By Hiro Yoshida
Six years on from his move to Montreal, Romain Haguenauer has become one of the key players behind an ice dance revolution that has changed the sport. With over two decades as an elite coach behind him, Haguenauer continues to see new possibilities ahead even during these uncertain times.
Before becoming a coach, Haguenauer competed internationally with his sister Marianne finishing eighth at the 1994/1995 World Junior Championships. After retirement, he completed a master’s degree in science, sport and physical education which he obtained in 1998. He then taught physical education for a year at a secondary school while also coaching skating part-time. It was a busy time for him and a completely different mindset between the two worlds.
“I had two jobs for one year,” Haguenauer recalled. “My days were very full.”
“I was teaching ice skating at a competitive level, but in school you teach not to be competitive. It’s education, so it’s a totally different way to teach.”
Having obtained his coaching certification in 1999, Haguenauer left his teaching job and became a full-time coach and choreographer working alongside Muriel Zazoui-Boucher in Lyon, France. In 2014 he made the fateful decision to leave his hometown and join forces with former students Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon in Montreal, Canada. When he left France, an up and coming young team also made the move across the Atlantic.
“When Gabriella (Papadakis) and Guillaume (Cizeron) came to Lyon it was to be trained by me,” Haguenauer explained. “That’s why when I moved they decided to follow me.”
While the work on-ice remained more or less the same, the facilities and conditions in Montreal provided boundless opportunities.
“I found in Montreal, in Canada, in terms of ice, the accessibility, the possibility in terms of business for the school to expand we don’t really have a limit,” Haguenauer said. “In France, we have a limit. In Lyon for example you have one ice rink. You have to share with hockey, with the public sessions, with schools. You can’t expand.
“When I arrived in Montreal, Marie-France and Patrice had three teams. I arrived with three teams so we started with six teams and we worked four hours a day, but after we had more and more teams.
“I think the system in North America gives more freedom to do whatever you want to do. In France you have more limitations, maybe more security for sure. That’s the main difference and I am very happy to be able to do that now. My heart will always stay in France because I am French. I am European.
“But for work, even if I was very happy in France for many years, I can see the difference professionally.”
The move quickly yielded dividends for what has now become the Ice Academy of Montreal (IAM) and its stable of athletes. Papadakis and Cizeron became World champions within less than a year and soon other teams began flocking to the school. Six years down the road, IAM has become a dominant force in ice dance and the 2020 World Championships to be held in Montreal in March 2020 looked set to be the perfect showcase. However, less than a week before it was to start the Quebec Government announced its cancellation due to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 around the globe. The whole world faced and continues to face a constantly evolving situation with the pandemic and IAM was no exception.
“We were kind of prepared, but of course it was disappointing,” Haguenauer said. “But all the school and IAM coaches, we reacted quite well. It was cancelled so we did something. We did a live event with the teams and after we wanted to do not a show, but we wanted the teams to skate their programmes in costume, so we prepared that for the week of the Worlds. It was all ready to go, but the day before they (Quebec Government) closed every ice rink.”
For the next three months, the whole school had to learn to adjust to a virtual training environment with no ice.
“In April and May we were in confinement at home,” Haguenauer said. “The skaters did a lot of things and their weekly schedule was quite busy, virtually busy. They worked a lot. We made meetings with the teams to search for music, search for new concepts, prepare and develop the storyline, the storyboard of the programme so we were quite busy.”
“Even the confinement created some good things,” he added. “We worked differently. We discovered a different way to work and it can be very efficient. We could see it’s not because you don’t skate every day. You can work even if you are not on ice even for a long time. There are a lot of options to not lose your time even if you are not on ice. It’s a good lesson.”
Although they had been productive during their lockdown, the skaters and coaches were keen to get back on the ice. It was 15 June before they were permitted to do so at short notice from the Quebec authorities. Surprisingly, the break had done not them any harm at all.
“We had zero date and when they decided the day after we were on ice,” Haguenauer said. “It was a bit frustrating for the athletes and for the coaches not knowing and to be ready. But it happened and we were all very happy that we finally could go back on ice in very good condition too I should say.
“A few days after some of my skaters were better than when they quit three months ago. During this time the body rests, they did a lot of new things, for example yoga, that prepared them to come back on the ice. It’s a good lesson. It’s not only about being on ice and repeating the same mistake sometimes. I think a lot of my skaters understand a bit more what they are doing because they had to – they couldn’t skate. That’s my positive view of the situation.”
There was a big change in terms of the social distance protocols that had to be observed, but IAM was fortunate to have a facility that could accommodate those needs.
“In this rink (Sportplexe Pierrefonds) there are four ice rinks. The corridors are super big, so everything was designed with safety in mind.
“It was easy to restart very quickly like normal. The first week we were allowed to have six skaters on ice only so that’s three teams, but the second week it was twelve skaters which is anyway the maximum allowed on ice. Usually we have five teams maximum. It’s ten skaters plus two coaches.”
Released from lockdown the IAM coaches and skaters got to work right away to make up for lost ice time. Haguenauer threw himself into choreographing new programmes and has created sixteen new routines over the summer months.
“At the time we were not sure how long the ice rink would open,” he said. “So I didn’t want to waste time. I started immediately in case there is another confinement so we would have the material. It was quite fast and in the end not so late compared to the previous season at least for the senior teams.
“It was interesting and the work was very productive because we prepared a lot for coming back.
“We basically changed all the free dances for each team. I don’t know today if everyone is going to use it this season, if there is a season, but they all have a new free dance.”
Although the International Skating Union announced that the pattern dance and theme of the rhythm dance was being retained for this season, some of the Montreal teams have opted to overhaul or completely change their routines. One team has done both.
