Maé-Bérénice Méité: A New Challenge

By Hiro Yoshida

France’s Maé-Bérénice Méité was already a two-time Olympian when she stepped on the ice for the short programme at the 2021 World Championships in Stockholm, Sweden to begin her quest to secure a spot for her country at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Moments later, her hopes were dashed by a serious injury that temporarily put her off the ice, but now she is back firmly on the road to recovery.

March 2021 seems like a long time ago now. Leading up to the World Championships in the Swedish capital, there were questions of even whether the event should take place at all given the situation with the Covid-19 pandemic. In the end, the competition was held with athletes, coaches and officials in a bubble and no audience at all inside the vast Ericsson Globe Arena.

“It was hard, but at the same time, we were so happy to be there,” Méité recalled. “I thought it was going to be difficult, but honestly, just the joy of being there was enough for us to compete at our best.”

The women’s event opened the championships and Méité drew to skate 25th out of 39 competitors with tension running high as the vast majority of quota spots for the 2022 Olympics were to be determined in Stockholm. She attempted a triple toe loop as the first part of a combination but fell on the jump. She did not immediately realise how seriously she had injured herself on the fall.

“I had the feeling that I just lost the stiffness of my skate because the laces came off,” Méité explained. “It wasn’t a pain, but I couldn’t take off for my jump. I didn’t miss any jump that week and I had to miss the one that we needed the most. But I thought to myself, ‘It’s okay. Just get up and finish the programme.’”

However, she soon became aware that something was not quite right and she could not complete her routine.

“When I wanted to put my left skate on the ice, I felt as if I had high heels on which was not normal. Everything was going so fast because the music was still playing. I knew it was the qualifier for the Olympics. I was thinking, ‘I’m not a quitter. I’m not going to quit right now. I have to finish the programme.’ But I couldn’t.”

After an assessment by the medical team at the arena and a trip to hospital, it was confirmed that Méité had ruptured the Achilles tendon in her left foot. She flew back to France the following day and had surgery on 30 March 2021. Her long road to recovery then began.

“I was six weeks with a plaster (cast),” Méité said. “I couldn’t move. They took off the plaster on 10 May and then I started to do rehab. I had to learn how to walk again, go up and down the stairs, all the basics and use the foot again, build the muscle mass again on the left leg. I did that from May until the middle of August in Paris and then I went into a specific centre where I could do conditioning, start walking and running again, jumping, using more of the muscle capacity. I was given the green light to go back on the ice in October something and that’s when I went to Italy to start skating. I was just doing skating skills. No jumps because I still had the deficiency in my left leg.”

The decision to aim to return to elite competition was taken by Méité after she confirmed with herself that she still had the motivation to skate at the highest level and to conclude her career on her own terms.

“I want to finish on something where I’m on my two feet, not going out with an ambulance,” she said. “I took the time to sit down and really see if I still wanted to skate. Did I still have the passion? That flame that you have inside that makes you go every day to practice, push your limits and the desire to be better than you were yesterday.

“And the answer was yes.”

Prior to sustaining her injury in Stockholm, Méité had been training with Silvia Fontana and John Zimmerman in Tampa, Florida. She made the decision when she stepped back on the ice to begin training full-time at the Young Goose Academy in Egna, Italy with Lorenzo Magri while still retaining Fontana and Zimmerman as part of her coaching team. Due to the serious nature of her injury, she had to be cautious about her return and took her recovery slowly. While it was a difficult period, it also allowed her time to work on aspects of her skating that she would not have had an opportunity to do otherwise.

“It was very challenging because I started from square one,” she said. “I had to learn how to skate again basically because I still had a muscular deficiency. It’s things that we don’t think about. It was hard for me to get my upright spin again. Anything on the left leg was hard – the take-off of the Axel, the take-off of the flip and Lutz. It was very humbling. I also had to be very patient. I learned a lot about patience during that time. But it allowed us to do work that we never take the time to do, because I had the time, a full season to work on details. It was a blessing in disguise in a way. I could learn new things and improve on bad habits that I had ingrained in me. It was very deep work that we did during that time that is now starting to pay off today. We just have to keep going.”

She has adapted well to her new training environment in Italy and is very happy with the coaching she receives and the camaraderie she has with the other skaters who are based there.

“I’m very focused on skating and working,”  Méité said. “I’m in my bubble so that’s perfect and all I want whether in Italy or in the US. The coaches, the staff – everybody’s amazing. The conditions are great and all the skaters that are there are great also. It’s good motivation on the ice and off the ice everyone gets along well together.”

Méité could not compete for almost the entirety of the 2021/2022 season. She returned to competition at the Egna Spring Trophy in April of this year where she placed fifth.

