By Hiro Yoshida
Last season was when it all finally came together for Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès. After achieving their long-stated goal of medalling at the European Figure Skating Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic, the French pair matched their best-ever finish at a World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, Finland. One year on from their European breakthrough, they are back on the same stage and aiming even higher.
The twelve months since their European bronze medal has seen James and Ciprès grow stronger as competitors. A testament to this development as a team came during the 2017 Worlds short programme when James had a freak fall after being set down by Ciprès following a triple twist. Nevertheless, they managed to skate the rest of the routine cleanly and laid down a strong free skating performance to end up in eighth place overall. Even though the error in the short likely cost them an even higher placing, they were not downhearted by the result. In April 2017, they closed out the 2016/2017 season at the World Team Trophy in Tokyo, Japan and notched up a whole new set of personal best scores.
“For me, Worlds wasn’t a disappointment,” James said. “Mistakes happen to the best and they happen to champions. I think it was hard to beat our European performance where we did two clean programmes. I had a dip in the season right after and it was a little tiring at that point. We had so many good programmes, it was a little too much to ask for a clean programme again.
“Because of that World Team Trophy was just what we needed to do. We ended with two clean programmes, with a title and I think that was the best way to do it. It was a part of our path that we needed to take to end where we were the way that we did.”
“It’s always a little disappointing when you do some mistakes,” Ciprès said. “You train hard every day to make something clean. As she said, mistakes happen. They happen to the best and because of the mistakes we can bounce off it and come back better.”
“Mentally I was not prepared to be on the podium at Worlds,” James added. “I had enough satisfaction in what I had done two months before at Europeans. I’ve learned enough in the past that mistakes help you to grow and only champions can come back from errors. I take it as a part of life and as a part of growing. Those mistakes we did those years before, even at Worlds, brought us to where we are today and to that performance at World Team Trophy that might not have been the same if we had skated well at Worlds. You always want to skate cleaner. Everyone does. But no-one does all the time. I was very proud of the season that we almost did clean programmes the whole season. You can’t expect that from yourself every time.”
Their first task after World Team Trophy was to come back down to earth and start planning for the Olympic season ahead. While picking their music for the free was relatively straightforward, choosing music for their short proved to be trickier.
“We did our free programme first,” James explained. “It was very hard to find short programme music, so we did the long programme and went on break. Even when we came back to training, we didn’t have the short programme music. We were listening and thinking, but no-one agreed. Finally, I think in June, we found the music and we started the short programme. He picked out the long and I picked out the short.”
“In the long, it was between three,” Ciprès said. “In the short, too many.”
“I cannot tell you – one hundred,” James confirmed. “It was very difficult for us.”
For the short, they finally opted for “Make It Rain” by Ed Sheeran. Their free to “Say Something” by A Great Big World was a choice that Ciprès felt strongly about.
“I listened to one or two songs similar to what we have now,” he said. “Because of the songs we listened to at this time we just chose this one for the long programme.”
“He really loved this music and he was determined to skate to it, so everyone decided that if we could make it stronger at the end or the middle of the music like last year, then we would use this music,” James said. “Maxime Rodriguez was able to do that for us and we love it.”
“We didn’t pick the music because of the story or the lyrics,” Ciprès said. “We picked the music because it was something we can make an emotional moment for the crowd. I think it matches us pretty well.”
They debuted their new programmes at the Autumn Classic International in Montreal, Quebec where they finished seven and a half points ahead of two-time World champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford to win the title. The week after, they travelled home to France to compete at the Master’s de Patinage in Villard de Lans. Despite having no stiff opposition, they managed to skate an impressive free that included a clean quadruple Salchow throw and posted a score of 154.44 points. It was a very welcome confidence boost in advance of their Grand Prix events.
“It was one of our best skates and we were rewarded for it,” James said. “It didn’t count in terms of ISU scores, but it did give us confidence. We were so tired, but we knew, even so tired, we were capable of skating like that. You see nationally judges inflating scores, but honestly that never happened for us ever. We almost got lower scores in France at Nationals and at Master’s. The judges were very impressed with our progress, our skating skills and our transitions and we were very proud of the score.”
It was back to Canada for their first Grand Prix assignment of the season at Skate Canada in Regina, Saskatchewan. In a loaded field with Duhamel and Radford and World silver medallists Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, James and Ciprès skated well again to finish a very respectable third.
Three weeks later at the Internationaux de France in Grenoble, France, they gave another two strong performances. They won the free ahead of European champions Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov to take the silver medal.
