By Hiro Yoshida
After fourteen years as a team, things have finally come together for Charlène Guignard and Marco Fabbri this season as they approach the World Championships in Saitama, Japan next month as Europe’s leading hope for an ice dance medal.
The Italians partnership on ice was formed in 2009 and they also became romantically involved off ice shortly after that. Since they began skating together have become three-time Olympians, represented Italy at ten World and eleven European championships and finished on the podium in all thirteen of their national championship appearances. They credit their success to their persistence and personal bond between them.
“I think the most important thing for our partnership has been to always have different goals season after season, “ Fabbri said. “You always need a target to keep improving, keep working on your weaknesses and to improve even more your strengths. I think that’s been the secret and then the fact that we are a couple in our private life has helped us a lot especially in hard times, because we also had, like any other couple, difficult times throughout our career.”
“We have a well-balanced relationship,” Fabbri said. “We both do basically anything. It depends on the moment. The only thing is that I am the only one to cook actually because I love cooking.”
“He’s better than me,” Guignard said.
“These are the only roles we have,” Fabbri continued. “I cook and she cleans the dishes after in the kitchen. Otherwise, we do everything. We both clean the house; we both go to the supermarket.
“It’s a well-balanced life, especially because we spend literally 24 hours a day together. We live together. We skate together. We do everything together.”
“We can speak about everything,” Guignard said. “He never judges me, so I feel free to speak about everything. I know he supports me, and we can exchange ideas about anything.”
“To me, she’s very kind and she has great patience,” Fabbri said. “Especially in the first years, I was a little bit more impulsive. She was always able to make me calm and that’s something I really like about her and appreciate about her.”
Guignard had previously represented France internationally and she felt at that point in her life she needed to make a move to challenge herself. She did not find any difficult adjusting to living and training in Italy.
“I was 20 and I said, ‘Okay, I need to change my mind and to see new things and new experiences,” she explained. “When we started our career together, we tried to train a little bit in France, a little bit in Italy. Immediately, I felt very good in Italy. Everybody was very kind to me.
“I’m very happy about it. I felt at home immediately.”
The 2021-2022 season was a breakthrough for the Italians as they started really climbing the rankings taking fifth place at Olympic Games in Beijing, China and fourth place at the World Championships in Montpellier, France.
“We’re really satisfied with our achievements,” Fabbri said. “At the Olympic Games, fifth place was a great result for us. It was the second-best result for Italy in the history of Italian ice dance after our coach’s result in Salt Lake City. We were very proud and then ending the season with a fourth place at World, which is, so far, the best result we’ve obtained at Worlds was really like the cherry on the cake.”
The season was not without its difficulties as restrictions were still in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a very stressful season,” Guignard said. “Not because of the competition, but because of the COVID situation. All the time we were thinking about COVID, and we had the Olympics, so it was very difficult to manage the season mentally outside the rink more than for inside the rink.”
At the Beijing Olympics, no foreign spectators were allowed into the country meaning that their family were excluded from travelling to China to support them. It made for a very strange Olympic experience for Guignard and Fabbri.
“I’ve been lucky because my parents could come and watch me in Pyeongchang. At least I could have the experience with my family at the Olympic Games, because they also wanted to come and watch me in Sochi. But since we qualified really at the last moment for Sochi, tickets were already sold out. There were no more locations where they could sleep. It would have been too expensive and too complicated to come to Russia. But then in PyeongChang since we were sure to go there they could organize better. I had my parents there at least. In Beijing, everything was weird, actually. Not just the fact that we didn’t have our family with us, but everything was weird. Usually at the Olympic Games, we have more time than in normal competitions. You can go out and visit something. I remember that we went to Seoul for a couple of days when we went to PyeongChang Olympic Games, so it was very nice to also visit a little bit the place. In Beijing, we just saw the village and the ice rink. And the dining room. Just those three places, the room, the places where we were eating and the ice rink. It was difficult to stay there one month.”
While many teams decided to retire or take a break from competing after the end of an arduous Olympic season, Guignard and Fabbri had made their minds up that would keep going for the time being.
“We already knew that, since the beginning of last season, we would compete at least one more season after the Olympic Games,” Fabbri said. “It was our goal to try to continue. I cannot tell you if we are going to continue until the next Olympic Games so far or if we’re going to stop at the end of the season. It will depend on many different factors.”
The Italians began the season in spectacular style by winning the ISU Challenger Series event Lombardia Trophy and both of their Grand Prix assignments in Angers, France and Sheffield, United Kingdom in consecutive weeks. The French event was their first Grand Prix title and it was particularly fitting given their connection to the country.
“It was great, especially for Charlène because Angers is not so far from the place where she was born,” Fabbri said.
“My family and also so many people came to watch the competition,” Guignard added. “I felt at home.”
Guignard and Fabbri qualified for the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy in December where they took bronze for the second time in their careers. The following week they took their fifth national title.
Between Italian nationals and the European Championships in January, they decided to make some changes to the elements in their rhythm dance.
“We had time to work on a new lift, on the change of the partial step sequence, which is on the opposite side compared to the Grand Prix Final version,” Fabbri explained.
