Pairs team Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot are representing Germany at their first Olympics as a team. Neither are native Germans, but both earned German citizenship.
Savchenko is the first female pairs skater to compete in five Olympic Games; her first was 2002. In Salt Lake City, she competed with Stanislav Morozov for Ukraine. The pair – who were the 2000 world junior champions – finished in 15th place. Soon after, she split from Morozov.
Robin Szolkowy, her next partner, hadn’t skated pairs for a year before being informed that Savchenko was looking for a new partner. They first skated together for a tryout in May 2003, and she relocated to Germany. They debuted for the 2004-05 season and represented Germany.
Savchenko had to take a citizenship test in order to represent Germany on the world stage. She practiced the language daily, and told NBCOlympics.com it was easy to master. Despite the occassional difficulty with grammar, which her phone can correct for her, she called her test “easy to do.”
Savchenko and Szolkowy’s career was storied in itself. In the decade they were together, they won five world championship titles (2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2014). They competed at three Olympic Games, finishing sixth in 2006 and earning bronze medals at both the 2010 and 2014 Games. They also won Germany’s national pairs title eight times.
But Szolkowy decided to move on with his career, and now coaches some of the Olympic Athletes from Russia.
Savchenko, who met Massot for a few practices together in 2011 and 2012, never thought she’d continue past the 2014 Olympics. But later, she thought Massot might be a good fit for the next phase of her skating career. She calls the new part of her career “a bonus.”
Meanwhile, Massot partnered with two French women before finding Russian-born Daria Popova in 2011. They competed together at one world championships, in 2014, where they finished 15th. They were unable to compete at the 2014 Olympics, as Popova’s French citizenship was not approved.
Savchenko and Massot teamed up soon after the 2014 season ended; Savchenko fresh off her fifth world title and Massot ending his partnership with Popova.
Savchenko and Massot trained together for the next season, waiting for France to release Massot to another country. They also had to find new coaches, even briefly training in the United States. In October 2015, he was granted permission. Then, the real work began for the team.
Their first season together was 2015-16, and relatively successful for a brand-new pair. They won gold at two Challenger Series events, and won the German national title, too. They won silver at the 2016 European Championships, and took bronze at the world championships.
The next season, they won gold at their single Challenger Series event, plus two Grand Prix assignments. They qualified for the Grand Prix Final, but had to withdraw due to Savchenko’s injured ankle. They participated at German nationals that year, but in a non-competitive capacity. Savchenko recovered in time for the 2017 European Championships, where they took another silver medal. To cap the season, they earned more silver at the 2017 World Championships.
The buildup to the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics was more tumultuous than previous seasons for Savchenko and Massot. To open the season, they placed second at their Challenger Series event, and won a gold and silver medals at their Grand Prix assignments.
On their way to Skate America, their second assignment, Massot learned he had passed the third phase of his German citizenship test. Without it, he would not be able to participate in the Olympics – again.
Massot passed the first two phases – spoken German and a question-and-answer section about German culture and history – on the first try. The third part, a written essay demonstrating the use of proper grammar, was much harder. He failed twice. His third try was his last chance in order to become a citizen in time for the Olympics.
“I keep studying two, three, four time a week with a private teacher,” he said in November. “I had to work more, and more, and more. It was very difficult.”
He added that some people told him the German language would remind him of English, but it didn’t.
“For me, as a French man who learned already Italian, English, I can say German was really difficult. I’m very proud now that I got this citizenship and passed this test.”
He and Savchenko speak sometimes in German, and mostly speak to their coaches in German. It’s not enough, he says, to rely on phone apps to correct his grammar and language.
He suggested he would have a glass of champagne, perhaps a German beer, once he got his passport. He received it in a ceremony in the Bavarian Alps following his return to Germany after Skate America.
“I was quite sure that he [would] get it,” Savchenko told NBCOlympics.com. “I had good feeling inside that I was not stressful for this. I was positive.”
In December, at their first appearance in the Grand Prix Final, they went back to their previous season’s short program. Massot snapped a boot lace during the program, leading to a shaky step sequence, and the zipper on Savchenko’s dress was also broken. En route to winning the Final, they notched the highest pairs free skate score ever recorded.
They won another German national title, but then withdrew from the 2018 European Championships in January. Instead, their focus was on the Olympics.
When she was asked in November if she and Massot would continue past the 2018 Olympics and March's world championships, she played coy: “Now, we really concentrate to Olympics and Worlds. So and then we will see what’s coming on, how we feel.”
Additional reporting by Seth Rubinroit.