“Gabby and Guillaume wanted to change, so we found another concept. After they won the ISU award for the most entertaining programme, they came back and said maybe we should keep it. I proposed to keep the ‘Fame’ theme, but we changed the music in the slow part. We made the programme a bit more fresh for them to practice, a bit more challenging too. When it was done, I thought it was good. We had a bit of time and they liked it, but they were not sure. So, we have done another rhythm dance which probably they will skate, but it’s not decided yet.
“We will see which one I think is the best, but I feel they have more motivation to show the new one. The same also for (Madison) Hubbell and (Zachary) Donohue. We changed the rhythm dance for the same reason. These two teams have two new programmes.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the 2020/2021 season into disarray with many of the competitions over the next three months postponed or cancelled. The ISU has put together a repurposed Grand Prix series which will be primarily domestic affairs, but, if travel restrictions remain as they are now, travelling to and competing at these events will come with their own set of challenges for the IAM skaters and coaches.
“The French have to compete in France, the Canadians in Canada, the three U.S. teams compete at Skate America,” Haguenauer said. “We also have two teams in China which we coach every day by Zoom. We do two hours every night as they are in Beijing. Tim (Koleto) and Misato (Komatsubara) are back in Japan and they are going to compete at NHK so after we have to organise the travel.
“Travelling is kind of a problem because if the French leave for France I want to be able to be sure they are able to come back to Canada. The ones who have tourist visas cannot so we have to solve that with the federation and Immigration Canada plus there’s also the quarantine.
“If the Grand Prix happens with no problem, we all will be very happy whatever format it is to perform in front of judges, in front of the TV cameras and the public or not. It will depend on the country I guess.
“Today having a World Championship or even Europeans with people who train everywhere, I don’t see how it can happen. If it’s in January like it is today, I don’t think it’s possible. I hope the situation will change with the vaccine or whatever. We hope for that, but it’s very uncertain.”
In the meantime, this Friday (11 September) the whole world will get a sneak peek at what the IAM ice dancers and coaches have been working on since returning to the ice. “I.AM LIVE” will be a 100-minute long live-streamed training session featuring routines, a look behind the scenes at the academy and interviews.
“There is a mix – some teams are doing the rhythm dance, some are doing the free dance,” Haguenauer revealed. “Gabriella and Guillaume are going to show some pieces of their new free dance. For Maddie and Zach, we are not decided yet what they will do and for Maddie (Chock) and Evan (Bates) probably the rhythm dance. We plan to probably do another event like that before the Grand Prix with more run throughs and maybe the other programme.”
If the Grand Prix and other competitions do not go ahead, Haguenauer believes that IAM will come up with other outlets for their athletes to keep on track with the Beijing Olympics looming on the horizon.
“I hope things will come back to normal as soon as possible, but I think we have the motivation to provide some events even virtually if nothing unfortunately happens to keep the athletes trained, to keep motivated. The main goal is the Olympics and they are coming very fast. I don’t think they are a lot focused to that right now directly.
“A lot of our teams it will maybe be their last Olympics so it’s something very important. I think it’s our job to keep them motivated and with the hunger to doing work, but they need to perform.”
2020 has also brought about dramatic change in the French Ice Sports Federation (FFSG) with the departure of long-time president Didier Gailhaguet following the publication of former pair skater Sarah Abitbol’s autobiography which placed a spotlight on a culture of abuse tolerated within French skating (Gailhaguet was not personally implicated in the abuse). In the subsequent election to replace Gailhaguet, Nathalie Péchalat, two-time World medallist and a former student of Haguenauer, was elected to lead the federation. Haguenauer welcomes the changing of the guard.
“It’s not good for skating, but there are things that finally showed up through something very sad,” he said. “Because Sarah spoke, a lot of bad things that were in this system in France finally came out and were believed too.
“Nathalie now is running this federation,” he continued. “I think it was time because in every situation the turnover has to happen in politics.
“I know she kept a lot of people who were there so it’s not a totally new change, but it was a decision and said that to keep the people because she didn’t know the job at all. An athlete has zero clue of what is happening behind the scenes and the federation is another world. It’s also not only the high level.
“I had some meetings with her this summer about her two teams I teach, and I think she had a very busy summer. Running a federation is a lot of work, but it should not be complicated if you do it properly. I don’t say it is easy though.
“The president of a federation doesn’t have to do everything. I hope Nathalie won’t repeat the same thing because it’s the model we have for twenty years where the president is doing everything, even technically telling the coach what to do.”
Alongside his successful professional career, Haguenauer also found time to marry former Swiss champion Jamal Othman in June 2017. As the Managing Director of Markey International Arts Corporation, Othman is part of the team behind the production of this Friday’s I.AM LIVE showcase. In normal circumstances, their different jobs in international ice dance coaching and marketing would keep them away from their home in Montreal for long periods of time. The pandemic has changed all that which means they had more time to spend together.
“And we are still alive,” Haguenauer joked. “It was good between us and Jamal is always super busy. We were always travelling which we love. We miss it too.
“I have to realise that it’s not too bad to also stay a bit more at home. Instead of always wanting to work, wanting to travel, going away on a weekend, it’s good to appreciate what you have too.”
Even with the uncertainties and difficulties posed by the season ahead, Haguenauer feels fulfilled with his work as one of the head coaches at IAM.
“There is always a new challenge and the day I won’t feel that maybe I should stop because it’s when you have enough. But I don’t have enough today.”
You can watch I.AM LIVE on Friday, 11 September from 19.00hrs (Central European Time).