By Hiro Yoshida
The final few weeks of last season brought Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès from the depths of disappointment to the pinnacle of their careers. The French team are back again this season to add to continue on what has been a remarkable journey.
In the build-up toward the PyeongChang Olympics, they competed at the European Championships in Moscow, Russia. They got off to the best possible start when they placed first in the short programme. However, they slipped to fourth place in the free skating and missed the podium by 0.01 points.
Their showing at Europeans gave them pause for thought and with just over two weeks left until the start of the Olympics they decided to change their free programme, reverting to “The Sound of Silence” by Disturbed that they had used the previous season.
At the Olympics, they began with a score of 68.49 and sixth place for France in the team event short. They improved their score in the pairs event a few days later to 75.34 to position themselves in sixth again going into the free. They put together a solid performance in the free to score 143.19 which moved them up to fifth overall on 218.53. This was the best result for a French pairs team at the Olympics in 86 years.
The following month they travelled to Milan, Italy for the World Championships. Both Wenjing Sui and Cong Han from China and Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford from Canada, two of the teams that finished ahead of them in PyeongChang, were absent from the competition raising expectations that James and Ciprès had a realistic chance of standing on the Worlds podium. Despite this added pressure, they held their nerves and came third in both segments of the event to claim the bronze medal. It was the first World medal for a French pair in 18 years.
It had been a long journey for James and Ciprès who first teamed up in 2010, but all the effort and struggles were worth it for them for that one moment in Milan.
“It’s a lot of emotions because of all the work,” Ciprès said. “We came from the bottom and now we are here. I saw that everybody was really happy, crying and the crowd was amazing. All the pressure fell away all at once.”
It was made all the more special by having their family members there to witness and share in their achievement.
“It was a good moment for everyone,” James said. “Our first World medal and to have all of our family here – it’s amazing. Sometimes no-one’s here, maybe his family is here. We had a cocktail. It’s the first time my parents have met his grandparents. It was really cool.”
The path to this point has been full of twists and turns to get to this point. Their preparations for the Olympic season were hampered by injuries and the first half of the season had its ups and downs.
“We had a rough end of the season because of injuries,” James said. “I dislocated my shoulder. We had our first two medals at Grand Prixs. We were expecting to go to the Grand Prix Final and that was so disappointing. Europeans happening and getting fourth. It was an emotional rollercoaster. It was hard to stay confident, but things happen for a reason and we learned a lot of lessons from those disappointments that made us stronger today.”
The lack of time between the Olympics and Worlds had also not been ideal for the French team, but attaining the most significant result of their careers on the back of that has given then a shot of self-belief.
“We hadn’t done a full programme in three weeks counting from Olympics,” James said. “To be able to skate like that without being fully prepared shows a lot about the confidence we have in ourselves and our technique. It helps us to know that we shouldn’t ever doubt ourselves and we can do it every time. It’s nice to know that we can be rewarded for our efforts.”
Up until the European Championships, the duo had been skating to “Say Something” by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera for their free. It was a difficult decision for them to switch, but in the end they felt that it was right for them to back to a programme with which they had enjoyed so much success.
“We wanted to change the programme because the Olympics is only once every four years,” Ciprès said. “We wanted ‘Sound of Silence’ as the image for this. What happened in Moscow was really hard and it was a good thing to change this programme, clear our minds and don’t stay with the bad memories of the European Championships.”
“We got so many standing ovations for this programme the first year and it got us known and to where we are today,” James added. “We had a lot of requests from our fans. We were thinking maybe to bring it back for Worlds, but our federation said if you are going to bring it back, bring it back for the Olympics. We wanted to skate well for Olympics after Europeans and it was a breath of fresh air skating to this programme. It was a present to our fans. Honestly, it felt amazing to end it on a World medal with another standing ovation. It couldn’t have been written better.
“It was a difficult decision on my side because I need a lot of practice to be confident going into competition. We only had a week and a half or two weeks to get back and remember this programme. We wouldn’t have had the chance to compete it before Olympics, but I trusted in our federation and John and Morgan who really wanted to skate to it for Olympics. We made the right choice.”
Even though they are happy with their decision in the end, they still have affection about the original pick they made for their Olympic season free.
“I really love ‘Say Something’,” James said. I love the beginning, a beautiful opening – it’s a little long. It’s 40 seconds before we get into the twist. It’s very physical for Morgan. I’m very proud to say we had four great programmes in two years. Even if we went back to ‘Sound of Silence’, I’m proud of the performances we did with ‘Say Something’.”
PyeongChang was the second consecutive Olympics for James and Ciprès as a team and their expectations this time round were naturally much higher than their first experience in 2014.
“In Sochi, I think we were only skating together for two years, so we could not expect something,” Ciprès said. “In PyeongChang, it was different. We came in maybe fifth or sixth best, so we wanted to be close to the medals or get a medal. We knew it was going to be really hard because in front of us were only World champions or World medallists. We just had a little European medal and our best result at Worlds was eighth. Of course we wanted a medal because it only happens once every four years, but we knew it was going to be almost impossible. We fought for it and honestly we were really happy about our fifth place because when you are in the top five at Olympics it’s amazing. We did our job. We took some risks like doing the quad again. There was nothing to regret in this and I am proud of what we did.”
When their events were done, James and Ciprès stayed on in Korea and had the opportunity to take in the rest of the figure skating competitions, other sports and partake of the Olympic atmosphere. There were a number of things that stood out for them both on and off the ice.
