Catching up with Vanessa Gusmeroli


August 1, 2013
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © Reut Golinsky

She is the 1997 World bronze medalist and a three-time (2000-2002) French national champion; one of those bright and original skaters you notice and remember regardless of their placements, medals or not. She retired following the 2002 Olympics and was under the radar for quite some time. She can be seen sometimes at the ISU competitions as a technical specialist and she coaches at the Vernets rink in Geneva. While visiting there last season I used the opportunity to meet Vanessa Gusmeroli and talk to her about how hard it is to bring up a good skater in Switzerland, how exciting it is to work at competitions, which judging system she would have preferred for herself when she skated, and what does she now think about choosing skating over water skiing.

You have worked here since 2008, right?
In Geneva, yes. But longer overall in Switzerland. I came to Switzerland, to Yverdon-les-Bains, near Lausanne, around 2004-2005. I worked for three years in their club and then I moved here, and it's my fifth year.

Why Switzerland?
I was born in Annecy, which is really near Switzerland. And in Switzerland they were glad to receive me. In France it is harder to find an ice rink; there are already big clubs there and it is more difficult to be able to have your own ice rink, to work on your own. And in Switzerland they were very glad for me to come, and for me it was very good because it was right near Annecy where I live, just 25 minutes by car. There are also plans to build another ice rink just at the border with France.

There wasn't much recent news about you, but I noticed you were mentioned in Fleur Maxwell's ISU profile as her coach.
Yes, I helped Fleur because her coach, Irina (Derbina-Karotom), was going to have a baby; hence she couldn't continue working and called me. And as Fleur was often training not far from me, in Courchevel, she asked me to work with her. We worked during the summer and then a bit in winter, but starting from November-December she was already back to train with Irina. I was really a "transition stage" only.
Besides that I have Déborah Pisa, a Swiss skater, who was novice National champion and junior National silver medallist. She also took part in the Winter European Youth Olympic Festival 2009. This is the only Swiss skater on a higher level that I have.
And I also have a lot of small children. This is my fifth year coaching in Geneva, all the students I have are those who started with me here or came with me from Yverdon-les-Bains, like Déborah. So it's only a start, they compete at some small events at this time.

I heard that the system in Switzerland doesn't really support young skaters, there are no special programs at school, and the federation can't help much. Do you agree?
Since I came to Switzerland I've been trying to build some sort of "training structure", to one day have a real training centre where children are more "charged". Like they have in France, when private lessons are accompanied by lessons in group, lessons in the gym, dances; the "sports studies" arrangement ("sport-étude" in French, specialised state institutions combining traditional school studies with high level sport education - ed.). When they would go to school in the morning and then skate in the afternoon. This is very-very hard to do because the school is usually the priority and it is not easy to adjust the schedule to have more time for skating. Another difficult thing I'm trying to do is to work with more people, with other coaches. And this is also not simple because here, in Switzerland, there are mostly private lessons, parents pay us directly. Hence if you're going to work with some coach it might happen that your student would want to work with him instead, there might be a conflict. So I plan to create this structure around my teaching, with my pupils and later we will add more people.
Private lessons are also very expensive. And we don't have enough time for one hour private lessons with each pupil every day. And if you want the skater to progress, he needs to have two sessions on ice per day while here he gets 20 minutes twice a week, which is really not that much. So this is a big project. In Zurich something like this already exists and something for the very best skaters, but me, I want this for the younger ones also. Another problem is that the ice rink is closed from April until August. So there are four months, two of which they are still at school, when they can't skate. They can go and get some more practice at summer camps, but this is also very expensive. Had the rink been open it would be much cheaper. There are lots of troubles [to deal with] to raise a good skater as you see.

Usually when a star appears, this should help his skating countrymen. There is more attention on the sport, more spots at the international level. Unfortunately this didn't happen in Switzerland after Stéphane and Sarah, I wondered why but maybe you've already answered me.
Yes, those who become stars in Switzerland are those who have lots of talent, because they can't train much. And also those who have lots of money, as it costs a lot. So I'd say not many skaters, skating stars had this chance to succeed. Maybe in other countries, at least in France it is this way, there are a lot of structures, lots of possibilities to train. Even if a skater is not very gifted, with practice he can get to the level of competing at European championships. In Switzerland this practice doesn't exist, children don't skate enough. That's why only a genius like Stéphane could break through even with less training. And he was also lucky to study in a good school, which are not plentiful.

So why is the situation different in France? The government helps?
Yes, I think it's the government. In France I think they are also more flexible, you can move things more easily. To change something in Switzerland is much more difficult. Me, I'm trying but... (smiles)

And you still need rich parents to pay the bills...
Yes, and this is a problem, because probably there are some good skaters out there who are not rich. This already puts people into different categories.

So maybe create some scholarships or something like that?
Yes, also. Or the fact that if I'm doing the group lesson, for not more than 10 people, maybe four-five children, it costs less. Or instead of giving 20 minutes of private lesson for each I can give an hour long lesson for a few together. And for me it's better too because I can follow them more. And they will progress much more. So it might help. But still, notwithstanding, this is a sport which costs very-very much in Switzerland. It is a bit like in US. In France there is a system where parents pay too, I don't know how much exactly, but they pay for the competitions, for example. In Switzerland they pay for everything: the road expenses, the hotel, for me also, if I go to the competition, plus for the skating lessons. In US it is the same plus they pay all the money the coach didn't make while he was with them.

In the US they also pay for the ice as far as I know. And here?
Yes. Here no, we, the coaches, pay to have the ice for ourselves.

