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James and Ciprès head to World Championships

Lois Elfman | 3/9/2017, midnight
After their bronze medal performance at the 2017 European Figure Skating Championships in Ostrava.
Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès

After their bronze medal performance at the 2017 European Figure Skating Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic, French pair champions Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès found themselves the topic of conversation, much of it focused on their short program set to music from the film “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Although their homage to the sexy film got the lion’s share of attention, the duo also garnered a standing ovation and moved members of the audience to tears with their emotional interpretation of “Sound of Silence” in the free skate.

“For me, the free program I wasn’t emotional,” said James. “I think I was a machine. I didn’t get nervous. I wasn’t thinking about how other people skated. I tried to focus on the things we do in practice. After the last throw, I let it all out. After the program, I was so happy.”

Ciprès said, “[The end was] an explosion of emotion and pleasure because we finally did a really good program at Europeans.”

The “Fifty Shades” program was actually their second short program of the season. Their choreographers had created something else, but it just didn’t click. They wanted something that gave them more of a connection.

“Honestly, we love it,” said James. “It’s giving us some good publicity and getting people to watch skating. Hopefully, the judges will like it even more, considering the general public loves it.”

James, 29, has led a very international life. Born in Canada and raised in Bermuda, and then the United States, she moved to France in 2007 to team up with former partner Yannick Bonheur. At the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada, they became the first Black pair to compete at the Olympics. After that partnership ended, she teams with Ciprès, 25. To date, they have represented France at five World Championships and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

When the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships get underway in Helsinki, Finland, later this month, James and Ciprès will make a run for the podium. Their breakthrough performances in Ostrava—winning a medal at the European Championships for the first time—has raised their expectations and showed that their decision to change coaches and move their training base to Florida was correct. Last June, the duo began training with John Zimmerman, Jeremy Barrett, Silvia Fontana and John Kerr. They’re about to relocate to a new five-rink facility in Wesley Chapel.

“We thought we can’t keep doing the same thing,” said James. “It’s either now or never. We need to step it up and take a risk. Take a leap of faith. This coaching team came together to bring out the best in us.”

The coaches overhauled and reenergized the pair, changing not only their technique but also the style of music and the costumes. Their sleek new look was created by French costume designer Sophie Thomas from Astraee Couture. She said the unitard for the free skate looks as if it were painted on her. James said it’s incredibly comfortable.

“Sophie likes to bring a little edge to my costumes,” said James. “She says I have the figure for it.”

One of only a few Black women in skating, James said she hears from young girls who say she’s a role model and they’re motivated to be like her. They even ask practical things, such as where she gets tights that match her skin.

“It feels amazing to be a role model,” James said. “You’re not just skating for yourself now, but you’re skating for all the little girls that don’t see people like themselves on the ice. They aspire to be the same and they know that it’s possible now.”