“We stayed until the end,” James said. “Sochi wasn’t the same experience. We did the opening ceremony there, but we couldn’t stay for the closing. We did our competition and then left to prepare for Worlds, so it was really nice to experience the whole ending of the Olympics and travelling with our whole team back to France was pretty cool.”
I really enjoyed our short programme and everything around us – the village, all the athletes, the closing ceremony,” Ciprès said. “We did our job too, so we were happy with our fifth place. My mother came and met her parents for the first time in eight years.
“I think the highlight was our families meeting because we share so much and they know so much about all of us,” James continued. “It was really beautiful after eight years to meet at such a big competition.”
The road to get to the bronze medal in Milan has been a turbulent one for the French pair with many disappointments along the way. Many of the key moments of their career have come at the European Championships and they have taken lessons from the low points to get themselves to where they are today.
“The year we got third place in the short at Europeans (in 2015) was the first time we had gotten any sort of medal internationally and it was Europeans so we got very nervous and forgot half the programme,” James explained. “Following that when we were second in the short programme when we got our medal at Europeans (in 2017) that was already experience for us to stay calm. After the European medal, I think this year everyone got very excited with first place. I got a little bit less excited just from past experience. It was the commotion of it. I was happy about the first place, but I knew everyone didn’t skate well. It would have been different if everyone had skated well. I am sure of this. I think at the point when we can actually be proud is when everyone skates well and we win.
“Emotionally and mentally it was a little bit more difficult to stay focused. I messed up the triple toe combination, but after that I knew I had to fight and I did a beautiful quad and the rest of the programme. I think Morgan had lost a little bit of hope so we gave up a little bit on the lift. We made a lot of mistakes in that competition, but I don’t take it as a horrible experience because I still learned a lot from it. After the first error, I fought for everything afterwards so that’s something for me to be proud of there.”
James and Ciprès were determined that they would not repeat the mistakes of the past in Milan even though there were doubts in the back of their minds before they took to the ice for the free.
“Before the long, between the practice and the competition, there was a really long time,” Ciprès said. “I had a dream. I knew we were going to skate after Zabiiako and Enbert, so when we got our result we were going to know if we are on the podium or not. I had a dream about the competition and the long programme. We finished and we were in the Kiss and Cry and saw the number two. Then I realised that we were not going to be on the podium and I said, ‘Vanessa, can you explain to me how it is possible why we are second and not on the podium?’ I just woke up and I was relieved that it was just a bad dream. It felt really real and I didn’t want this again like at Europeans because it was one of the worst moments in my career.”
“I would be devastated if we were fourth,” James said after the free at this year’s Worlds. “We had been so many times through it, getting second and third at Grand Prix and not making the Grand Prix Final, getting first and then fourth at Europeans. I couldn’t do it again. Normally I’m smiling on the ice. I try to feel free and get rid of my stress, but yesterday I didn’t smile at all. It wasn’t because I was nervous. It was because I was hungry and I wanted it so badly that I wasn’t going to give it away. That’s one of the only times other than Europeans two years ago where I’ve felt that. I knew when I got on the ice there could be a mistake or two, but I wasn’t going to give it away, not like at Olympics, not going for the triple Salchow. I think that was what made the difference so thank goodness we have made these mistakes in the past.
They have decided to compete again this season and their first event will be the Autumn Classic International in Canada this week. It will be the competitive unveiling of two new programmes both of which have been choreographed by well-known ice dancers. 2018 Olympic silver medallist Guillaume Cizeron created a routine with them to “Uninvited” by Alanis Morissette for their short, while they worked together with 2014 Olympic gold medallist Charlie White on their free to “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak.
They had been in two minds as to whether to continue or not as the stress of training has begun to take its toll on their bodies. In addition, many young teams will be snapping at their heels.
“It’s great when it’s great and it’s so hard even when you skate well and you don’t make it,” James said. “Sometimes we feel like this has to be our last year. We can’t deal with it anymore and then when we do well we feel like maybe we can still keep going.”
“Honestly it’s not about competition,” Ciprès added. “It’s about the practice every day and you come here and you are ready. It’s not that hard. Of course it’s hard at that moment and mentally, but I can do another competition in one week. It’s going to be kind of the same. To get ready –that’s the really hard part. We have to think about it because we have to listen to our bodies.”
“We are starting to get injuries,” James added. “I dislocated my shoulder. Morgan had a neck injury. He had a pain in his arm at Olympics. I had a hip injury. Last year at Europeans I tore my abdominal. No one knew about that, but I had a tear in my abdominal. Tons of things are creeping up on us.
“There’s always people coming up. Look at that little North Korean team – they’re frigging amazing! They are so cute. I love them. They have time to improve. There is no one that can stick to the same level. Everyone has to keep improving because this level is moving up so fast. Two years ago or even when we were third at Europeans in the short programme, we were third with 67 points. At 67 points you almost didn’t make the cut this year at Worlds. I don’t think anyone can just settle and say we’re here and we’re going to have it easy. We keep need to keep moving our butts and trying to improve.
“I don’t know if I can do the quad again or if we need it. It’s very hard on my body. I can do throws with my arms up now. I want to get it out in competition. We have to rearrange the programme because it had to be made for the quad. Without the quad, maybe we do a few things that are more interesting. We are still trying to evolve, and I think we need to with the level that is coming up.”