For too long Vanessa James has flown under the Bermudian radar. Her name—ringing few bells when spoken—belongs in the same breath as Bermuda’s other premier athlete, Flora Duffy. She was born here, and as a pairs figure skater with her partner Morgan Cipres, she is ranked second in the world.
On the one hand, it’s understandable. She left Bermuda with her family when she was 10 years old, leaving the halls of Mount Saint Agnes for a new life in North Carolina. She is Bermudian like her father, thus a British citizen. She’s not an American citizen though, like her mother, although she is a permanent resident. But on the ice she is French.
On the other hand, though, her performances over the last year should have made her a household name. She and Cipres went undefeated in the 2017–18 figure skating season and became European champions in the process. It would have been a perfect year were it not for events at the World Championships in Japan, when she suffered a crushing collision during warm-ups just 10 minutes before she had to perform. Tipped by many to take home the gold, the pair’s dominance came to an end when James fell on her triple-flip throw, too exhausted to land it. Despite the fall they still finished seventh, but their dismay was palpable.
The Bermudian caught up with Ms James this summer as she returned to the island to mourn her grandfather’s passing.
You and your partner Morgan Cipres had an incredible season leading up to the Worlds. Did that make it more disappointing when you weren’t able to cap off your streak with a win in Japan?
Of course. I think we were more prepared for this competition than any others when we were undefeated. At the time we were hurt, we were upset, we were disappointed, but Morgan and I have had so many of those moments in our career and the next year we always hit it out of the ballpark. Every time we went through hardship, we came back stronger. So for me it’s been a hidden blessing, because quite honestly, if we had won this competition Morgan and I may have stopped competing. We already had it in our minds. Morgan repeated it many times that if we come out of this season undefeated and win the World Championships, it’s going to be time. Then this happens out of nowhere—the fact we didn’t even get on the podium, it was a sign saying that “you’re not done.”
Does that mean you’re ready to kick ass in the Olympics?
Ah…[laughs]. We’re going to take it year-by-year. People are like, “Yeah! Do it!” France is really motivated to keep us in until the Olympics because we could get a team medal. We have a strong pairs team, we have a strong dance team, and then we have a strong boy. So in the team event, we could get six medals for France in each discipline. So everyone’s motivated because it’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, if we aren’t there, but Morgan and I are really taking it year-by-year, because it’s pointless to think about the next three years when you have to focus on what’s next. A Worlds medal next year is our goal, and if we start thinking about something else further on, we aren’t focussed on the present. So right now we’re just going to see how our bodies feel, if we’re still there emotionally, mentally, physically, and then we’ll go from there.
Can you walk me through what happened in the warm-up when the crash happened?
I was skating backwards and I heard a scream. I tried to brace myself a little bit then I got hit from behind. I couldn’t even tell you really what happened at the time. But now, seeing the video, we both know what happened. And I think if someone didn’t scream, we wouldn’t have had that split second to try and avoid each other. But…it is what it is.
Did it hurt more when it happened, or did it hurt more watching the tape? It’s a pretty brutal crash!
It hurt more after the fact, the next day, when I actually had to skate the long programme. For me, when it happened, it was a shock. I didn’t really feel pain except for maybe my elbow and my knee, but those are normal pains that you have as an athlete when you fall. So I felt the shock and I felt a little spacey, but it wasn’t painful, I just…didn’t feel well. I was dizzy, I didn’t know how to react really. Most of the time when you get off the six-minute warm-up, you’re focussed, you know what you need to think of, but people were asking me questions left and right. “Do you need this? Are you going to be able to skate? How do you feel?” There was no way for me to focus. I was already light-headed and spacey. The next day was when I really felt the pain. I had back spasms that night, so I had a massage. I was really stiff in my neck, I couldn’t really turn my head. I still have pain in my right leg today so we have to take a scan, an MRI to check, I just haven’t had time. I’ve been able to skate, but every time I stop skating for a little bit it’s still really painful.
So how long was it between the crash and getting back out on the ice for your programme?