As one of a handful of black skaters on the international circuit, Méité this season chose a theme for her short programme based on an issue that mattered to her. In May 2020, the murder of George Floyd by police officers in the United States sparked a wave of protests around the world against racial injustice. Méité was deeply affected by these events and opted to perform a routine to “They Don’t Care About Us” by Michael Jackson for which she recorded her own spoken introduction.

“I’m dreaming of a world where all human beings are treated equally. Imagine.”

“I couldn’t watch those images that everybody saw, but I just imagined that it could be a friend, a brother, an uncle, a father,” she said. “I wanted to find a way to express that feeling and to bring light to a topic that was important for me. Having the blessing to be able to skate. I can use my platform and my art to share a message that is dear to my heart. That’s when I had the idea to use Michael Jackson, that music and to share that message with the programme.”

Méité was inspired by other black athletes who used their visibility to speak out about racism and inequality, such as tennis player Naomi Osaka.

“I just love that she’s using her platform to share similar messages, and very powerful ones and I love the fact that she does it like with class,” Méité said. “The masks that she wore at the US Open were simple, but very impactful. Everybody talked about it. Naomi uses her platform, her story, and her journey to share those messages to make room for people also to have the space and to be an example for the upcoming generation.”

Méité believes that those in the public eye have to get a little uncomfortable and speak authentically about important issues.

“You just have to want to get out of your comfort zone and to believe strongly in the message that you want to share.”

Méité has not been directly subjected to the brutality perpetrated on some other black people worldwide, but she has had to anticipate scenarios where she might not be so fortunate.

“I’m very lucky that all the violence that we see on TV, I have never experienced that. I never saw it. It’s two realities because that’s what you see on TV and then what I live every day, you’re always a little bit more careful. Whenever I drive by myself, I tried to be cautious if I get pulled over. I always have that speech ready. I’m not going to move until they tell me to move and little things like that.”

Within figure skating as well, Méité has not had to deal with racism in the sport affecting her personally although she is aware that the situation is not the same for everyone. Along with other black skaters, including former French teammate Vanessa James, she has become involved in advocacy to open up skating and support the involvement if those from minority backgrounds.

“Vanessa and I are in the similar situation where we didn’t face racism or bad stuff happening to us because we’re black and we grew up in an environment where we were just figure skaters,” Méité said. “But we discovered that for some other skaters it wasn’t the case, especially in North America.

“It was important for us to listen to what was going on and try to make an impact. We are a part of the Figure Skating Diversity and Inclusion Alliance to create those spaces for all the young kids that maybe are facing those issues, to make it like a little bit safer, a little bit warmer and more welcoming and for them to find a family to help them through their journey.”

Méité believes exposing yourself to different societies and ways of doing things is the key to breaking down barriers which she has learned from competing in a variety of countries during her career.

“I’ve always loved travelling because you can discover new cultures, new ways of living and new experiences,” she said. “It opens your mind, your spirit, and you make friends all around the world. Skating brought so many friendships to me that I wouldn’t have.”

For her free skating programme this season, Méité picked “I Surrender” by Céline Dion which in contrast with her short is a more introspective theme.

“The long is a little bit more personal,” she said. “It’s about my journey through faith. I got very close to God during my injury. This is also for my mom because she loves Céline Dion. I thought it would be nice to just pay her tribute with that programme and to show my love for God and everything He has done in my life.”

Méité opened her season inauspiciously at the Ondrej Nepela Memorial in Bratislava, Slovakia where she scored only 120.77 points in total, the lowest combined score of her senior international career, and finished in 11th place. However, she was philosophical about the result and understood it to be part of the process of getting back to top form again.

“I had the pressure of coming back after an injury, coming back for a full season and trying to do difficult jumps that I wasn’t doing before,” she said. “That was way too much pressure for the first competition, but that was also a great way for me to learn that maybe it’s good to take a step back. Go back to what you know how to do. Master that. Understand your feelings, and then you can build up.”

In October, she competed at the Trophee Metropole Nice Cote d’Azur in Nice, France where she performed much better than she had in Bratislava and finished just off the podium in fourth place.

She returned to the ISU Grand Prix Series for the first time since 2019 at the Grand Prix de France at the beginning of November. She skated well in both the short and free to earn a combined score of 175.68 which placed her eighth.

“It means that we’re on the right track because four competitions ago, I was barely getting 100 points so I can see the improvement,”  Méité said. “We just have to keep going, keep building and not stay on what we’ve done, but keep being better every day.”

This week Méité has her sights on claiming a seventh French national title in Rouen.

“That will be the goal,” she said. “I just want to enjoy it and results will be up to what I do on the day and the judges. I just have to work hard to do my job and then after we’ll see.”

Ultimately, she is targeting being selected to represent her country at the international championships later on in the season.

“My goal is to go to Europeans, Worlds and World Team Trophy. I just need to do what I need to do technically to be the one that they feel should represent France at these competitions.”

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