By Hiro Yoshida
Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot have seen their fair share of trials and tribulations in their three year partnership together, but despite all the obstacles they have had to face they have found contentment in their lives both on and off the ice.
The pair initially teamed up after the 2014 World Figure Skating Championships which Savchenko won with former partner Robin Szolkowy. Skating for France, Massot finished 15th with Daria Popova at the same event. Savchenko and Massot began training together first in the United States of America for a number of months and in October 2014 moved permanently to the Bavarian town of Oberstdorf to train under Alexander König following their decision to skate internationally for Germany. This involved a huge change for both partners – Massot was switching countries and Savchenko left her long-time coach Ingo Steuer. However, both of them have found the change a positive one.
“For 10 years, it was just practice, practice, practice,” Savchenko said. “You are so full that you cannot do practice any more. I did practice from morning to evening every day. Sometimes it was maybe too much. Of course, now I do the same, but I also have a different life outside of skating that I can enjoy.”
“At the beginning, I didn’t have her experience,” Massot added. “Of course, I had to work a lot to come to her level, but what was nice was that we worked together.
“The thing that makes you grow as a pair I think is that we have to see all the negative points of course and work on it, but if you don’t see any positive points you can’t work in a good atmosphere and in a good mood.”
After a well-publicised and protracted battle with his former federation in France to obtain his release to skate for Germany, Savchenko and Massot finally made their international debut 2015 Tallinn Trophy in Estonia. They then won German Nationals and picked up silver at the 2016 European Championships in Bratislava, Slovakia and bronze at the 2016 World Championships in Boston, U.S.A. in their first season of competition together.
The 2016-2017 got off to a cracking start with Savchenko and Massot winning the Nebelhorn Trophy, Rostelecom Cup and Trophee de France. However, during the latter competition, Savchenko sustained a torn ligament in her right ankle which required two months to heal. They were forced to withdraw from the Grand Prix Final and German Nationals.
They returned to competing at the 2017 European Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic where they came second again. At the 2017 World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, they improved on their 2016 performance to win the silver medal.
This season Savchenko and Massot have struck silver at both Nebelhorn Trophy and Skate Canada. They will compete in Skate America in Lake Placid this weekend and will be aiming to book a spot in the Grand Prix Final in Nagoya, Japan next month.
Their routines for the Olympic season have been choreographed by John Kerr and Christopher Dean. Their short programme is to the flamenco number “Ameksa – Fuego”
by the Taalbi Brothers, while their free skating is to “La terre vue du ciel”
by Armand Amar. Massot had his doubts about the music for the short when Savchenko suggested to to him, but he has finally come around.
“I didn’t feel very comfortable with this kind of music and dance, but I said, ‘Okay, let’s try it.’ Finally I started to feel good about this programme. There is still a lot of work to be done, but I think it’s going to be a pretty good programme.”
When one of their coaches, Jean-Francois Ballester, brought the music for the free to the table, the reaction was more immediate and unanimous.
“It’s music from the movie ‘Home’ and this movie is about nature,” Massot said. “We wanted to build a theme on this kind of story of nature. She is nature and I’m human.”
It is no coincidence that the pair worked with two former ice dancers on their routines this season. Creating more intricate programmes has also given them the added benefit of not having too much time to think about their big tricks.
“We work a lot on the transitions and choreography because we try to move like ice dancers,” Massot explained. “If you look at each of the elements, there is no preparation in front of them. It is difficult and we are still thinking about it, but it’s a very good point that we don’t have to think too much about the elements.”
Their work with 1984 Olympic ice dance champion Dean left them in awe at his creativity as a choreographer.
“We didn’t put in the programme all the ideas he had because it was impossible to put in everything,” Massot said. “We tried to keep the maximum of what we did with us. Most people last year told us it’s not possible to do better than our Patrick Watson free, but I think this programme will be better.”
For Savchenko, PyeongChang 2018 will be her fifth Olympic Games in a row with her third partner. It will be Massot’s first. As with Savchenko for the 2006 Olympics in Turin, there was the matter of Massot having to acquire German citizenship. At the Nebelhorn Trophy in September, he was fully confident that he would have his citizenship in order for February of next year.
“I don’t think about this. The federation and the people in the authorities all tell me it will be okay. I prefer to stay focused on the job and what we have to do. I prefer to work really hard and be ready to go than to be stressed and not work good and go.”
Massot’s trust was well-founded as he will receive his German citizenship next week. He is excited to be competing at his first Olympics.
“I was so close to going to Sochi. Finally, I will have this one and I will take the maximum of what I can there. I think it will be an amazing experience.”
Their triple Axel throw will be key to how successful their Olympic journey and season will be. The pair have found the element tricky to master and have made adjustments in their technique to include it in their programmes.
“The Axel is not like the other throws,” Massot said. “From my side, it is very difficult because on the other throws it’s easier with the position we have. I can really feel what she does and then I can really let her do her jump. With the Axel, it’s really very difficult to feel what she is jumping, to feel the rhythm, to feel the placement. Actually the throw quad Salchow is easier, but we want this Axel. We don’t want to be like the others. We want something different.
“All the throws the two first years were too high. We really worked on this. The throw is now longer rather than higher. It makes for her a very light landing, a very soft landing. It’s more difficult to control the rotation for her, but it’s easier to control the reception of the landing.”
While they have worked on the quadruple Salchow throw and quadruple twist lift, they are banking on the triple Axel throw for this season and have put all their efforts into pulling it off in both their competitive programmes this season.
“We prefer right now to put the focus on the Axel because even without quad twist and quad Salchow we still have a very good base value,” Massot said.
As well as finding happiness on the ice, Savchenko and Massot are in separate committed relationships in their private lives as well. Savchenko married Liam Cross in August 2016 and Massot is engaged to Sophie Levaufre. The couple hope to tie the knot in the near future either in summer 2018 or 2019.
“If it’s 2018, it will 26 July. Actually, we would like to wait till 2019 because then it would be 27 July which is the anniversary of the day we met.”
Savchenko believes that her partnership with Massot and move to train in Oberstdorf was fate that resulted in her marriage to Cross.
“I have really big luck and actually I am really happy that I decide to continue because if I didn’t decide to continue I would not have met him. Everything comes at the time when it should happen.”
While Savchenko and Massot initially teamed up with the aim of climbing to the top of the podium in PyeongChang, they have rediscovered the joy of skating and now believe whatever the result is in February it will not define the experience they have shared.
” I remember the big surprise we got in Boston for the third place after one year together,” Massot recalled. “She was crying like crazy because she told me it was one of the most beautiful medals ever for her.”
“I enjoy now and the work that we do,” Savchenko said. “We will do our best and that’s why for me I don’t think about this medal. I think about what I do on the ice. If gold comes from that, I will be happy. If we do in competition what we do in practice that would be cool. This for me is more important.”