We skated third, so about 15 minutes. Not even, actually. It was about 10 minutes.
What was going through your head at the time?
I was trying to figure out what to focus on, because I always have a routine backstage. I know what to think about, I have my music, I have a phrase that I re-run in my head that lets me breathe and reminds me what I have to do. But it was like I was numb. Everyone’s telling me things to do that they normally wouldn’t tell me. It was just a weird feeling I guess. It felt like I was dreaming.
Can I ask what that phrase is?
Okay, so sometimes I read it in French and sometimes I read it in English. My uncle Brian, who’s a dentist in Virginia, he sent it to me. It’s actually from a video about an 80-year-old Chinese model. He started taking care of himself around 50 years old, started learning new languages, started exercising, became a model…and he said “No one can keep you from success, except yourself. When it’s time to shine, be the brightest.” I’m reading that on my phone, because when you see it is when you really feel it. I read it to myself and feel it when he says “When it’s time to shine, be the brightest.” People will react differently to that, but for me, it makes me feel calm, it gives me confidence.
What else is in your routine?
Morgan always comes up to me and will give me “the look” and tell me, “Okay make sure you do this, we can do it, we can fight,” yadda yadda. I have a song that I listen to also, and then it’s time to go!
It’s “Soldier” by Gavin DeGraw.
How do you think the fall affected you out on the ice?
It affected me because…Morgan and I, for the whole week, we didn’t make one mistake. Not one error on any element. And as soon as I got up after getting hit, the first thing I did was make a mistake. I messed up my triple-toe. It’s not a hard element for me but it’s the one I need to focus on the most in the programme just so that I know I have my rhythm, but I messed it up. And the second I messed it up it’s like, “What’s going on? What happened?” It kind of freaked me out. I knew it was probably going to be a fight, but I wanted to fight. So [during the performance] the triple-toe went well, really well, I nailed it. My partner on the other hand missed the toe-loop. I think that was also down to the stress. He didn’t go through his normal routine because he was thinking more about me than himself at that time. And then when I fell on the triple-flip, it was because I had so much adrenaline in the first half of the programme, but by then I was completely drained. I had no energy left in me.
Let’s go back to the beginning now. How did you go from a girl who watched Tara Lapinsky and Michelle Kwan on TV to one of the top-ranked pairs figure skaters in the world?
Well I feel like everything starts with a dream, a passion. You never know what you want to do until it just…clicks. Like a vision. It can’t be forced upon you. Your parents can’t push you to do it. It has to come naturally, and that’s what happened when I was watching the Olympics. It was beautiful, it was glittery, it was everything that a girl wants. These girls were super talented and watching them with my sister, we decided that’s what we want to do. After that it was just a lot of hard work. Blood sweat and tears. A lot of sacrifice between time, the injuries…It took, what, 20 years to get where we are today?
Wow! 20 years? What’s it like practising something so intensely for that long?
It’s natural. It’s like work, I guess. You don’t really plan to go for that long—you’re always saying, “Oh I’ll do this Olympics or that…” It just takes time. And it’s something that I love to do, so I can’t say it was a hassle or anything. Twenty years flew by. I’m 31 years old now and I’m still doing what I love.
You started skating in Virginia in 1998. How did that start?
[Her mother chimes in] Public skating, at first.
Yep. [Vanessa confirms] We went public skating actually because my uncles played hockey—they’re on my mom’s side, from Canada. My dad, obviously, being from Bermuda doesn’t know how to skate at all. So it was pretty funny—we all went one Christmas and picked it up together and we knew that’s what we wanted to do.
Can your dad skate now?
I wouldn’t say he knows how to skate…he tries to skate! He can shuffle!
When did you realise this was something you really wanted to start taking seriously?
I guess it was when I hit Junior [level] and I knew that I was pretty talented. I was starting to get triple triples, a lot of coaches were interested in me, a lot of coaches said I could be great, a lot of Russian coaches. You always think that you can do it but you’re never sure until other people start seeing it and start telling you. When high-level coaches believe in you, you believe in yourself. That’s when it clicked for me.
