Eric Radford thought he needed a Plan B. So did Vanessa James.
So they hitched their plans together, rather organically. It just sort of happened. But they didn’t expect that the announcement of their new pair partnership with 10 months to go before the Beijing Olympics would be met with such snarling reaction. Hurt feelings abounded. By the end of the day on Wednesday, Radford sounded weary.
Social media was awash with criticism. Radford’s former partner Meagan Duhamel – with whom he had won two world titles, two Olympic team gold medals, an Olympic bronze medal, and the bragging rights of being the only team to land a throw quad at the Winter Olympics – went to Instagram and Facebook to voice her pain.
Radford said he felt that their professional lives were drifting apart. She had moved away from Montreal to Oakville, Ont., had a baby, started a skating school there with husband Bruno Marcotte, voiced a desire to have more children. “I didn’t know how long our show career was going to last, just based on where our lives were heading,” Radford said.
Radford and James knew each other from years of competing against each other, she primarily for France, for whom she won a European title with partner Morgan Cipres as well as a world bronze medal. They had been the first French pair team to win a Grand Prix Final, also the first in 87 years to win a European title. Later that year, they won their first world medal, a bronze in 2018 (an event Duhamel and Radford did not contest.) If they had ever been able to win a world title, James said they would have retired. They had always been so close. The 2022 Olympics was to have been their goal.
But that all stopped when Cipres was charged with “transmission of material harmful to a minor by electronic device,” (allegedly showing his penis on an Instagram post to a 13-year-old female skater at his training site in Florida) for an action that occurred on Dec. 3, 2017 – just before the Olympic Games. They competed and finished fifth. And then third at worlds.
They withdrew from their Grand Prix assignments the next year, and James did her own thing, competing with a retired hockey player in the popular Canadian show, “Battle of the Blades.” She returned for a second season last fall. A few days later, the James/Cipres partnership formally dissolved.
Duhamel, who gave birth to daughter Zoey on Oct. 25, 2019, came back to win Battle of the Blades last fall with her hockey partner. She had done a Stars On Ice tour while pregnant, but skipped a Rock the Rink tour across Canada because of her pregnancy.
It was at her first Battle of the Blades show in the fall of 2019 that James met Radford again in a less stressful atmosphere. “We did a stroking pattern together and we kind of noticed that we matched really, really well,” Radford said.
He thought it would be fun to skate with James for a bit, “thinking more of the possibility of doing shows, and to expand my possibilities of doing shows,” he said. “And when we skated together for a couple of days, we quickly realized that this could be something really spectacular. And also, it was just a ton of fun. It was entirely new and especially for me, I could see so many different possibilities that I could do with Vanessa that I may not have been able to do before.
“Even just style of program, style of music,” he said. “And it really comes down to the way I feel when I’m skating. I felt completely different than I have before. And at 36, I never anticipated that was possible.”
They both watched the pairs events this season and realized that there was room for them competitively. “But it’s also a space for us to start being creative again,” James said. “Making something that the world has never seen before in skating. I think that’s really our goal, to enjoy the journey, to create something that neither of us has experienced or done before and really kind of change up the game and motivate the next generation of skaters to do the same.”
When the news came out earlier this week of their partnership, Duhamel said she felt blindsided. “It came so out of the blue for me,” she said.
She had thought – once COVID had settled – that they would be doing shows again. They hadn’t signed any contracts, she said, But Stars On Ice was planning a fall tour (Canada and Japan). Duhamel said there was a verbal agreement with the tour. “The last we chatted before that, was to discuss training for that,” she said. “That was in February.”
She said she knew nothing of the plans of James and Radford until “the day after” France gave James a release to skate for Canada and the pairing could be official. “That was almost two weeks ago,” she said. “But they had been training together and having this all in the works for two months. I was told, after the fact, after it was all done and finalized.”
This news meant that her pro career with Radford was over. She said Radford told her that skating with James would “give him more opportunity, in whatever way that means,” she said. “I guess he’s expecting more opportunities would come from tours than with out team that was quite successful.
“I feel like we spent a decade building a legacy and I just feel like that was kind of ripped from underneath my feet very abruptly.”
If Radford had come to her and told her that he wanted to make a comeback, and asked her what she thought, Duhamel said she would have told him that she was not interested, and had he said this was still something he wanted to do, she would have supported him all the way. “Of course, he’s an adult,” she said., “He can make decisions. He has the freedom. I don’t own him. But that conversation was not had.”
Duhamel said she wrote the social media posts because she began to see so many comments and rumours about why she was not returning with her partner. They assumed the reason was that she was pregnant again. “People were making these assumptions,” she said. “I felt I needed to speak the truth.”
Radford was numbed by her criticism. James was given a release from France to skate for Canada only two weeks ago. “I didn’t know this partnership was going to move forward until about two weeks ago,” he said. “The French federation has rarely given releases, so we didn’t even know that we were going to move forward with this until two weeks ago.”
Also, there were multiple levels to the release. Not only is there a release required from the French skating federation, but also an official release from the International Skating Union. And then another from the French Olympic Committee. They did not receive the latter one until Tuesday.
