By Hiro Yoshida
The sudden death of their coach last season made for difficult times for Austria’s Miriam Ziegler and Severin Kiefer. Less than twelve months on and with a European Championships on home soil looming on the horizon, the pairs team are looking towards the future and fulfilling the ambition he instilled in them.
On 2 December 2018, Jean-François Ballester, or “Jeff” as he was known to many, collapsed at his home in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland and died from a heart attack. Ballester had been a key part of the team that guided Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot to pairs Olympic gold in PyeongChang, Republic of Korea in February last year. He had just returned from coaching Ziegler and Kiefer to victory at the Tallinn Trophy in Estonia and the news sent shockwaves through the skating world. Ten months later, the Austrians recalled how they heard Ballester had passed away.
“We all flew back Saturday and then on Sunday we talked to Jean-Francois’s partner,” Kiefer said. “Bruno called us the next day. We usually change our skates before nationals. We were on the ice breaking our new skates in and then my phone rings. It’s Bruno which is unusual for a Monday that he would call. He let us know what happened. We stopped training for the week after that. We went to Switzerland to go to his memorial on the Thursday.”
“This first week felt like we were in a bubble and didn’t know what was happening and what was real,” Ziegler said. “We were just in shock I think. After that we were just sad all the time.”
“Our heads were not really there so (Knut) Schubert, our other coach, told us to take it easy, come to the ice rink at least once a day and stay fit,” Kiefer continued. “We didn’t do any very difficult elements.”
“We were not focused at all,” Ziegler said. “We didn’t want to hurt ourselves or get injured.”
Ziegler and Kiefer withdrew from the Austrian National Championships and set about regrouping for the New Year and the 2019 European Championships.
“The federation was understanding about it,” Kiefer said. “After Christmas, we really got back into it. We were really motivated. Practice went really well up until Europeans.
“January was great for us. In practice we had done almost exclusively clean run-throughs with both programmes. We were so ready, but in competition it was a little bit of a different thing to come back into that whole world.
They skated the short programme in Minsk, Belarus where they came seventh. In advance of the free skating, they took the decision to withdraw.
“The pressure and stress were all just too much,” Ziegler said.
Following Europeans, Ziegler and Kiefer took a brief break and then went back into training for the Challenge Cup in The Hague, Netherlands at the end of February. It had not originally featured in their plans for the season, but they felt after their withdrawal from Europeans they needed a competition under their belts prior to heading to Saitama, Japan for the World Championships in March.
“At Europeans, we talked to our coaches and said we should do The Hague just to get something going before Worlds and that really helped,” Kiefer said. “We did two solid programmes, but it really helped us get back into that rhythm. We are a team that really needs that competition practice. That feeling of competing, that rhythm of competing. We tend to get better as the season goes on.”
They headed to Japan with Massot as part their coaching team. Worlds went well for them and they broke the top ten for the first time with two 11th place finishes in the short and the free.
“Before Worlds, we went to Switzerland to train with Bruno which was really good,” Ziegler said. “We all decided that we needed each other at that time for support so he came for Worlds. It was good. Important. After Worlds, it really felt like we can start over now. We can leave this.
“Tenth place for us was really nice, but for us it was important to go out there and do our best, go home with a positive experience and we really managed that.”
“We did have a great time not just on the ice, but in Japan in general,” Kiefer said. “My sister was there as a coach with the Austrian representative in ladies’ singles.
“We had a really good experience and we tried to build our summer on that to take the positives and work on some new stuff, work on improving ourselves, challenging ourselves and going from there.”
Ziegler and Kiefer teamed up in 2013. Ziegler had competed at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics as a singles skater before taking time away from the sport for a few seasons. Kiefer previously skated with Stina Martini before he partnered Ziegler.
“I had a partner before which kind of stagnated,” Kiefer recalled. “We went to Europeans and Worlds, but the jumps weren’t there. We couldn’t really improve any more. I didn’t know if I wanted to continue and how. I said if I am going to continue I need a big step up. I had a couple of ideas because Miriam stopped, and it was kind of unrealistic that she would say yes. We asked her anyway and she wanted to try it. It really worked out from there.”
“My heart was not in it anymore and then I stopped at the end of 2011,” Ziegler said. “After a year and a couple of months, he asked me if I wanted to try out. Pairs skating has always interested me, but in Austria it is difficult. There are no coaches, no ice time and not a lot of boys. The opportunity just never presented itself.”
There was a period of adjustment for Ziegler.
“It was really strange at the beginning to have a person next to you. Sometimes when you are alone you will decide to do only two cross cuts because you don’t feel like three right now. You cannot do this anymore because you are together and have the same plan.”
“I have more experience, but when I started pairs skating it was really hard for me,” Kiefer said. “I felt a lot of responsibility for the first two or three years with my first partner. When I finally dealt with that, it got really a lot easier. Now it’s really strange when one of us is sick and we have to come in alone.”
“It’s really good to have someone to hold my hand to calm down and focus on him or on us and not on everything because then I get really stressed in competition,” Ziegler said.