What kind of competitions were you competing in following that Sophomore year?
As a singles skater I was British National Champion. I did a few Junior Grand Prix and things like that. I wasn’t getting super results. I was third place in the Coupe de Nice, just before I moved to Paris. So I was transitioning. I was very, very good in practice—I knew how to train and was confident—and then when I got to competition there was something lacking. So it was very frustrating being so perfect in practice and not so perfect in competition, when I needed to be. That was when I wondered if skating wasn’t for me. I wanted to stop as a singles skater.
Then my first partner, a British skater—Hamish Gaman—asked me if I wanted to try pairs. My mom still wanted me to compete and not give up on my dream, so she said go and try it. And I loved it. I loved sharing and being with someone—I dunno, that interaction I guess. I picked it up really quickly, decided that we were going to skate together, he moved to where I was skating for eight months, and I progressed really quickly and eventually exceeded his level. So I decided to move on to another partner who became my first French partner, Yannick Bonheur.
Your trajectory upwards from there…was it always upwards, or were there some bumps along the way?
There’s ups and downs to every person’s career. You can’t tell if those ups and downs are more dramatic than others’, it’s just your perspective. Some people can say a small defeat is their whole life, a catastrophe, it could end someone’s career, but it’s all about feeling. No competition is more or less important, it just depends. If you make it to a high level, of course Worlds is more important. If you only make two Europeans, then that was your Worlds. So it was a bumpy road, especially being in pairs, but my trajectory I’d have to say was always upwards. You have people that are great quickly that don’t last—they never make it on the podium in the Olympics or Worlds—but I took my time and I’m still here.
Things really took off for you and your current partner, Morgan Cipres, following a coaching change. Walk me through that change and the effect it had on your routine.
Morgan and I were a pretty good team—very athletic. We had big jumps, big throws, nothing was too difficult for us. We had the highest technical elements in most of the competitions, but skating is not only technical. We have a second mark that is very important also: the component mark—artistry, performance, interpretation, transitions…everything we were lacking. The component score can be worth the same or even more as your technical, and we were lacking in that. We came fourth at Europeans, then sixth and eighth at Worlds, results like that, but that’s not enough for the sacrifice and time you put into this, and we knew that we needed to get better, and if we weren’t going to, then it was time for us to stop. So our coaches were telling us what we were going to do for the next year, and it was the same as the year before. We said we’re not here for that, and so we made a change.
We talked with our federation, told them everything they wanted to hear. They want us to get better. They don’t want us to settle for mediocre or “pretty good.” No one would’ve said fourth place at Europeans was mediocre, but for us it wasn’t enough. So I did some research, wondering where we could find coaches where we’re the priority, because they have a lot of centres in Canada with great coaches, but they have maybe 10 elite pairs. So Morgan and I really wanted to be the focus. We had a lot to work on, especially in the second mark. So I looked up John Zimmerman and his team. What I liked about John was that he’s really athletic, his pair wasn’t the classical, pretty Russian style. They were muscular, they were dymanic, athletic, like us. So I called him and asked if he’d be able to do this with us and he said “definitely.” He looked at our videos, he knew what to change, and he made it happen. So we went to Coral Springs at the time, in Florida, where they were living and training, and had a three-month trial. And the federation was very, very happy when they came to see the difference, and we’ve been with them ever since.
When you say “the Federation”, you mean the French Federation of Ice Sports?
Yeah. They flew to the US to come and see what had been going on and the progression we’d made.
And they are the ones who decide what competitions you’ll be competing in?
They decide who goes where, how much funding is allocated, everything. All ice sports. Bobsled, speed skating, short track, synchro, then us.
What’s that like, the pressure of having to prove you’re worth further investment?
There’s a fine line between impressing them and still focussing on what you need to do. You can’t live your life trying to impress other people, but at the same time it’s important because they’re the ones funding you. I think we found that line pretty quickly, but the thing is, Morgan and I were always pretty much the top team, and we have been for the last eight years. We were never looking to be better than anyone in France, we were looking at our competition from other countries. Everyone’s happy when you’re French national champions, but that was never our goal. We’re always looking beyond that.
