By Hiro Yoshida
It has been five years since Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès teamed up to skate for France and the memories of starting out with a total beginner in pairs are vivid for James.
“I remember the first time we did a single twist on the ice. A single twist is big, so I had time to see him and his face was like this ‘Aaargh’,” she recalled. “I started laughing in the twist because he was scared. It was funny to see.”
James had already skated with Yannick Bonheur for two seasons at that point and taken part in the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, but Ciprès was a complete novice to the discipline having competed as a singles skater finishing 10th at the 2010 World Junior Championships. When James and Ciprès teamed up in late 2010, they decided to take the whole of the 2010/2011 season to work on getting him up to speed.
“It was hard at the beginning because I needed to change a lot of things physically and with my skating,” Ciprès explained. “For me the hardest thing was the twist. I couldn’t imagine how she could do three revolutions in the air.”
“He’s a natural and he got it pretty quickly,” James added.
They made their competitive debut together in the 2011/2012 season where they finished 6th and 16th at the European and World Championships respectively. In 2013, they moved up to 4th at Europeans and cracked the Top 10 at Worlds coming 8th which is their highest placing to date. They have featured in the Top 10 of every Worlds they have competed at since.
The highlight of their career so far has been their first Olympics as a pair in Sochi. It was the second time for James, but the experience was the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition for Ciprès.
“It was amazing because for me it was a goal in my life,” Ciprès said. “When I was young, I dreamed about it. You go to the opening ceremony and see all the competitors. It’s so big.”
“It’s the same competition as Worlds, but it’s the whole atmosphere that makes it special,” James said. “It’s still overwhelming, even if it is like Worlds. It’s also an honour to represent your country and we brought two spots to France even if we couldn’t fill the other spot.”
In January of this year at Europeans in Stockholm they were in third after the short programme, but they made the fatal error of mistiming a lift in the free skating for which they received no points and they dropped down to 5th overall. It was a learning experience for the pair and they now see themselves as clear medal contenders at the European level.
“I think it’s possible as we already got the third place medal in the short,” James said. “We could have repeated it in the long, but we’d never been in that situation. I think it is good that it happened because if it never happens you can’t learn from it. This year is going to be about resting, being concentrated and not being overwhelmed by keeping that spot. If we get that medal in the short again, I think we can keep it.”
In order to get to that podium at Europeans, the French have introduced a new element into their free, a triple toe loop/triple toe loop, and the possibility for raising the technical ante is probably not going to stop there.
“I think it’s good for ice skating to add new elements and new difficulty,” Ciprès said. “The men do two quads in the short, three quads in the long programme and it’s beautiful for the sport. This year we will do a triple/triple. It’s one of our goals and then maybe we will work on a quad throw. We don’t have a choice now as every team is doing new things. The sport needs to do things like this to continue to progress.”
This season James and Ciprès have two brand new programmes choreographed by Laurie May. Their short is to “I Put A Spell On You” by Joss Stone and their free to the “Romeo and Juliet” film soundtrack. Particularly with the short, they are keen to take their skating in a new direction.
“Our music for the short is from ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ so it’s dynamic, sexy, and very mature and I think it changes our style,” James said. “We wanted to bring that out in our skating this year. We are starting to get there and when everything is cleaner it will be fantastic.”
As well as exploring new avenues creatively, they have also this year tweaked with how they construct their programmes working with May in June at the mountain resort of Vaujany and then continuing to revise the work they had done.
“Last year was different. Laurie would come to do the programme and then we might see her one time during the year,” James said. “This year she is trying to come once a month. In the beginning she just saw the programme without the elements and everything changes when you put the elements in so she came back to clean it up.
“This year we tried to incorporate what we like to do with our feet when we are comfortable with our skating skills and then the choreographer adding to it,” James continued. “Sometimes we work with a dance coach and all the transitions are really difficult so we lose speed and we are not comfortable. We did everything a little bit opposite this year and I think it works for us.”
In September they travelled to Oberstdorf for the Nebelhorn Trophy where they won a bronze medal for a second time. This was their third appearance at the event and it has now become almost a tradition to compete there to blow away the cobwebs. They also tried the triple/triple out for the first time in competition in Germany.
“It was the first programme of the season so it’s not easy,” Ciprès said. “I felt a little stress on my foot and we did mistakes on the twist.”
“I think the next few competitions we will gain confidence,” James said. “It’s the first time we did the triple/triple in competition so we rotated it way too much.”
