James and Cipres turn a corner

From across the sea, we are told that a set of hair clippers is at the ready to sheer pair coach John Zimmerman into baldness.

Didn’t Zimmerman say – we’re sure he did – that he would shave his head if his new team, Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France won a medal at the European championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic?

Well, they did, in dramatic fashion on Thursday. The medal was bronze, but it felt like gold, looked like gold, sounded like gold. The Czech crowd adopted them, screamed for them, cheered for them like they were their own, gave them a standing ovation. The joy of James and Cipres in both the short and long program was infectious. At the end of the free skate, Cipres fell to the ice, his face to the freeze, hands over his head, drinking it in. James was in tears, almost in disbelief.

It had been a long time coming. And with the switch to Zimmerman’s school in Coral Gables, Fla., last June, James and Cipres are finally finding their stride. And they are exciting to watch, to boot. They skated one of those routines that will live in the memory – much like what Zimmerman did himself at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City when he and partner Kyoko Ina skated out of their skins, one of the performances of the night, unheralded unfortunately, as they finished fourth, just off the podium.

So Zimmerman knows how to do it, to face the pressure head on, to insinuate all sorts of cool, difficult tricks into the equation. Last summer, James and Cipres picked Zimmerman to lead them out of the wilderness they had been in for five years, showing hints of athletic prowess, never quite getting it.

“We picked him because when John skated with Kyoko, they were the classic Russian team, classic and pretty,” James said. “They were athletic and did crazy lifts and crazy elements. I felt like we look like them and we just needed a little bit more help to bring it out. It’s working really well.”

They had spent only three months with Zimmerman before they went to the Autumn Classic in Montreal last October. Zimmerman said he didn’t want to change too much – what time did he have? – but just take what they had and heap layers of good things on it all.

In Florida, James and Cipres work with Zimmerman’s entire team, which includes his wife Silvia Fontana, Jeremy Barrett (who won the U.S. championship title in 2010 with Caydee Denney), and former British ice dancer John Kerr. “We are happy to come to the rink,” Cipres said. “We find it good because our team is like a family. It’s a big team and we are together. That’s what made it for me. I want to find this before, but it’s life.”

Zimmerman and friends knew little about James and Cipres, other than they had seen this French team skate. Still, they presented them with music that was new for them and that they thought would just do the trick: “Earned It” by The Weeknd for the short program and “The Sound of Silence,” performed by noise-blasting band Disturbed for the long.

“They said we think this will work for you guys,” James said, speaking of Disturbed’s intense but uncharacteristically quiet music. “And we’re like: ‘Ummmmm, we’ll see.’

“And then I started liking it. And then Morgan didn’t know because we’re so used to skating to slow, strong music like “The Temptation of Christ.” That’s what we wanted to skate to. And this was completely different. It was a whole song.

“So finally, okay, the more they did the choreography and all the in-between elements and transitions, we started to just blend with the music. And when we skate like that, it just brings everything out in us.”

Zimmerman and his team also choreographed steps into their triple twist and added choreography after it, too. No longer did the choreography stop while they executed a difficult element. During Autumn Classic, they had been training a crazy throw triple flip that James did with her arms raised in the air. It didn’t prove consistent, so they dropped it later.

Also the throw quad Salchow became an element they tried in the free skate at every event this year, without being quite able to land it cleanly, also drawing negative GOE on it. But it’s a process. It’s becoming more and more consistent as they train it. They landed it on two feet in Ostrava. Judges deemed it rotated.

“We didn’t want to change too much our technique,” James said. “We wanted to make what we already had better: which was skating skills and transitions. We can see a complete difference since the beginning of the season. Our components are much higher than last season.”

For eons, James and Cipres fired off impressive elements – or tried to – all the time looking like two single skaters performing the same program. In Zimmerman’s hands, the relationship between them improved and magically so did their elements. By Autumn Classic, they were an exciting team, together, an emotional unit. The look was magic. When they do it, the crowds feel it.

At Autumn Classic they finished to a standing ovation. “That was amazing,” James said. “It wasn’t the cleanest program, but we got that standing ovation. It means a lot.”

Still, they did not qualify for the Grand Prix Final after finishing fourth at Skate America (short program was infected by a loss of levels, in the long they fell three times to finish seventh); and third at Trophee de France, although they did finish second to Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot in the free skate, while defeating Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov.

Cipres has always skated for France, but as a junior singles skater before he was matched up with James in September of 2010. They didn’t skate the first year because Cipres had to learn pair elements. And because they started late, too.

James had already skated pairs with Yannick Bonheur for two seasons and before that, she had been a singles skater for Britain, winning the 2006 British championships and silver in 2007. Her last event as a singles skater was at the 2007 Coupe de Nice, when she won a bronze medal.

Yes, James is a woman of the world. She was born in Canada, in a borough of Toronto called Scarborough. James began skating in Virginia, admiring Michelle Kwan, held a permanent resident card in the United States, but also held a British passport by virtue of her father being from Bermuda. Now she holds French citizenship.

She found her first partner on a pair search website. “We were either going to skate for Canada, U.S., or England because my parents came from all of them,” she said. “I’m a French girl now.”

In Ostrava, James and Cipres blasted their previous best free skate score by about 12 points to 145.85 for a final score of 220.02, the eighth highest score ever. The bronze medal was their first at a European championship and the first by a French pair skater in 14 years.

“We were never as happy as we are today,” James said. “Of course, we were also happy yesterday, but we needed to stay concentrated for today and we are so proud of us now. It’s just fantastic. We have worked and sacrificed so much over the last years. This third place finish is for sure another step in the right direction.”

Their excitement and joy is contagious at the reach they have finally made into medal territory. “It’s good timing,” James said. “A year before the Olympics.”

As for Zimmerman, the loss of his locks will be a shock. He has worked as a model in the past.

 

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