By Hiro Yoshida
A nightmare end to a dream season means Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès have unfinished business when it comes to skating.
Until their arrival in Saitama, Japan for this year’s World Championships, James and Ciprès were riding high. In December 2018, they became the first French pair to win the Grand Prix Final and followed that in January 2019 with European gold in Minsk Belarus. It was the first time a pair from France had claimed a European title since 1932. In the run-up to Worlds, they were rightly seen as real contenders for gold.
Things were going according to plan until the final six-minute warm-up for the short programme in Saitama. James and Italian pairs skater Matteo Guarise collided with each other and, although neither skater suffered serious injury, the French were clearly shaken by the accident. James fell on a throw triple flip and Ciprès doubled a triple toe loop during the routine afterwards.
“After the six minutes, it was more that I was dizzy, kind of spaced out,” James recalled. “When I hit, I felt some pain in my knee, my elbow, but it went away when I was waiting for the six minutes to finish. It was just I wasn’t in my mind. I didn’t feel good.”
“During the six-minute (warm-up) it was not over, but it was something really bad for us,” Ciprès said. “I could see in her eyes and her body movement she was not on ice with me anymore. She was somewhere else. She was skating, but just with her body’s memories. She didn’t have a brain to think about what she has to do on the ice. She was kind of lost and for me it was hard to handle this moment because obviously it’s the World Championships. We came here for the gold and I was not ready to handle this kind of thing. I know how to take care of her when she is feeling a little bit stressed or not confident, but this kind of thing I wasn’t ready.
“We didn’t have enough time before the programme. If that thing happened during the practice in the morning, it’s not the same thing as during the six-minute warm-up. It’s sad. It’s unfortunate. There’s nothing we can change. It just happened and that’s it.”
The French found themselves down in seventh place after the short and faced an uphill battle to climb onto the podium, never mind battling for the title. They performed solidly in the free skating the following day to finish third in that segment and pulled up to fifth overall.
“Before the long I was very stiff,” James said. “I was still able to skate well in the long and do a good programme. I made sure that I stayed warm and took some ibuprofen. It was fine. It was after the long programme where the pain really hit because I think the adrenaline went away. No more ibuprofen and that’s when it was really painful in the evening. On the bus back, my back started hurting and I got spasms in my back and then my neck was horrible.
“It wasn’t an easy programme with some of the fatigue and the anxiety from the hit. It was a hard programme for us, but some of those hardest programmes are what we appreciate most in them.”
“Obviously it was very hard during the six-minute warm-up, but we did our best in the long programme,” Ciprès added. “Without the mistake we did in the long programme we could have gotten on the podium. We didn’t come here to do the same as last year. Of course, it’s still nice and amazing to get a medal, but we wanted to fight for the title.
“I wanted so much to have a good fight with the Chinese and the Russians, but mostly the Chinese. When I popped my jump in the short programme, I was in the same mood as her.”
“It is a shame for me because we were so ready for this competition,” James said. “I don’t think we missed one element in any practice until the six minutes when I popped my toe loop after the fall.”
“It was a bit harder after Europeans because it was a long season,” Ciprès reflected. “We had great results, so we came to Worlds with maybe a different mindset. I think our bodies were a little more tired than before Europeans or the Grand Prix Final. We were really good at practice even at Worlds. We didn’t miss a lot of things.
“I think it’s mostly because of the warm-up. It was a little bit different to come for the gold, but what we have to do on the ice is still the same. It doesn’t change our practice. We try to get better every day.”
Conversely, their setback at Worlds has given them the motivation that they needed to continue competing.
“We think it’s kind of destiny because a world medal could have led us to deciding we were done,” James said. “This is a sign that we’re not done with figure skating. We still have a lot to prove. We’re not going to stop till we get what we want.”
“We’re going to come back,” Ciprès agreed. “We just missed this Worlds. It’s not the end of the world.”
“It’s part of our journey,” James said. “It’s always been like this. Last year fourth at Europeans, first this year. We didn’t make it to Grand Prix Final, we won it this year.”
With or without a world title, James and Ciprès have left their mark on the sport in more ways than one. Their costume and music selections have had a clear influence on the skating world.
“From Olympics till today I’ve never seen as many catsuits as I’ve seen this year,” James said. “I feel everyone has turned to catsuits now and trying to be more modern in the choices of music.