Since 2005 you've also been an ISU technical specialist. How often do you happen to work at the competitions?
I was very lucky; I made three Grand Prix Finals, Europeans twice, Trophée Eric Bompard, and some junior Grand Prix events. It is really amazing! I also love it because, being a coach now, I rarely get to see very good skaters. I really enjoy working with the little ones, when they do their Axels, this is great, but I'm a bit isolated from the very high level. And being a technical specialist, like when I come to the Grand Prix Final, allows me to see the best in ladies, men, ice dance... I am not working in ice dance events but when you come, after your work is done, you can watch whatever you want.

So you follow not only the singles disciplines you judge, you try to watch everything?
Yes, of course. If it is Europeans or Worlds you can't watch all the ladies if you judge the men, for example, because the competition is very long. Often you also need to be present during all the practices, so you're working from 6:00 in the morning till 14:00 at the practices and then you have six hours of the competition, till 22:00, it's a bit crazy.
It is a lot of work to decide about the levels, to count steps, it is difficult but you really have a good exchange with the people who work with you, the controller and the assistant technical specialist. And there is always a very nice welcome, because we are ISU officials, not part of the French federation, but members of the International federation and we're a bit more protected. For a former skater who loves skating to do this kind of work is very interesting.

You know, I always wondered, when you're working during the competition, can you really see the program, enjoy it? Or the only things you notice are elements, elements, elements...
It is very difficult. If the skater succeeds in all his jumps you can catch the fun of the program, even while announcing what you see. Because it is easy, if he has a four-level spin, everything is clear, there are no problems; you just watch and then name what you see and it is not hard. When the public is excited, everybody applauds, me too, I have lots of emotions at the end of the program, and it is magnificent. Such things happen every once in a while, but usually you're so concentrated on what they're doing that you can't really notice the program itself.

If you follow what's going on in skating, can you name me some programs which stood out for you this season, something you really liked?
I really liked Patrick Chan, I love Javier (Fernández) a lot, all the top boys. I'm more attracted to men's figure skating, because of their performance, of how they fight. I like ladies less. I prefer to watch men's competitions. In men you see this fighting side, there is more rivalry, ladies are beautiful, they show incredible things but the competitive side is less present.

Yet sometimes there are strong moments in ladies competitions too, like, for example, when Sarah Meier won in Bern.
It was amazing because it wasn't something planned, she did all her jumps well, which is not exceptional, but she did everything well, and you felt that she was winning. After each her jump you were saying to yourself: "Everything is exactly where it should be for her to win!" And there too there were lots of emotions, needless to say that people were very glad.

If you could choose to compete under the current system or under the old one you actually competed...
For me it's this system. Me, I already performed some difficult spins, difficult variations, I already did all that. For me this system could have been much easier. Especially, for example, many ladies were ahead of me, winning while their jumps were not fully rotated...

And what would you answer to all the complaints that the system is very complex and not easy for the crowd to get?
Yes, it is very hard for people to understand. Unfortunately it also restrains, the skaters now can't do everything they'd want. And this causes lots of problems to coaches who worked under 6.0 system. Some of them don't support the Code of Points because the skaters are "blocked", there is not much they can do, everybody does the same thing. It is a bit true. But one of the goals was that there will be less cheating, that the results will be fairer, more exact. There was a need to solve all those problems, to avoid "political stories" of putting someone first. In any case people in ISU fought really hard to stop all this.

Talking about lack of originality in the programs we see now, you always stood out with your programs back then. People still remember them, like, for example, your bank robber program (FS from season 1998/99).
I worked a lot with Sandra Garde, who is now choreographing for the ladies of the French team, for Maé Bérénice Méité and Yretha Silete, for example. So Sandra Garde and her mother, who was a former skater from Annecy, they always had a lot of imagination. The idea for that robber program was inspired by some other show program, about the thief, also with the diamonds appearing during the program, that was performed by someone they knew.
I feel that in general French skaters often try to make programs which are nonstandard, offbeat. There were always lots of different styles among French skaters. For example, if you think about Russian skaters then the more classical style comes to your mind first, but in France there is no one sample, they all are so different, too big, too small, and really very diverse.
Me, when I skated, I always needed to imagine some story first. After that I was coming up with the costume and then I was looking for the music. Same with my students now, I'm trying to imagine, I say, for example: "Would you like to show an Indian?" And then: "Which costume can you make?" And then: "Which program can we create?" When I skated I did it like this.

And the story helps them to skate?
I think that it's less boring. If you tell the story, if you express something you're less bored during the program. You make some movement and you think, I don't know, for example: "Now I run in the forest, and the sun is shining". And you express your program better. This is how it worked for me at least.

The last question, to which after our talk I think I have an answer already. But still, looking back do you regret that you chose figure skating over water skiing?
I'm glad that I had more skating, because now figure skating is my job. It was very hard to stop water skiing in favor of skating, because I preferred the atmosphere of water skiing more, it was more festive, sunnier. And for skating you needed to wake up early, be in this cold, it wasn't that nice.

Then why did you choose it?
My father was my coach for water skiing, while in figure skating I was already in "sports studies" ("sport-étude" - ed.), the federation was involved, I couldn't really quit. It wasn't exactly that I chose; it was them who held me...

But now you're happy.
Oh, yeah, I'm very happy to have this job now. And skating on the high level helped me to have this job, I think. It was the tougher sport for me, the training was more difficult, and skating required much more work. But it gave me more than water skiing could give, on the mental level, in the context of travelling too.
I still continue water skiing, just for fun. My parents own a lake for water skiing, in Albertville, which is called "Olympic Water Ski". So I do it when I'm there, and I also teach a bit to help them. So it's in the family.


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