By Hiro Yoshida
Less than a year after officially announcing they had teamed up, Vanessa James and Eric Radford landed on the World podium in Montpellier, France last month. The Canadians reflect on a season of highs and lows that ultimately brought them to that bronze medal.
Both James and Radford were already decorated skaters with previous partners. James won the 2019 European title for France with Morgan Ciprès, while Radford was a double World champion and individual Olympic bronze medallist with Meagan Duhamel. Naturally, the pairs knew each other from competing on the circuit.
“We were always worried about Morgan and Vanessa,” Radford recalled. “In the years after Meagan and I retired, we really saw them hit their stride and gain all of that momentum. It was always impressive to see how they improved each season.”
“With Eric and Meagan, they always pushed the limit, pushed the technical box,” James said. “That was something that was really admirable, getting out the quads, trying a second quad, the triple Lutzes in the short programme and always being pretty consistent.”
Radford had initially hung up his skates after the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. James and Ciprès skated competitively for the last time together at the 2019 World Championships in Saitama, Japan where they finished fifth.
In December 2019, it came to light that Ciprès was under investigation in Florida for sending a sexually explicit image to a minor and was subsequently charged in his absence in late 2020. In the meantime, the French Federation of Ice Sports released a statement in September 2020 that James and Ciprès had retired from competitive skating.
James and Radford crossed paths again on “Battle of the Blades” where they were both cast as contestants in the Canadian television show that matches up professional figure skaters and ice hockey players. Before the show began filming, they skated together to practice and get back into shape. Returning to compete together initially did not enter their minds.
“We didn’t really have any plans,” James said. “It was just to play around to see what we looked like. We didn’t really think too much about it and I got a call from US Figure Skating to do a trial with Danny (O’Shea).”
James did not team up with O’Shea. However, the idea of coming back to elite competition was sown and brought James back together with Radford.
“We reconnected and decided to give it a shot,” James said. “It just seemed to work and mesh. Honestly, we were just thrown into the deep end. We had to get back in shape together because neither of us had been skating really.”
“At the very beginning, when I invited Vanessa to come and just skate for fun, I was really thinking for shows,” Radford said. “Competition was not on the radar at all. The competition idea didn’t even come on the radar until after those few days when other people were coming up to me and saying, ‘Wow, you guys look good. You should totally come back.’
“That was how it popped into our heads. Then we started to think about it a bit more.”
“When it started coming together, we actually thought it was going to be very difficult,” James said. “It became almost overwhelming, because we weren’t sure if we’d get a release.
“We didn’t know if it was even going to work, but we decided to just keep having fun. It was a surprise to us too, but as Eric usually says we let go of the steering wheel, and we let it guide us and everything just came to fruition.”
Due to James previously skating for France, a release was needed from the French federation to enable her to skate for Canada. In the past, French skaters found the process of being released to skate for other countries arduous. Fortunately for James, former ice dancer Nathalie Pechalat had taken over the helm of the French federation in 2020 and her release was quickly expedited.
“I know for federations it’s business, but this new federation has the best interest for their athletes, and not just themselves,” James said. “What Natalie is doing for this new FFSG, and what she did for me is incredible. I’m truly thankful.”
The reaction to the announcement that they were returning to compete as a pair was mixed. In particular, Radford was taken aback by his former partner Duhamel’s public statements on feeling blindsided and upset by the decision.
“I’m surprised how polarising Vanessa and my journey has been for some people,” Radford said. “I spoke with Meagan as soon as I knew that this was going to be something that was concrete. Some people think that I should have just told Meagan when the idea popped into my head, but I don’t think that’s how things work in the real world. I think that you have to make those decisions carefully.
“I know that me coming back with somebody else was probably going to be something that was very difficult for her. But I will honestly say that I think that if the tables were turned, and Meagan was the one coming back, I would have reacted completely differently than Meagan did. I would be very supportive.
“I think it’s unfortunate and sad that after everything Meagan and I accomplished and what we’ve been through together that we no longer have a friendship or a relationship.”
“We have very good families, very good entourages,” James said. I think that’s what helped us keep our tunnel vision because there was so much outside noise, doubts, naysayers. People just saying things that are untrue.
“People that know us know who we are and those are the ones that are important. They’re the ones that encouraged us to keep going, to focus on ourselves and to do our best every single time we got out there on the ice.”
“At the beginning of the season, between me, Vanessa, and (coach) Julie (Marcotte) was our little safe space, our little island,” Radford said. “From there, we were kind of untouchable. It didn’t matter what anybody thought or was saying about us. It was always just us skating for us and that was the best feeling. There’s always a team around all the skaters and athletes that end up having success, and we owe them so much that it could not have been done without them. To have their support just means the world to us.”
James and Radford opened their season at the Autumn Classic International where they took a silver medal. While showing moments of brilliance, they subsequently struggled with consistency placing fifth at Finlandia Trophy in October and fourth at both their Grand Prix assignments in Canada and France and at Golden Spin in December.
“There were little pockets of time in the beginning when we landed our first throw triple flip, when we landed our first throw Salchow and they were really good,” Radford said. “We thought if the first ones we did were this good, they have the potential to be as good as the Russians and as good as the Chinese. We have done individual elements that I believe are as good as them. Then we had to put everything together in the programme and that’s where we hit a bit of a roadblock.
“I think what we learned throughout the season is that there’s no shortcut to go out and have a clean skate. You have to go out and make the mistakes in order to know how not to make the mistakes. You can’t just go out and be perfect all the time. It became clear that we were not going to be able to skip the line and just jump to the top.”