Despite their good results in their Grand Prix events, they just missed out on qualification for the Grand Prix Final and were first alternates instead. An accident in training at the French National Championships in December where James hurt her left shoulder on a quad throw saw them miss out on nabbing a sixth consecutive title. Overall though, they feel the season has started very positively for them.
“I’m really proud of our scores right now because last year getting to that medal we started with much lower scores,” James said. “Even with programmes that aren’t perfect, they are much higher than last year already. Each year we start at a certain spot, but we’re getting more comfortable. We’re able to express more, be freer in our skating. Whereas in the beginning of the season, which is normal, we are thinking more about the elements, trying to do clean programmes. I think by the end of this season we’ll be able to really be free and be faster and liberate ourselves and give the audience what they saw last year with the new programme. It takes time. That’s what we are hoping for, but I think we can do it. Each time it gets a little easier.”
The start of the transformation of James and Ciprès into a world class pair goes back to their decision to move to Florida to train with John Zimmerman and his team. Less than two years later, both skaters feel they have benefited enormously due to the change.
“We grew up in a good way,” Ciprès said. “I think we are much stronger between ourselves together and with the coaching team. We have more confidence and we worked a lot on different things, like our weaknesses. We did something amazing in France with our ex-coach, but we needed something more to be better.”
“This whole team has changed us,” James said. “Not just our skating, but ourselves. We are more confident in each other and we get along better. Our relationship is better with our team and every day is a pleasure to skate which it wasn’t before. I think that all plays into our results. It’s not just what you do on the ice. It’s what you do off the ice, how you feel when you’re on the ice, how you feel with your surroundings and the people around you. I think it’s a package that changed us.”
The improvement in their skating and results has peaked the curiosity of the rest of the skating world. Rivals Duhamel and Radford and Savchenko and Massot have travelled to Florida to train alongside them. Other skaters have directly expressed their admiration of how they have progressed as a team.
“Last year there were some Russian skaters that came up to us and said they were so proud of us and had a lot of admiration for us to have made such a big leap, which was really impressive,” James said. “Nikita (Katsalapov) came and told us. Even Fedor Klimov came up and said they were very happy for us and that they loved our programmes. That’s a big compliment coming from amazing skaters who are also our competitors. Ice dancers who say they love our programmes is a compliment because they are such beautiful skaters. To come tell us that they love our transitions and choices of music is honestly very cool.”
This week at the European Championships in Moscow, Russia is their last big test before next month’s Olympic Games. This will be the third Olympic experience for James and the second for Ciprès. While there was a certain sense of fulfilment at participating together in Sochi, they will be approaching PyeongChang with a little more ambition.
“It was an amazing experience for me,” Ciprès said about going to Sochi. “It was a dream when I was a child going to the Olympics. I did this goal in my life now. Maybe now I have other goals – like getting a medal at the Olympics. It’s different than just being at the Olympics. I learned a lot. Not only because of the Olympics. It was just that we had only started together (in Sochi). We were not really a good team and we were not competitive. We were young.”
“He was young,” James interjected laughing. “I was old.”
“Now it’s more about competition,” Ciprès continued. “For me, Olympics are not any more competitive than any other competition because when you come on to the ice, you have to do the same thing as you do at practice. It’s always the same. There is more media, more people watching the event, but your job is the same.”
“Like he said, it’s the same competitors, the same programmes,” James said. “Yes, it’s the day that everyone has been dreaming of, but I think that is what makes it such a stressful situation. What we are going to try and do with this experience is take it as any other competition that we’ve done like at a Grand Prix. At Europeans, we want to medal. They are all very important competitions for us and we’ll just have to do our best and take it as any other day. I think that will be the best strategy for us.
“Any medal at Olympics would be great for us. We have stiff competition. The Chinese are amazing. The Russians are great. The Germans are strong competitors. There are quite a few teams that can get into the top three. We will have to fight, but we’re going to fight for it.”
“We just need to practice every day really hard,” Ciprès said. “I don’t believe a lot in luck, but luck has to be with you this day.”
Neither skater has put too much thought yet into what comes after this season. The training required for the increasingly difficult technical standards in the sport has taken its toll physically and they are not sure if they can continue for another year. For the most part though, they are only looking as far as what happens in South Korea next month.
“Of course, we are thinking every day about after the Olympics because you cannot finish the Olympics and say, ‘What’s happening in my life?’,” Ciprès said. “If we have a medal at the Olympics, I think there are no more goals for us in figure skating.”