Guignard and Fabbri won both segments of the competition in Espoo, Finland to win their first European title becoming the fourth Italian team to do so.
“We are very proud of this achievement, because we know that before us a lot of Italian couples achieved really great results, like our coach Barbara (Fusar-Poli) with Maurizio Margaglio, Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali, Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte,” Fabbri said. “We are very proud, that we could get the same result. It’s a great honour. Hopefully this will develop ice dance in Italy and motivate people to approach this discipline, to start ice dance. That’s all we hope for.”
This season the duo decided to challenge themselves and try out new directions in their competitive programmes. For their rhythm dance they chose two pieces by Grace Jones for the main part of their Latin routine.
“For both the rhythm dance and free dance, we decided to look for something different that we never skated to and this year we decided since the beginning not to listen to a lot of commercial Latin music,” Fabbri explained. “We were looking for something different and then Barbara came across this album from Grace Jones. We loved it immediately. We didn’t even know that Grace Jones had composed songs with a Latin rhythm.”
The free dance has also been a departure for the couple as they wanted to explore another aspect of performance than what they had done in the past.
“I think we’ve been very versatile throughout our career,” Fabbri said. “We skated to the Lord of the Dance, Romeo and Juliet, the Nutcracker, Muse. We did many different programmes, different styles, but we never really skated to something dark. I don’t know why. At the end of last season, we were looking for something different for us and we said, ‘Okay, we’re attracted to dark music this year. Let’s try to find music like that.’ Barbara was the one who found all the music. She was listening on Spotify to a lot of dark style music, and she came across I think the first two parts and then we added the last part.
“We’re happy about this choice. At least it’s something new, something that keeps us young.”
Barbara Fusar-Poli has been their coach since they teamed up fourteen years ago. During her competitive career, the 2002 Olympic bronze medallist was renowned as an expressive skater. It is clear from how her students speak of her that she still carries that passion for the sport the she brings as a coach standing on the other side of the boards with her stopwatch at the ready.
“Barbara has a lot of energy,” Fabbri said. “Of course, our relationship throughout the years changed and evolved. At the beginning, we were students, kind of soldiers, who were following the rules. Right now, there’s a different and much more mature relationship with her. It’s great because she’s always motivated. Even some days where you don’t really feel that you want to give one hundred percent of yourself on the ice, she’s there for you. She is pushing you, supporting you and that’s been also another big secret for our successful career so far. We’re really grateful for what she did and what she’s still doing for us. Having a former experienced skater as a coach has helped us to understand a lot of things and to approach competitions and everyday practices in a much more mature way.
“I think it’s more like a routine in competition,” Fabbri said about the stopwatch. “In competition, I think that she feels sometimes maybe useless so at least she has something to do. She’s not even telling us, ‘Okay, that was fine.’ She’s just checking because we already know if a lift is too long, or it’s fine.”
Fusar-Poli and Margaglio are remembered for their fierce rivalry with 2002 Olympic champions Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat, but these days ice dance tends to be more fraternity among the competitors.
“I think that figure skating changed a lot,” Fabbri said. I heard many stories about figure skating in the past, where the rivalries on and off the ice were really strong. Right now, I can feel that we are all rivals on the ice, but there’s always fair play. We are all nice people. The atmosphere around the ice is always nice. I don’t think that anybody hates other skaters. Even if you feel on the ice, this rivalry, once you are off the ice, you don’t feel it anymore and we are all friends. This is beautiful because it’s so nice to get to a competition and to feel well off the ice. Otherwise, it would be always so stressful.”
“During dinner, we can eat with everybody,” Guignard added.
“I remember we also went to Thailand a couple of years ago with Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen,” Fabbri said. We had a small vacation with them. It was nice.”
Following their victory at Europeans this year, the Italians journeyed to the Arctic Circle to recuperate ahead of resuming training for this month’s World Championships.
“When you do many competitions in the first part of the season, after Europeans, you usually feel that your body needs some time to rest as well, not just your mind,” Fabbri said. “Since there is not an Olympic Games this year, we will have time to rest and recover.”
At the moment, there does not seem to be an evident successor to Guignard and Fabbri in the Italian ice dance ranks. With a home Olympics coming up in 2026, the temptation for many skaters would be to close out their careers at home. However, the Italians are determined to take each season as it comes while at the same time leaving their options open to be at the Milano-Cortina Olympics.
“We were already sure to continue at least one more season after this season, but we also have to plan four more years,” Fabbri said. “This season might be the last one for us, but it might be just one of the many seasons that will lead to the Olympic Games.
“Of course, since we’re evaluating the situation, season by season – the fact that the Olympic Games will be in Milano will be a big factor in our evaluation,” Fabbri said. “Basically, I would say that if we decide to continue, not next season, but the season after, for sure we’re going to continue until the Olympics. We’re not going to do three years and retire just for the Olympic season because once you get to the third year the year just before the Olympic Games, it makes no sense. The big step will be to continue next season and the season after. Then if we decide to continue two more seasons, then we’ll go to the Olympic Games for sure.”
A Japanese version of this article appeared in the February 2023 issue of Figure Skate Life magazine.