Let’s Meet Figure Skating’s Newest Villian

Is Vanessa James the most evil character in figure skating? Let’s explore.

Vanessa James is figure skater who competes in the pairs discipline. Since 2021, she competes on behalf of Canada with partner Eric Radford. Previously, James competed with Morgan Cipres and represented France, for which they won 6 national titles, 2019 European Championships, and bronze at 2018 World Championships. Going even futher back, she has also competed for Great Britain and the United States in singles.

Around here, we love our women of color in this sport and root for the small federation teams, and James is no exception. As a fan, it was thrilling to see James/Cipres become real medal contenders with their innovative and exciting programs. Missing the Olympic podium in 2018 by placing fifth, skating fans and athletes alike knew they were well-poised to podium at the 2022 Games if they continued along this trajectory.

And then, the unthinkable happened. Christine Brennan broke the news in a December 2019 USA Today article that Cipres was under investigation by US Safe Sport for sending dick pics to a minor who trained at their home base in Florida. Not only that, the team’s coaches, John Zimmerman and Silvia Fontana, were also under investigation for keeping the family of the minor from reporting this to the authorities as James/Cipres prepared for the 2018 Olympics. Yes, this is atrocious. Long story short, James/Cipres split, and Morgan is now hiding in France to avoid jail time. (Who knows how this particular story will end, but I hope justice is served.)

In the meantime, James went silent on social. The question amongst fans was: What did Vanessa know, and when? She was offered a position on the CBC show Battle of the Blades, the French federation announced the retirement of both skaters, and so the skating world thought the proverbial book was closed, even though the final chapter was never fully written.

Then in the spring of 2020, rumors began to circulate that James was training with fellow BotB contestant, Eric Radford. Radford was the 2018 Olympic Pairs bronze medalist, and competed on behalf of Canada with Meaghan Duhamel. (Now’s not the time, but I should definitely devote a post to Duhamel herself, a wildly fascinating person in this sport herself. TLDR; we like Meaghan, except when she spouts nutritional misinfo!)

Without diving deep into the particulars of pairs skating, let’s just say that you don’t start training with other people. Pair skaters aren’t swappable on account of individual athletic abilities and a variety of training methods. Maybe on an off day at the rink you might try a simple throw with another pair skater, but that is basically where you leave it, and wait for your partner to return. Everyone’s Spidey-Sense went nuts over this, and then it was announced that James and Radford would be teaming up for Canada.

In an interview with the CBC, James remarked that “I still felt I had something to give to skating, like unfinished business.” Yeah girl, you do! Like an explanation about WTF you knew re: Morgan Cipres! A year later the skating world received an incredibly defensive, non-apology about Cipres’ behavior and her lack of speaking up. Champion mentality!

Anyhow, I’m getting ahead of myself here. While we were all shocked by this news, I’d have to say the most surprised was Meaghan Duhamel, who was up until this announcement, Eric’s skating partner. She remarked on a since-deleted Instragram post that she was shocked by this news.

What a splash, folks! James/Radford’s debut season began in 2021, as they took a year to refine their elements and, LOL, there was a pandemic. When Autumn Classic International (ACI) came around, we expected a merging of these two very different styles, with the requisite fawning by the panel.

Instead, we got one of the most lackluster debuts by a team with their respective track records. Fourth, fourth, fourth, and fifth throughout the abbreviated Olympic season. In retrospect, the silver medal at ACI was clearly a gift to a team that clearly needed more time to gel.

But the Olympics wait for no one—not even a pandemic!—and so Canadian Nationals (CN) arrived. Both contracted COVID prior to the event, but in they end after testing negative, they were cleared to compete.

After another lackuster performance that landed them—you guessed it!—fourth in the Short Program, the team withdrew, citing challenges from their recovery with COVID. We got two incredibly, stellar and redemptive performances from Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro (Sauce) and Evelyn Walsh/Trennt Michaud, who placed 1st and 2nd respectively. Both of these teams were struggling with their own demons this season, so it was wonderful to see them pull it together for these Canadian Olympic Trials. Figure skating fans turned off their TVs and thought, “Well, that seems pretty locked up for the top two teams.”

Evelyn and Trennt do the damn thing at 2022 Canadian Nationals.

And then the Canadian Olympic selections were announced. MT/M had made it, but Walsh/Michaud had not. Skate Canada doesn’t have a set of criteria for Olympic team selections, but does rely upon placement at Nationals and makes the decision behind closed doors. Everyone—and I mean EVERYONE—was shocked.

Meaghan, who commentated the thing, was shocked. Former Olympians like Liz Manley spoke up in support of Evelyn and Trennt. Look, we all know the Canadians are a polite crew, so to see them outraged, you really had to wonder WTF had happened behind the scenes.

James and Radford defended themselves claiming “their scores had been very high for Canadian figure skating,” which is also how I plan on responding to every critique of my own work/personal performance from this point forward. I mean, the delusion, it jumps out!

Aaaaaaaand then Rosie DiManno broke the news of Vanessa remarking out loud after the Short Program that “their spot was secure,” raising questions to whether Skate Canada had brokered a deal with the team before the event. Once again, we ask ourselves: What did Vanessa know and when? What kind of dirt do either of these skaters have on Skate Canada that would warrant such shameless fixing?

It’s bad enough that we never saw a proper closure to the STILL VERY UPSETTING matter regarding Morgan Cipres. My mind is blown that this is somehow not the only plot point in this story, and that each step of the way, James continues to tread equally villanous steps. We don’t even know the entirety of the Canadian Nationals fiasco, which has only begun, and when we do, we will be even further digusted.

Why do shows about figure skating always come up with fictional stories, when the reality is so much more awful? It may not feel like much right now, but this has the potential to become one of those touchstones of this current figure skating era in the same way we think about Tonya/Nancy or the 2002 Salt Lake judging scandal.

In the meantime, may I suggest booing this team? Something’s fishy and the team that should be going, at the time of this article, isn’t. I’m not talking about any ol’ boo—I want 1974 Worlds levels of outrage. Skating isn’t perfect because it is a subjectively judged sport, but we all have the power to express anger and ask for change when we know folks are actively fucking other people over.

I love a good redemption tale. Look, I’m a fucking optimist. So I hope this is not the end for Walsh/Michaud. May they find their inner Sale/Pelletier and springboard themselves into becoming sweethearts of Canadian media, as well as use this to fuel their career for the next 4 years. “Never again” should be their mantra, and frankly, so should ours.