Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Brilliant Brunet's


Simply put, no French pairs team in history has ever replicated the achievements of the husband and wife team of Andrée (Joly) and Pierre Brunet. As a pairs team, they won eleven French national titles, a European title, four World titles and three consecutive medals (the latter two gold) at the Winter Olympic Games.

Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

What made The Brunet's dominance even more incredible was that during their tenure, they also both dominated the singles competitions at the French Championships as well. Andrée won ten consecutive national titles from 1921-1930 and Pierre won seven men's titles to boot after claiming the silver medal in his first effort at age seventeen in 1923. Even more mind blowing was that during their career as a pair in international competition, they were only ever defeated twice: at the 1924 Olympics and the 1925 World Championships.


Born in June of 1902, Pierre Brunet got his start as a skater at the age of nine when he came to Paris from Northern Paris with his father, a French industralist. His New York Times Obituary describes his beginnings as a skater: "Playing hooky one day, he stumbled upon a frozen pond in the Bois de Boulogne and was so enchanted by the novel sight of the skaters that he promptly went home, got his savings and bought himself a pair of skates and a book of instruction." According to Steve Milton's book "Figure Skating's Greatest Stars", "Brunet was a 19-year-old engineering student at Paris Technical Institute when he met Andrée Joly on Paris' only indoor rink... 'When I saw a couple engaged in skating pairs for the first time, I gave up the idea of engineering,' Brunet recalled to New Yorker magazine in 1954. 'I could see that there was so much to be done,., from an engineer's point of view.'" And invoke change was exactly what these two did.

Photo courtesy National Archives of Poland

The Brunet's were every bit as groundbreaking as they were unbeatable. They invented mirror skating, the term coined to describe performing side-by-side movements in opposite directions (such as jumps and spins) in unison and Andrée broke convention of the times by wearing black skates like her partner's and wore black instead of the customary white dress of the time to match her partner's costume. They were lauded for being the first team to present a more complete package. American judge Joel Liberman wrote: "They have everything: program, rhythm, speed, style and personality. One cannot think of them apart. Even their separating moves are part of a pairs picture." Though their performance of the first one handed lift in ISU competition was a technical innovation, Pierre Brunet himself once famously said that skating was becoming "a sport for kangaroos" in reference to the drive to add more and more athletic jumps to programs.


Marrying in 1929 halfway through their competitive career, the pair soldiered on, winning their final World title in 1935. They turned professional prior to the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany, refusing to participate or support the Nazi propaganda that was thematic in those Games. They toured for a time, performing in Canada and throughout Europe including a run in Rhapsody On Ice at London's Royal Opera House in 1937 alongside professional star Belita before emigrating to the U.S. in 1940 and taking up coaching. Their son Jean-Pierre Brunet was a very successful skater in his own right who won two U.S. pairs titles with his partner Donna Pospisil in 1945 and 1946. Tragically, the summer after he won his second U.S. pairs title, he was tragically killed in an automobile accident at the age of nineteen in his prime. This loss would have unhinged many parents but as coaches, The Brunet's were every bit as unstoppable as they were competitors.

Andrée and Pierre Brunet with baby Jean-Pierre in Paris. Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France.

They taught at the New York Skating Club's rink at the old Madison Square Garden and later in Long Island, Illinois and Michigan, Among their pupils at one point or another were some of the sport's most iconic champions, names like Carol Heiss Jenkins, Donald Jackson, Janet Lynn, Gordon McKellen, Alain Giletti, Alain Calmat, Scott Hamilton and Dorothy Hamill.

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Olympic Gold Medallist Carol Heiss Jenkins spoke of her time with The Brunet's in her 2012 interview with Allison Manley for the Manleywoman SkateCast: "So I was a member of the Brooklyn Figure Skating Club until I was about six, and someone said to my mom, you should get in touch with the Brunets. And by the time we joined the Skating Club of New York, we were all skating. I didn’t take from Mr. Brunet right away. I started with his wife Andrée, everyone had to start with her and you had to be just a little bit better. I do remember very clearly skating around him when he was giving lessons, I was probably a real pest, so he would see me and notice me because I wanted to take from him so badly. So finally after about a year of taking from Mrs. Brunet, my mom said I would get a tryout lesson with Mr. Brunet, and oh my gosh, I was just beside myself. And I had Mr. Brunet as my coach for all those years, from when I was six and a half, and he was the only coach I ever had, except during the summer when he didn’t teach and we would go away and take from someone else for a few weeks... Pierre was a second father to me, and I can say that now because as the years went by, my mother became ill, and he comforted me during my mother’s death. I trained six days a week, I didn’t always have a lesson every day, but he was always in the rink nearby. And as the years went by we had some heartaches and tragedies, his son being killed in 1948 at the age of 18, and then my mother’s death. And then the wonderful times, winning my first national championship, getting my Axel, getting my double Axel clean, winning the world championship, and of course the Olympics. As I got older and thought back to the lessons at the rink, he would talk about politics, he would talk about what was going on that day, and if you didn’t know what was going on, he told you to read the newspaper."

Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

Scott Hamilton too spoke of his time working with Pierre Brunet in his book "The Great Eight": "I was intoxicated by everything Pierre offered... He would come to the rink every day, dressed formally in a white shirt, jacket and tie, and he spoke with a thick, French accent. He did everything as classy as it could be done. He introduced me to structure and discipline in my skating for the first time. I responded very well to his coaching style."

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Pierre Brunet continued to coach star pupils until his retirement in 1979 although his wife retired earlier due to a back injury suffered in a car accident. One moment that stands out when thinking of Pierre Brunet is his recognition of Janet Lynn's amazing talent, for it was he that encouraged her to go out and bow to the appreciative audience when she didn't medal at the World Championships despite giving an otherworldly free skate.

Photos courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

Dismayed by the elimination of compulsory figures in world competition the year previous, Pierre Brunet passed away of Parkinson's Disease at his home in Boyne City, Michigan on July 27, 1991 at the age of eighty nine. Andrée too, would pass away at age ninety one in Boyne City in 1993. Though Abitbol and Bernardis claimed bronze in 2000, the Brunet's remain to this day the only pairs team in history from France to win a World title and their contributions not only to skating but to coaching many of skating's greatest stars were absolutely vital.   

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