]: What will be done on that day. We’ll have to do it.

James: One key factor will also be in the evolution we make in our programs until then. They need to evolve constantly. When we skated our programs at Autumn Classic, early in the season, we had good feedback. But these programs have been intensified so much since then. At each competition we’ve come up with better elements and increased transitions. We need to continue on that trend. I’m sure all our competitors will be in great shape in Japan, whatever can be heard now. We’ll have to be better anyhow.

Ciprès: The main difference now is that we concentrate on ourselves much more than on our competitors. The game before was to see how we could get one point over them. That’s over: we come up with what we need to be the best.

MORE: Jason Brown didn’t think he’d make PyeongChang without a quad, sees season as stepping stone

As a reminder, you can watch the world championships 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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Armed with new attitude, Michal Brezina is having his best season yet

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Michal Brezina of the Czech Republic said that the PyeongChang Olympic season would most likely be his last, though he opted to continue competing. This season, two silver medals on the Grand Prix circuit brought him to the Grand Prix Final, where he finished fourth.

At his next major event, the European Championships, he finished seventh and sat with NBCSports.com/figure-skating to discuss his California training base, what it’s like day to day at the rink, and his aspirations for the rest of the season.

This year is like a resurrection for your career?

I guess you can say so… It’s been definitely better than all these last seasons [laughing]. All this comes from the work I did with Raf [his coach of three years, Rafael Arutunian].

This really made a difference? You already were quite an excellent competitor before…

All the stuff I did with him definitely helped me be back to where I once was. Not to say that I had lost everything I knew when I went to him. But he had me practice the right way. I can see the difference of the way I practice within myself now. And it starts showing in competitions.

How would you describe it?

When I practice, I actually enjoy being on the ice now. It’s not “Oh my God, I have to do this again!” That attitude makes it much easier for me. It makes a whole difference.

How does it impact your performance?

When you enjoy what you’re doing, things are definitely getting into your body quicker, and it becomes automatic again. If you do things because you have to do them, they won’t be integrated the same way.

And yet you still practice, jump, skate the way you’ve always done?

This is true, I still do the same things, but the way I approach them is completely different. The way Raf puts it is completely different from what I was used to. He made me work on lots of little details.

For instance, one of the first things he told me was: “You need to have a base you can always fall back to.” Of course, if your base is too low [he gestures with his hand], then you can’t expect to achieve anything in competition.

You need to practice as high as possible, so that your base is high enough for competition. You have to understand that you can’t compete at the level you achieve at practice. Things don’t work like this. In a competition you’ll do about 90 percent of the program you’ve practiced for. That made a major difference!

Rafael Arutunian seems to be able to turn around the careers of many skaters: Adam Rippon, Ashley Wagner. They both made strong comebacks after training with him. Is it the same with you?

Yes! His system works really well. It all comes from skating.

If you use your edges, it becomes much easier, as you don’t have to rely on your power. That’s particularly important for older skaters. Look what Nathan [Chen] is doing: he relies on his power so much. Which is quite normal – when I was 19, I didn’t have to think much, because I had power. I just did the things I had to do! Older skaters need to use their blades more, because we don’t nearly have the same power.

What did Nathan bring to you, when he was training in L.A.?

Nathan was with us for three weeks during his winter break from Yale University. It was so nice! We could push one another much more while he was there. When he is not, the only one I had [to skate with] was [French champion] Romain [Ponsart], but now he is injured, so I’m alone.

You don’t like to be alone?

Let’s say it’s much harder for me to motivate myself. It’s not as much fun. Last summer things were so much easier, when the whole group was on the ice at the same time. There was Nathan, Romain, but also Marin Honda, from Japan, and Lim Eun-Soo from South Korea, and lots of younger skaters. You push yourself a lot more and that makes things much easier. The group we have is so helpful. You really get to push each other.

Did training with Nathan help you?

I learnt a lot from Nathan. One thing was to fight for every jump. Even when he starts with a wrong take-off, he just wants to land it, no matter of what. Which is right! Once you take off, you do have to land it! You have no choice, right?

Raf pointed that to me one day: “Look how Nathan is doing,” he told me. Technique may not be there, but he will go for it anyhow. Then his body will learn how to land whatever the take-off is.

That’s a huge asset: in competition he can rely on the fact that he knows how to land a jump. Even though a jump is a little bit off, you can still fight for it.

This gave me lots of inspiration. For the four seasons before I went to Raf, I didn’t fight for my jumps when the take-off was not good, in full honesty. I would let them go. This all changed when I came to Raf.

Although you were already a great skater, you agreed to all these changes.

Of course! You can’t keep going like this without having a clear vision of what you want to do. If my heart and mind were not fully in it, I wouldn’t be skating like this. It’s your decision to keep doing it. It’s for you to decide if there is something you still want to bring, or if you enjoy it. If you don’t put your heart and mind in it, it’s hard.

That’s what happened to me after the Sochi Olympics: did I want to go, or not? My heart was in skating, but my mind was outside, so it was hard to find the balance. Now I know what it is that I want to do, what I want to show, and I enjoy it very much.

Do you have specific ambitions for the rest of this season?

Just go and do it! Do what I do in practice: I may do more, but I can’t do less.

MORE: Alexandra Stepanova, Ivan Bukin on the rise with unique parental perspective

As a reminder, you can watch the world championships 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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!