Their first Grand Prix is this weekend at Trophée Eric Bompard in Bordeaux and then two weeks later they will be at the NHK Trophy in Nagano. It will be their first time at that particular Grand Prix, but they have many memories from Japan. Probably the most emotional of those was when Ciprès dropped James at the end of their free at the 2014 World Championships in Saitama.
“On the warm-up I fell on triple Salchow throw and hit my hip directly and I could barely walk,” James remembered. “I was so scatter-brained and nervous that I went into robot mode. Then we did a clean programme and at the end I fell on my back. The next day I couldn’t even walk. They had to massage me and I was crying. Thank goodness I wasn’t injured. I just had big bruises.”
“Fortunately, it was the last competition of the season,” Ciprès added. “We still have a lot of good memories of Japan. We’ve also done the Team Trophy twice and every time it’s good. The public are really great.”
Although Ciprès is French born and bred, James is the epitome of a world citizen. Born in Canada and brought up in Bermuda and in the U.S., she initially represented Great Britain as she was able to claim British citizenship through her father. She became the 2006 British champion before moving on to finding a pairs partner and skating for France. At the time of our interview at the end of September, the debate about skaters being released to skate for other countries had been raging for months, in particular with regard to their former team mate Bruno Massot who was seeking to represent Germany with multiple World champion Aljona Savchenko. In the end, Massot was released by the French federation on 26 October.
“Of course, I think it is very difficult for any skater not to be able to skate,” James said. “Skaters are here to skate so it must be very frustrating. I was lucky to never be in that situation because Great Britain let me skate for France directly. Every skater should have the opportunity to skate. If they do get to skate, I hope that we can still beat them. In any case, we have to focus on ourselves.”
“I have a different opinion about this,” Ciprès stated. “I know Bruno a lot. He was one of my friends, so I know I want the best for him and for his life. But the thing is when you represent one country and then change countries for your partner or they change for you and you go to the Olympic Games, I wonder if you can still have that feeling inside you where you know that the country’s people all support you. If everyone mixed countries, I think it’s not so patriotic.”
“I’ve changed, but I’ve been in France a long time and it feels like it’s my home,” James said. “It must be very difficult for federations to let skaters they supported go and skate for someone else. It happens a lot in America. I’ve seen people skate for five different countries.”
When she first moved to France, James had her own share of struggles in adapting to a foreign language and culture. On top of that, Ciprès found communication difficult with his new partner as he wasn’t confident in his fluency in English.
“I had never studied French,” James said. “I had learned Spanish in high school in the U.S. The choice was between French and Spanish and in the U.S. I thought I’d never use French! It took me about six months to start understanding and then about a year to speak well.”
“When we started, my English was bad so we spoke in French,” Ciprès admitted. “But the first time she called me, I didn’t understand anything that she said.”
“It was my accent that’s very difficult to understand in the beginning so, even with Morgan and my coach, I would speak French and they would be like ‘What did she say?’ James laughed. “Apparently, I speak well. It’s just my accent that is shocking and you have to get used to it.”
James comes from a close knit family and being separated from them for extended periods of time has proved to be both emotionally and financially tough. She tries to see them when she has a break in training.
“When you’re in a pair, you can’t just say I’m leaving, I want to go home. However, my coach really knows it’s psychologically necessary for me to go back and have time with my family, so she is going to let me go back after Europeans. I was also on vacation in May for three weeks, so I get to see them about twice a year.
“It’s easier now than in the beginning when you had to pay for Skype and text messages. I had bills of €800! With WhatsApp, Viber and Facetime now though, it’s free and I can use as much as I want.”
Even though they are no longer an off-ice couple, it’s clear that the obstacles they have both had to overcome together have helped them to form a very strong bond.
“We’re very close because we work together,” James said. “We are like brother and sister. We can fight, but we’re very close together. And his family are very close to me, so I spend Christmas, Easter, all the celebrations with them. They are my family.”
After a brief time training in Moscow, James and Ciprès don’t foresee that they will move abroad to train again and are insistent that they will stick to where they know.
“We’re in Paris and we’re staying there,” James declared. “We have visited and we don’t want to go back anywhere else!”
As for her future, James is committed to remaining in her adopted homeland for the long term.
“I’d like my kids to be bilingual,” she said. “I love French culture. I love the architecture. I love the food. There are so many beautiful things about France. I guess I’m lucky because I get to share both parts of the U.S. and France.”