“So all of this has never been set in stone,” he said. “It’s all just sort of happening now. I just didn’t know myself.”
He said immediately after the team got the first release from the French federation, he contacted Duhamel.
“And oddly enough, on the phone, she was very supportive. She told me and I quote: ‘Well, I’m not going to compete again.” And we both kind of chuckled and I said: ‘Yeah, I figured that,’ And she wished us all the best.”
Duhamel’s reaction took Radford by surprise. But in the two weeks since their conversation, Duhamel had been trying to process and understand what had just happened. She knew that James had gone to Montreal while visiting a friend and was going to skate with Radford “for fun” one day. She thought it a great idea, while still believing they had shows to do in the future. And then everything changed.
Things just happened. James said they came into the partnership having no expectations, “just open minds,” she said.
“I think that’s what created the magic because everything just seemed to be seamless and to work so well,” she said. They had different techniques with their different partners, but in the past month, all has come together so easily and quickly. And it surprises them both.
“I think it has to do with not only our mindset but our complicity and our way of working and listening to each other, feelings and things like that,” James said. “I think that technically, everything is going to come together very nicely.”
How successful will this new team be? Radford said, at 36, his body is not what it was at 25 or 30. (James is 33.) But with three years off, all of his injuries have healed. But neither he nor James have competed for a long time, and will have to get back the experience of performing under pressure, and getting to know how each other handles it all. “We have to learn to compete again,” James said. “That is going to be our biggest obstacle.
“I feel like everyone keeps talking about this couple coming back and thinking that they are going to take over the world,” she added. “But we’re coming from far behind. We don’t have a lot of experience in competitions together.” While last season was difficult for all international skaters, they still have been training for a long time, and had already been competing together for a long time, she said.
Their strength, she said, is that they get along so well and “we do trust each other, already so much.”
Radford said they didn’t form the partnership to win the Olympics or a bunch of medals. “I think we are both satisfied with everything we’ve been able to accomplish,” he said. “This is an exploration of something totally unexpected that we believe in, and think could be really special. It makes both of us feel amazing in an unexpected way.”
Radford says he feels like he has been reborn. “I haven’t felt this excited to skate every day in a long time,” he said.
French world ice dancing champion Guillaume Cizeron (who choreographed routines for James and Cipres) along with Sam Chouinard in Montreal will design their short program. Julie Marcotte will design their long. They are starting their choreography late in the game, only doing their free program this week, because they did not know if they would be a team. The process will be slower, because they are a new team. They need to find music. “We don’t have room for error,” James said. “So we’re taking our time in this situation. We’re going to take it step by step and see how it plays out.”
They want to make something that the world has not seen before. They want to strive for the “moment” they can create with their skating. They want to do something new. “I think what Vanessa and I will be able to bring is creating a moment on the ice where the elements are so seamlessly woven into the program that you almost forget that they’ve happened,” he said. “And to create a moment where the audience can get lost in that three or four minutes of skating.”
James feels this is an amazing opportunity for both of them and they need to seize it. They are finding something in mid-pandemic that is meaningful to them both.
There is plenty of awkwardness to go around in this beautiful pairing of the minds. There are other Canadian skaters who may feel pushed out of the way for the new faces. Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro have already been Canadian champions for a couple of years. Canada’s No. 2, Evelyn Walsh and Trennt Michaud, may find themselves out of the running for the second Olympic spot. Radford did choreography for them over the past couple of seasons.
“Anybody can enter a competition,” Duhamel said. “Although it sucks for other skaters when some people have come out of retirement in the past, that is sport. I feel badly, but I do understand that’s kind of the nature of the beast.”
So many skaters who have made a comeback haven’t found the return so easy. Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov made it work, their special qualities all intact. Patrick Chan found it very difficult, the single men’s world having changed so much in a short time. There were all those skaters allowed to return in 1994: Brian Boitano, Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean, Katarina Witt, who could not translate it all into a win.
When Duhamel and Radford’s competitive career ended at the 2018 Olympics, Radford felt that he was finished. “I was 100 per cent ready to be done,” he said. “I felt that Meagan and I had achieved more than we could have dreamed and that we had a perfect ending to our competitive career.”
The transition from athlete to ordinary citizen is fraught with difficulties. Radford felt it. He took some time to explore, he said, to focus in on his music. (He and James will not be skating to any of his compositions.) He coached a little bit. He did some choreography. And then COVID hit, and everything really slowed down.
Then he found this pearl he had to examine. Needed to.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime epic, legendary story, coming to fruition,” James said. “And it’s going to be a challenge, but I think we’re up for it. Eric has so much greatness and he has so many Olympic medals already with Meagan, there’s no way we can compare with what we may be able to do and what we hope to do with what they have achieved. This is a completely different ballgame.”
James feels as if she’s coming home. Although she has lived in Bermuda, England and France, she was born in Scarborough, Ont., so her Canadian passport is intact and ready. She and Cipres were always welcomed with open arms when they competed in Canada – which was often – and repeatedly had standing ovations here. Already, some of the Canadian team members have sent her welcome texts and best wishes.