The best thing about Autumn Classic International in September is that it leads to the next episode of skating – especially in an Olympic season.
Eric Radford is already looking forward to his next event with new partner Vanessa James: Finlandia Trophy on Oct. 8 to 11 in Espoo, Finland. It’s the fifth of 10 Challenger events dotted around the world.
“That will be a great competition,” he said by phone from Montreal after he and James finished second in the pairs event at Autumn Classic. “The Russian teams will be there. Actually the lineup at that competition in all disciplines is quite stellar.”
Also on the pair list are Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovski, the Russians who seemed to be on their way to a world title, the surprise world champions Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov – and also reigning Canadian champions Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro.
After their first international competition last weekend in Montreal, Radford knows that he and his partner have a lot of work to do. (The day of the short program marked the sixth-month anniversary of their partnership). The early season event was necessary to take stock, and find out how to compete together.
“I think that competing is the last piece of the puzzle for Vanessa and I,” he said. “The only way to learn to do it is by experience and by going through it. Obviously, we wish that things had gone better [at Autumn Classic] because in practice we had been skating very well. This is such a big learning opportunity for us.”
James and Radford had competed only a short program at the Quebec Summer Championships – but not the long. They got enough information from that event to find new music for the short program, which they brought to Autumn Classic. So both short and long programs were being performed for the first time in front of judges.
The scrapped music was called “First Time,” – appropriately enough – and it featured techno music. Coach/choreographer Julie Marcotte presented them with this music to push their comfort levels. “Our original idea was to try to push our boundaries, to do something different,” he said. “It was a little bit more contemporary.”
But with all of the work they needed to do just to train what they must to get to the top level, they realized they needed something that was more natural and comfortable for them.
So at Autumn Classic, they skated to a version of “Shiny Happy People.” But it wasn’t to the original version by the 1980s college rock band R.E.M., the lovable group that performs the entire song jumping up and down, hats askew, on backwards too, smiling, clapping, bringing in others to do the same.
No, James and Radford will skate to a version by Reuben and the Dark, a Canadian Indie folk band from Calgary, led by singer/songwriter Reuben Bullock. Bullock is an unlikely star. He taught himself to play guitar during a time teaching English in Thailand. It is said that he learned two chords, and from that quickly wrote 20 songs.
Radford describes this version as “uplifting, happy and positive,” but the tempo is decidedly slower with more of a ballad feel. They put their long limbs to good use in the choreography. Their arms sweep and weave with the voice. They finish with a hug.
“We needed something that was a little bit closer to home in terms of our style, the type of music we would naturally resonate with,” Radford said. “It was a natural choice.”
The long? It actually has a similar tempo: balladic, introspective. Radford said the piece – “Falling” by stylish British musician Harry Styles – “resonates” deeply with he and James. “When the music starts, it brings us to another place, where we can kind of lose ourselves in the music,” he said. And that has been their goal all along.
This will become easier to understand and to see when they have better skates than they did last weekend, he said. The long program is emotional and connection-oriented.
The programs have been choreographed by world champion ice dancer Guillaume Cizeron. He and his partner, Gabriella Papadakis, are known for their lilting, romantic music choices. (Cizeron and Papadakis are also scheduled to compete in the ice dancing event at Finlandia.)
So far, their work together has felt “amazing,” Radford said. “We’ve been working really hard. There is so much for us to work on: getting the elements into the program, making the program as smooth as possible, fiddling and polishing transitions.
He is happy that they received all level fours for the free skate, “which is a big accomplishment for us,” he said. That included a triple twist. They finished about 20 points behind an improving Japanese team, Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara.
There is so much work that needs to be done,” he said. “But every day we go in, I feel we get a little bit better than we were the day before. For me, I still have that feeling of exploration with the team, with Vanessa. We keep it light. Everything, we keep it positive. And I think we are excited to show what we are capable of.”
During Autumn Classic, they had troubles with jumps and with a throw. The lifts are still a work in progress. Some didn’t go up easily.
Both had been on the competitive shelf for a while, and it has taken work to get their fitness back, especially since James is 33 and Radford now 36.
“I knew it was going to be difficult,” Radford said. “I think there was a moment where I remember thinking: ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this, if my body is going to be able to do this.’
“And I just kept going. We had a very intense off-ice training regimen and I think that is starting to pay off. And now after six months, I almost feel as if I’m in the best shape of my life. But there are definitely certain aspects that are more difficult than when I was 25, 10 years ago. Sometimes it’s more difficult to get my body going the way that it needs to.”
They have had to adjust to each other technically. Their technique was different. “We both have different key words,” Radford said. “It’s like breaking a habit of natural tendencies with technique that we had with our former partners.”
For the most part, James and Radford are enjoying the ride. “Every day feels amazing,” Radford said. “We love our programs. We love our team. And we’re enjoying the journey.”