James and Radford were thrown another curveball when both of them came down with Covid-19 mere weeks before the Canadian Figure Skating Championships. They recovered in time to compete, but withdrew after placing fourth in the short programme. In the end, they were selected for the Canadian Olympic team on the basis of their results throughout the season.
“The Covid itself wasn’t that severe, so that part of it wasn’t that bad,” Radford said. “But when you’re trying to train to a really high level, and you take ten days off, it’s incredibly difficult to try and get back there. It’s such a short time. In hindsight, maybe we were more ambitious than we should have been in terms of trying to get back and get to Nationals. We pushed it, and we thought that we could and I think if it ever happened again we might make a different decision.
“It was an ambitious decision, but we wanted to show up,” James said. “We wanted to show good sportsmanship and not just say we’re not even going to try. That was our mentality going in and then we figured out that we definitely weren’t in a place to skate well. We are very lucky and happy and grateful that we did the work throughout the season so that we had something to fall back on.”
“There was never a good time to get Covid, but as we approached the Olympics, we kind of realised that in a way we were lucky to have gotten it over with because the odds of getting it again immediately afterwards are very small,” Radford said. “There was some stress trying to get all of the negative tests we needed to get to the Olympics. Compared to some of the other skaters who hadn’t gotten it yet and could not see anybody for weeks leading up to the Olympics, I think it was more stressful for them.”
In Beijing, James and Radford competed in the free skating segment of the team event where they placed fourth which was also where Canada finished overall. In the individual competition, they were 12th in both the short and free and ended up 12th in the final standings.
The week after the Beijing Olympics ended Russia invaded Ukraine prompting sporting organisations, including the International Skating Union, to ban Russian athletes from competition. In addition to this, China decided not to send any skaters to this season’s World Championships. Both of these factors had a profound impact on the pairs event in France with places on the podium up for grabs.
A couple of minor errors saw James and Radford in fifth place after the short in Montpellier, but they rallied in the free delivering the second best routine of the night which propelled them upwards to a bronze medal.
When it had been announced that the post-Beijing World Championships would take place in Montpellier, James had envisaged closing out a chapter of her career skating in front of a home crowd. Even if it happened in a way she did not envisage, she is still glad to have made it this far.
“Definitely my goal was to finish my career in France, and to win a medal, if not win a title,” James said. “It kind of felt like it was taken away. I definitely felt like I had unfinished business.
“I had that opportunity given to me by Natalie Pechalat, who gave me my release and Skate Canada who opened their arms and welcomed me into the team. I was given that opportunity by Eric and Julie who trusted me and welcomed me on this journey with them. I’m so grateful and it is a dream come true.”
At thirty-four and thirty-seven respectively, James and Radford are at ages when most of their contemporaries have retired. Radford did not expect to have a third Olympics under his belt, but feels a sense of pride at having regained his physical condition to compete again at the highest level.
“A post of one of my Facebook memories popped up after the Olympics from 2018,” Radford said. “It was from four years earlier where I said, ‘I’m going to be thirty-three at the next Olympics.’ That was out of the realm of possibility and then to do another one when I was thirty-seven was just even more wildly unbelievable.
“At the same time, I think that’s one of the aspects of this whole season that makes me feel the most proud of myself. It’s one thing to overcome, to prove somebody else wrong. But to prove to yourself, about yourself and your belief in yourself, I just feel really proud about that, because I would have never imagined it would have even been possible to get my body back to where it needed to be to relearn so many elements.”
It was less of a surprise for James as she had always intended on continuing her career. She believes that veteran competitive skaters still have a lot to offer the sport.
“I definitely expected myself to be here,” James said. “I did. Not in this way, not after almost two years of retirement, but I did envision myself on the podium, and it was a goal. Maybe it’s a manifestation in a different type of way, but I wouldn’t say that it was impossible seeing the longevity of people’s careers now, how pairs can continue for such a long time when you look at Aljona (Savchenko) and Bruno (Massot) and even Tatiana (Volosozhar) and Max (Trankov). I think that’s what the sport needs. It needs longevity.”
James and Radford have still not decided what there next step will be. However, they are sure that they will keep mentoring and advocating for younger athletes both on and off the ice.
“We’re helping a lot of couples in Canada,” James said. “We’ve been helping some of the junior teams, paying it forward. It’s just giving our help, advice, tips and motivation. Hopefully, we can help the future generations to continue to thrive.
“After we’ll have to sit down and decide what the next step is for us. We don’t want to think about it now.”
As an out and proud LGBTQ+ skater, Radford has used his position to advance the visibility of his community in skating.
“I just feel it’s an honour to be able to use my story and use my experience and my success in skating that has given me a larger voice,” he said. “Hopefully I can use it to inspire a younger generation and be a role model for young athletes that I would have loved to have when I was younger, because I didn’t see it so much. I felt like I was the only gay person in the whole world at the very beginning. I think that a lot of LGBT youth feel that way so it’s something that I will continue to do. I’ve worked with some really great charities in and around Toronto and Montreal.”
Despite all the struggles, disappointments and setbacks that their first season together brought them, James and Radford have no doubts that teaming up and coming back to compete was the right thing.
“You can’t live your life for somebody else,” Radford said. “You have to do what makes you happy. You have to follow your dreams. I think that’s what we’ve both done and we don’t have any regrets.”
“I think people have a different perspective on why we did this and why we made this choice,” James said. “At least for us, we’re very proud of ourselves.”