As France’s top figure skating pair, you’ve certainly gained quite the following among figure skating fans. How have you handled that? Your Instagram followers seem desperate for you and Morgan to be romantically involved!
[Laughs] Oh, that! Well we have a lot of fans and a lot of them are international—we have Japanese fans, I know I have a lot of support here in Bermuda which is great—they’re all over the world. The fact they want us to get married and making little skating babies, that’s funny for both of us. We love that everyone sees the chemistry that we have together. Morgan and I knew we were going to get along the minute we started skating together. We always had a problem where if we weren’t good off the ice, it was a catastrophe on the ice. Whereas other teams can work whether they like or hate each other, for us, if there was a a fight off the ice, there was no way we could work well that day on the ice. Which was a big flaw for us, but it also became a strength because when we’re good—and that’s most of the time now—it’s magic. So we appreciate that everyone sees the connection we have. But other than that, the whole babies and marriage thing…fans appreciate us for who we are on the ice and on social media, but they don’t know who we really are. So we have a connection, but it’s more like best friends. We tell each other everything and that’s why we have so much confidence in each other, so if there’s a fall or something, I need to be there to show Morgan I have the confidence in him even when he doesn’t. So we are friends and support each other, but nothing more and I think it would be complicated if we tried that. We actually help each other with our own relationships. That’s what people don’t really see, because we try not to expose our personal lives too much. But no, no, no, Morgan and I…we couldn’t be any other way, and I’d never want it to be any other way. The reason we’re doing so well today is because of the relationship we have today.
Can you tell us a little bit more about how that relationship works? Why do you compliment each other so well? What makes you such good partners?
I’m very laid back. I like having my fun. I love enjoying my skating, I don’t mind making mistakes in practice—it gets to me in competitions but I know it’s not the end of the world—but Morgan is more of a perfectionist. He doesn’t want to make mistakes in practice. He’s not all about the fun of it, while I still want to appreciate and love what I do every day. For him it’s more of a job. So we’re very complimentary. When he’s having a hard time I’m there to tell him to chill out, it’s fine, offer to do something new like try a new lift, and he’ll say, “No, I don’t want to try a new lift!” And then he’ll try it and he’s like, “Cool! Let’s do it again!” But he’s also the one that pushes our team to strive for more, to be perfect, to not let errors in, to be confident. He’s a very good competitor and he doesn’t doubt himself. So I think two people like me wouldn’t work as a pair, and two people like him would kill each other. I think that’s what makes us complimentary. 15:36
What are those disagreements about? Is it on-ice stuff, or off-ice?
When we were younger it was more just fights off the ice and stuff like that, but now it’s more what’s happening on the ice—maybe I make a mistake, or he forgets an arm movement, or he doesn’t want to do something I want to try. But we have coaches who take care of that. They tell us to stop when we start bickering, they make the decisions. No issue lasts more than a couple of minutes. When you know where you want to go, and who you have to do it with, it only takes a few minutes to realise that we have the same goal.
Walk me through a day in the life of Vanessa James these days. What’s it like being you?
I wake up around 7 a.m., make my smoothies in the morning…
What kind of smoothies?
I put protein in them but mostly I mix them up. Most of the time I put some spinach in mine, protein powder, vanilla almond milk, and bananas…maybe mango. Morgan’s not into the whole green thing, so I have to put strawberries into his along with his protein.
After that we go to the rink around 8:15–8:30 and get on the ice. At 9:00 we have an hour session with one of our coaches that helps with our skating skills, finishes, things like that. Then we have about a 45-minute break before getting back on the ice to do our biggest technical session for about an hour to an hour and fifteen, depending. That’s with John Zimmerman, who’s our main coach. We have about an hour-and-a-half break, then we come out and start warming up again before our second technical session with Jeremy Barrett, who is one of our technical coaches. Then we have a half-hour break, then we have workouts on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It’s a half-hour workout with a lot of cardio, lifting, anything that incorporates cardio with what we do on the ice. It’s not just running around. We have to do sprints and then lifts, so Morgan works a lot on repetitions, doing throws and lifts along with the fatigue, so he can practise his technique [while being tired].
