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New pairs team James, Radford hope for more improvement at Skate Canada International

·4 min read

There have been moments where the muscles were screaming or things weren't clicking when Vanessa James and Eric Radford wondered — briefly — what the heck they were thinking.

The Canadian figure skaters turned more than a few heads when they announced last April that they were coming out of retirement to compete together in pairs.

While both had successful careers with previous partners — Radford is a two-time world champion and Olympic medallist with Meagan Duhamel — neither had competed in a couple of years. And they'd never skated together.

"I think there's definitely moments we're like, 'Oh my god. Why are we doing this?'" Radford said ahead of this week's Skate Canada International in Vancouver. "I think it's an uncomfortable feeling before a competition, like there's no easy way to go out there, and there's especially no easy way to do a long program.

"So, I think that there are those very short moments where we're like, why are we doing this to ourselves?"

The 34-year-old James and Radford, 36, face stiff competition in their Grand Prix debut, particularly from Chinese veterans and two-time world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong.

But the competition is just another step in a season that includes the 2022 Beijing Olympics. The goal, for now, is to improve every time they skate.

After a shaky performance at Autumn Classic — James fell twice — they were better at Finlandia Trophy earlier this month, finishing third.

"After Autumn Classic, I really asked myself like, 'Whyyy?" James said with a laugh. "But after Finlandia, we know why, and everything feels great in skating with each other. I think it's just going to keep feeling better and better."

When they announced their partnership last spring, Radford said part of their "why" was to change perceptions of older athletes, that "there's no age limit for success."

"We know why we're here, and it's different than any other goal that we've had ever before with our previous partners," James said last week. "We're enjoying every day and every competition."

Since their partnership is so new, every bit of improvement feels big.

"I think we feel the improvement every day," James said. "And we have such a short time to get to an extremely high level that we have to feel that improvement every day."

There have been some setbacks. While pleased with their performance at Finlandia, the event wasn't without mishap. On the landing of their side-by-side jumps less than a minute into their free program to Harry Styles' "Falling," James punctured Radford's knee with the back of her blade.

"He was bleeding during the entire program," James said.

The deep gash was repaired with medical glue, but it limited what they were able to do in training ahead of Skate Canada. By last Friday, Radford said they were finally able to practise all their elements except the pair spin.

After competing for France, James is excited to represent Canada in a home event.

"I enjoy it, it feels like home and even when I was competing for France, I was always very welcomed and supported by the Canadian audience," she said. "It feels nice, like everything is coming full circle, being born in Canada."

James and Radford had known each other for years as competitors, and it was practising for "Battle of the Blades" that prompted them to do a few loops of the ice together. They said they matched really well.

They weren't prepared, however, for the ugly backlash they received on social media when they announced their partnership last spring.

James said it doesn't spoil their story.

"People can think or say what they want," she said. "We're doing this because we want to and we love it, and we thought it's a great opportunity for us to continue doing what we love. And together it’s a beautiful story — coming together against all odds, with the timing and with our age, and after being off for a long time.

"We know we have stiff competition, but at the end of the day, we've been very successful in our careers and this is just the cherry on the cake, if we get an Olympic medal."

Skate Canada International runs Friday through Sunday at Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre. Proof of vaccination against COVID-19 is required for admission.

The lineup includes Canadian ice dancers Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, who won bronze in last season's world championships, pairs team Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro, and Keegan Messing and Madeline Schizas in men's and women's singles. Among the world medallists will be American Nathan Chen and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva of Russia.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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