Their very first competition together was the 2013 Nebelhorn Trophy which was the final qualifying event for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. They held few expectations of actually making it to the Olympics, but they were named as second alternates. Luck was on their side as two countries, Estonia and France, decided not to use spots. Ironically, Ziegler and Kiefer picked up the place that originally was to be used by Massot and his former partner Daria Popova.
They finished in 17th place in Sochi and at the end of the season they took the decision to move to Berlin, Germany to train full-time with Schubert.
“I think back then we didn’t really dream as big as we dream now,” Ziegler said. “We didn’t know how much potential we had and how far we could come. I think we just took it year by year.”
“That really changed for us with Jean-Francois coming into the picture,” Kiefer said. “He reset our focus a little bit and made us set bigger goals. He believed in us and made us believe in ourselves even more. He said you’re going to win medals. You have to. You’re ready for this. Go home and work harder and let’s do it. He really instilled that kind of hunger and confidence and belief in ourselves to do better, not just to go out there and see and try.”
For this season’s short programme, they worked with their long-time choreographer Mark Pillay and for the free with Silvia Fontana and John Zimmerman as suggested by Ballester before he passed away.
“Jean-Francois always wanted us to work with them this summer to do a programme with them,” Kiefer said. “At Europeans after we decided to withdraw, we had a meeting with them, and they were to our surprise very excited about that.”
“It really helped us a lot also to look towards the future because until then we couldn’t imagine what the future would be like because all the summers we would go with Jeff,” Ziegler explained. “He was a really big part of the schedules and the planning and what projects we would do. Without him for a couple of months it was just uncertain what was going to happen. After Europeans when we started talking about the future….”
“We felt like things started to fall into place again,” Kiefer continued. “Competing there (in Minsk) even if it wasn’t great and a horrible experience for us, it was important for us to do it and to look to the future in that way.”
The music for their free this season is “Broken” by Patrick Watson and was originally brought to them by Ballester.
“He suggested it last year for our short programme, but we weren’t sure and in the end during the season we figured out it was a better choice for our free programme, so we ended up doing that,” Kiefer said. “During the summer, Maxime Rodriguez worked on the music and made a lot of adjustments that made it sound really beautiful in the rink and a lot more powerful. We are really happy with that and we learned so much choreographing with John and Silvia in the summer.”
“It’s a very special programme for us,” Ziegler said. “It just feels good to skate it. The transitions work. To hear the music, it comes almost naturally now to skate it. You just let it flow and you live in the music.”
The short is a departure from previous routines the Austrians have skated before.
“The short programme is called ‘In Your Hands’ by Charlie Winston and it actually has two stories,” Ziegler said. “One is the feeling we want to express and generate in others, this very interesting dynamic in a couple, and also the song is about looking for a new place to live and to find something new to be able to sustain yourself, but it’s not in your head. That’s why it’s called ‘In Your Hands’ and this is also a little bit what we feel like when we go out to skate because we can only do what we can do. Then it’s in the judges’ hands to decide where they are going to put us.”
“It’s a new kind of rhythm and style,” Kiefer said. We wanted to challenge ourselves. We wanted to improve, to develop in a new way and show another side and not just skate piano music all the time which suits us too. We wanted to go in a new direction.”
Ziegler and Kiefer made their season debut at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany in September where they finished eighth. They followed that up with a fourth place at Finlandia Trophy in Espoo, Finland and this weekend will compete in the first of their Grand Prix assignments at the Internationaux de France in Grenoble, France.
The highlight of this season and perhaps their careers will be the opportunity to skate at home in the 2020 European Championships this coming January which will be held in Graz, Austria. It will be the first time in twenty years the event has taken place in Austria and the pair hope the championships will serve as an inspiration for young Austrian skaters. Kiefer has fond memories of the 2000 Europeans in Vienna.
“It was really big for me because it was my first contact with skating on that scale,” Kiefer said. “I remember they allowed me backstage a little bit because I was there with a group of skaters. I saw (Evgeni) Plushenko and (Alexei) Yagudin. It was exciting for me.
“It left an impression on me and I hope that these Europeans can do that for younger skaters, for the new generation. You see what happens at a big event and how everything works, your idols and all the great European skaters. I’m really excited for that for sure. For me it’s special because I lived in Graz for five years. I finished school and I still have a lot of friends there.”
“I think it will be a great event,” Ziegler said. “Austria is known to be welcoming and friendly and really good hosts.
“We have never had a big event like this at home. For us this is really amazing.”
Whatever the result at this season’s European, Ziegler and Kiefer will continue competing up until the 2022 Olympics in Beijing at the very least.
“The original plan has always been to go up till 2022 and, if nothing happens, if we stay healthy and fit, if we still love what we do, then there is no reason not to continue,” Ziegler said.
“One of the main things is also for us, particularly over the last three years, the improvement has been really big every season,” Kiefer said. “Our placements improved, the points improved, quality improved and we felt more and more confident showing ourselves out there. As long as we keep on that upward trajectory, we want to keep going for sure if our bodies and minds allow which they are so far.”