Pairs skater Eric Radford ends retirement to team up with Vanessa James
Canadian 2-time world champion, 3-time Olympic medallist had retired in 2018
With just months to go until Beijing 2022, Team Canada has a new powerhouse figure skating duo that could turn the Olympic pairs event upside down.
On Wednesday, two-time world champion and three-time Olympic medallist Eric Radford announced he is coming out of retirement to skate for Canada once again, but this time with new partner Vanessa James, a European champion and world championship medallist who formerly competed for France.
The immediate goal is to compete as much as possible. The ultimate goal would be to win an Olympic medal. But a lot must happen between now and January when the pair will get the chance to compete at nationals for one of Canada's two Olympic quota spots.
"I know that a lot of people are probably going to ask why," Radford, 36, told CBC Sports from his home in Montreal. "And for me, it's more of a question of why not?"
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The idea was sparked last November while the two filmed Battle of the Blades in Toronto. One day during rehearsals they took the ice and did some backward stroking patterns, flying across the rink with more ease than either anticipated.
A few weeks later, Radford invited James, 33, to Montreal to try more elements and get a feel for one another. The goal was mostly to have fun but also to see if there was potential for future show-partnerships.
"Some of the elements we thought would be the hardest are actually some of our easiest," James said.
Their natural chemistry and skill suddenly made returning to competition an obvious option in less than obvious circumstances. But James knows this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and is welcoming the rollercoaster-year ahead.
"This has never been done before," she said. "We've seen comebacks with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Aljona Savchenko many times, Tatiana Volosozhar and Max Trenko, but never in the year of an Olympics and never with a completely different partner.
"It's not going to be an easy task but we're ready for the challenge."
James released from Team France
All a pair requires in order to represent a country is at least one skater with citizenship and both skaters with a national passport. Despite growing up all over the globe (Bermuda, the U.S., Britain), James was born in Scarborough, Ont., so her passport was already taken care of.
The only potential hurdle was whether James would be released from the French Figure Skating Federation. She competed for the nation for more than a decade, becoming an official citizen in 2009 after pairing with French skater Yannick Bonheur.
She'd go on to partner with Morgan Cipres in 2010 and their partnership would last a decade. Along the way, the tandem won six French national titles, a 2019 European title, a 2018 world bronze medal and a fifth-place finish at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.
But 2020 brought an unexpected twist: in September, Cipres suddenly retired from the sport in the midst of sexual abuse allegations. He has since been charged with a felony in his training state of Florida.
The situation blindsided James, leaving her without a partner just two years away from Beijing – which she figured would be her final Olympic Games. She had little choice but to retire too.
"I thought this is it, I'm done," she said, not thinking about finding a new partner and immediately starting her transition into shows and coaching. "It didn't end the way I wanted it to.
"I still felt I had something to give to skating, like unfinished business."
The French federation seemed to agree: they released her in a matter of weeks, which is a very quick turnaround for a complicated issue that can sometimes take years to resolve.
"They know this is an amazing opportunity for me, for Canada, and that I brought a lot to the federation," James said. "I think they're happy to see me continue even though it's for another flag or for another country.
"But France will always be close to my heart."
Decision surprised Radford
In March, the duo officially began practising as a team. They're based in Montreal and coached by Julie Marcotte and Ian Connolly. They've already chosen music and will choreograph one program with Marcotte and the other with renowned French ice dancer Guillaume Cizeron and Canadian choreographer Samuel Chouinard, who has worked with the likes of Virtue and Moir.
"Both Vanessa and I, we really wouldn't have expected this," Radford said. "This has come totally out of left field, and it's something that's just manifested in front of us quite easily without us trying.
"If anybody had asked me even five months ago [if I would be back competing], I would've been like, 'no bleeping way.'"
What does this mean for Team Canada?
Another person surprised by the pairing was Radford's previous partner Meagan Duhamel. They skated together for eight years and won two world titles, three Olympic medals and seven national titles.
Hours after the announcement, she took to social media saying she felt "blindsided" as a friend and business partner since she didn't receive a call from Radford about the comeback until after it was finalized by James' release.
🤷♀️ <a href="https://t.co/hbU0d1UWcK">pic.twitter.com/hbU0d1UWcK</a>—@mhjd_85
While they no longer compete together intentionally, Duhamel and Radford had continued to skate in shows together, which will have to take a backseat for the next year.
In a response to CBC Sports, Radford says he discussed his decision with Duhamel after receiving word that James was released from obligations to France.
"I didn't know that my partnership with Vanessa was going to move forward myself until two weeks ago. ... Meagan was the first person I called after receiving the email [that James was released by the French Federation] and on that phone call I got nothing but positive support from Meagan. She shared with me on that call that she was not coming back to competition and she wished me and Vanessa all the best," read Radford's response.
"Meagan has never expressed any desire to return to competition with me. She moved to a different city, started a family and a skating school with her husband. ... I don't believe Meagan would realistically have considered uprooting her life to return to competition."
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'Funny situation' with pairs program
Then there's the current Canadian pairs program.
Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro alongside Evelyn Walsh and Trennt Michaud secured Canada two Olympic quota spots in the pairs event last month at the world championships. It's been widely assumed those same two teams would go to Beijing.
Moore-Towers and Marinaro are the top Canadian team right now, so their spot in Beijing is relatively safe. But for young skaters Evelyn Walsh and Trennt Michaud, James and Radford's return may make the Games unattainable.
"It is a funny situation, there's no way around that," said Radford, who spoke to Walsh and Michaud personally. Marcotte spoke with Moore-Towers and Marinaro. "I just wanted to be very upfront with them because I do care about them and I know this decision could shift our friendship in a way.
"I told them I want to go through this season with a team atmosphere, because I'm going to be cheering for them. And I would still love to offer all my expertise to them to help them become the best they can be because I believe in them as skaters and I care about them as friends."
But the new team doesn't want to count their lifts before they're scored. James and Radford will debut this August at provincials in Quebec, then see how things go during some senior B competitions and the Grand Prix circuit. Nationals next winter will be the ultimate Olympic decider.
"We don't know what's going to happen on the way, any surprise could come up," James said. "It could be injury, it could be we're not as good as we think we will be.
"But it's definitely a goal and dream for us to get to the Olympics and hopefully an Olympic medal."