What’s an average workout routine for you?
John varies quite a bit. He makes it up as he goes. We’ll have to sprint 100 metres, do 20 burpees, sprint back, do five repetitions of lifts where Morgan will lift me over his head, keeping me up then squatting with my body weight, then sprint again. Then we’ll practise the first element in our routine—he’ll launch me five times in the air, and then we’ll sprint again. Then we’ll have to do sit-ups or jump-squats, sprint again, and then we’re done. And we’ll have to do that four times.
5 squats for Morgan, lifting Vanessa
5 reps of Morgan throwing Vanessa in the air, replicating their first element
Sit-ups and/or jump-squats
Repeat 3 more times
So he actually lifts you instead of using weights?
Yep. I’m his dumbbells I guess.
What’s that like?
Sometimes I feel bad because it’s more tiring for him than me. I mean, I’m holding my weight so it’s not dead weight, but sometimes it’s hard being up there not doing anything, trying to breathe in so I’m lighter while he’s suffering! But it all comes with the territory.
Ok so you’re done with the workout. What’s next?
We have a half-hour break and I go to my stretching class. It’s not just lying on the ground though, it’s active stretching. A lot of back strengthening and stuff like that with an Olympic gymnast, trying to be lean but strong. So that’s another workout for me, and that lasts about an hour. I have to drive about 45 minutes to get there, so by the time I get home it’s about 7:30 p.m.
How do you unwind?
I make dinner for Morgan and myself, because we like to eat together, you know? It’s better. And then…I go to sleep! Maybe go on instagram a little bit [laughs]. Bedtime is probably around 10:30. Takes me about an hour to cook, then I rest a little bit, shower, then go to bed around 10:00 or 10:30.
What’s it like dating someone when you’re spending your entire day, morning to night, with another guy? Does that present any challenges?
I think it was more challenging for him [Jason] in the beginning because he didn’t know Morgan very well. And you know it’s hard to see people commenting “Oh, they belong together!” But he was a high-level athlete, he did Judo, so he knows what my skating and my career means to me. No, it’s no problem, and I think it’s better for us because during the week we’re only focussed on each other and we’re only focussed on what we need to do for our skating. And on the weekend is our time to relax and unwind and make time for everything else in our lives, you know? It may be hard for someone to accept that I put my skating first, but high-level…anything…you have to be very ego-centric. That’s how you make it to the top. And we both have people that are understanding of that fact.
Okay last question. Do you have any advice for a girl pursuing a goal that the “other girls” aren’t? Who is chasing something on her own?
Yeah, that’s a good question. You know, believe in yourself. Everyone says that, it’s easy to say you believe in yourself but not actually believe it. Any sport, any job, any career…it’s not easy sailing, especially when you want to be good at it. You’re going to have some downfalls, some hardships, but “believing” really means persisting, being determined no matter what. Believe your parents when they tell you that you can do it, because they’re the ones that see it. It’s hard to see yourself and where you are sometimes, especially when you’re the one feeling the pain. You don’t need idols, you just need people to support you. Surround yourself with positive people that love and support you, and you’ll make it. I am one of the few black people on the ice today, and I didn’t have an idol that looked like me. Surya Bonaly is a well-known black figure skater, especially in France, but I’m a pairs skater and she was a singles skater. Surya didn’t represent what I wanted to be as a skater, but she opened so many doors for me, being that one that was criticised and discriminated against. She was France’s first black female skater and it was very difficult for her, but she opened so many doors for us to now be accepted, to change things, to be proud as the only black people on the ice. So I hope people in Bermuda realise they don’t need to settle for what everyone else is doing—tennis, or track and field and stuff—there’s so many things that we are capable of doing and being the best, so believe it.