“I think it’s an honour because other than results and things like that we’ve made a mark and are leaving something behind for future skaters. We’ve changed the sport a little bit and I think that’s more important than any results. Results are judged but changing something in the sport and people following that trend is a bigger compliment.
“I am really proud of that because you can make history with medals, but every year there is someone new,” Ciprès said. “You don’t even remember if this guy has a gold medal, but you remember this guy because he did something. He put something in figure skating.”
“We’re all pushing the sport forwards and trying to keep it going in this direction,” James said.
One of the innovations James and Ciprès tried was collaborating with fellow French national team member and four-time ice dance world champion Guillaume Cizeron on the choreography of their “Uninvited” short programme.
“We really like Guillaume as a friend, as a skater and he works really well with us,” Ciprès said. “It was not easy for him at the beginning because he never did that before. We were really happy with him because he was really professional in his work and he didn’t come as a friend. He wanted to work like a professional and he did it.
“He was prepared which is impressive coming from someone who has never coached before or choreographed,” James added. “You can see that in his own skating. He’s a perfectionist and he’s very professional and he knows what he wants. He followed us. Every time we had a competition he would ask us how we felt on this or would say he wanted to change something. It wasn’t just that he worked with us and then let us continue to evolve and change. He really was invested in keeping us happy and making it better as the year went on so that was very nice even from afar.”
They also worked with 2014 Olympic ice dance champion Charlie White on their “Wicked Game” free and the synergy created between the two disciplines is something the French believe has elevated both.
“I think it’s cool that pairs skating is starting to look more like ice dancing now and not the basic crossovers, straight arms,” James said. “It makes it more intricate and more beautiful. The fact that our sport is more athletic and artistic makes it one of the best disciplines, if not the best.”
“The funny story about this is pairs are trained to look like ice dancers, but ice dancers are trying to do stuff like pairs,” Ciprès said. “That’s really complimentary and that’s why we worked with ice dancers. At national championships, two or three ice dancers came to me and asked me about the lift we do in the choreo step. They wanted me to teach them this lift.”
The success and good reaction they have experienced with the music they have chosen these past few seasons has assured them that they are on the right path for the future.
“We are more and more confident because we have had pretty good choices in the last few years and we were really nervous after ‘Sound of Silence’ and ‘Earned It’ and then the next year we made some good choices with ‘Make it Rain’ and ‘Say Something’,” James said. “We’ve been pretty consistent in picking some good music. We’re less nervous now about it.”
“For me I really need something I really like to hear every day,” Ciprès said. “We are very emotional in everything we do. That’s why I think it’s important for us to skate with people who we like, music we like. We need that. It doesn’t work for us if we don’t feel it.”
“Morgan was so into the long programme,” James said. “I liked it. I told John (Zimmerman) and Silvia (Fontana) I wanted to skate to it too because Morgan liked it so much. They were not sure, but Morgan insisted, insisted, insisted.
“John and Silvia had mentioned the same song that Brandon (Frazier) and Haven (Denney) are skating to this year ‘Two Men in Love’,” James said. “It’s a good song, but it didn’t suit us, and we needed something powerful.”
After skating to contemporary music for the past few seasons, they have considered taking things in a new direction.
“I have an idea for some classical music,” James said. “I think it could work. It’s going to push us to new horizons and boundaries. We’re not going to do what people expect us to do and I think it’s the time because we are evolving. We’re working on our extensions. We’re working on our finishing and I think it would be the perfect chance to show we can do this too.”.
At the end of May, it was announced that James would be part of a team performing on “Battle of the Blades”, a popular Canadian skating-based reality television show. Ciprès will be part of her coaching team for the series which starts airing on 19 September and runs until late October. The French requested later Grand Prix events this season and were assigned the Internationaux de France in Grenoble and NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan.
James and Ciprès are going to keep pushing boundaries and continue competing for as long as they can. Whether that will take them up to Beijing 2022 remains to be seen.
“We like to create new transitions and new lifts,” Ciprès said. “Sometimes we have a lot of new stuff, but we don’t use it for the programme because there is no place to put it or it doesn’t go with the music. We really enjoy it and she is really creative on a lot of things.
“We wanted to stop before Worlds last year. Now we have to skate one more year obviously because we have to get this title. It’s getting closer and closer to the Olympics.”
“We’re in it for another year and then we’ll see,” James said. “Even though Worlds was upsetting, it brought in a new motivation. Everything happens for a reason.”