James feeling Bermuda love
Amid all the excitement of MS Amlin World Triathlon Bermuda, another of the island’s top female athletes was back home for a short, unplanned, low-key visit.
Vanessa James, one of the world’s top figure skaters, returned for the funeral of her grandfather, Carlton James, last Thursday. She spent some time with her family before departing last weekend to return to her base near Tampa, Florida.
“I came back here maybe three years ago for Bermuda Day; I did recognise it a little bit,” James told The Royal Gazette. “Before that it had been, maybe, ten years. I was little and only went where my parents took me.
“I went to my old school [Mount Saint Agnes] yesterday and they had some posters of me up on the wall, which was really nice. I went to talk to some of the teachers there.
“I have memories more of my school, my cousins and my home, and Horseshoe Bay of course. When you live here you don’t get to appreciate what I appreciate now about Bermuda.”
The James family lived in Devonshire and Vanessa went to Avocado Lodge Preschool and then on to Mount Saint Agnes Academy.
James is the daughter of Bermudian Kevin James and was born in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada, before living in Bermuda up to the age of 10 when the family first moved to North Carolina and then Virginia when her father started working in Washington.
A lot has happened for the 31-year-old since those adolescent days. She holds permanent residency in the United States and because of her Bermuda ties through her father, holds British citizenship and became a French citizen in December 2009. Her skating partner, Morgan Cirprès, is French.
The pair are the 2019 European champions, the 2018 world bronze medal-winners, the 2017 European bronze medal-winners, the 2018 Grand Prix champions and six-times French national champions. They represented France at the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics, while James also competed at the 2014 Olympics with previous partner Yannick Bonheur.
She is also the 2006 British national champion in single skating. She took up skating with her twin sister, Melyssa, after watching the 1998 Winter Olympics, originally representing the Washington Figure Skating Club.
“I picked up skating at age 11, so it has been 20 years now,” Vanessa said.
“It took some time, but I’m very proud and can see that Bermuda is very proud of my family and very proud of me.
“It’s nice to have that support system back home. The season just finished, so thank goodness I was able to come home. There are many cousins, aunts and uncles that I hadn’t even met. Tyler Smith, the tennis player, is my cousin.
“This year was magnificent, we got our first European title and we were undefeated until the end of the year when I had a freak accident before the world championships. It was our first season that we were undefeated in any competition that we participated in up to worlds. We made history for our fans and obviously for Bermuda.”
James admits she still has a lot of skating left as she looks ahead to the new season.
“In single skating  is old, but in pairs skating not really; you have to take the time to develop the couple,” she explained.
“The women have to be women and not girls and the men have to be developed and strong. Pairs skating starts at a late age and goes on longer, so 34 to 37 for men is the maximum we’ve seen in the Olympics. I have about three years left in me, which is perfect for the Olympics in 2020.
“The next goal is to keep it going, keep improving and get that world title and Olympic medal. I can’t let my family and Bermuda down!”
With a British passport, James began competing for Britain in 2005, showing early signs of her potential by winning the gold at the 2006 British Championships, becoming the first black British figure skating champion.
James represented Britain in the 2006 ISU Junior Grand Prix and at the 2007 World Junior Championships. Her last event as a single skater was the 2007 International Cup of Nice where she won bronze.
In late 2007 James switched to pairs skating, partnering briefly with British skater Hamish Gaman before teaming up with French skater Yannick Bonheur in December that year. They made their international debut as the James/Bonheur team in 2008 when they placed seventh in the Trophy Eric Bompard.
They were ranked tenth at the 2009 European Championships in Finland and that same year finished twelfth at the 2009 World Championships in Los Angeles, the result enabling France to qualify for a spot in the pairs event at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
“Since Bermuda doesn’t have a rink, which I hope eventually they will, I went to skate for Great Britain,” she said. “I was doing pretty well in single skating, but not well enough.
“I was a very good skater in practice, but not quite as strong in competing, so one day I said ‘Mom, I can’t do it, I’m done skating’. “My mom didn’t want me to finish skating, but she respected my wishes.
“At that time, thank goodness, there was a British boy [Gaman] who asked if I wanted to do pairs skating and my mom who always pushed me to pursue my dreams, said, ‘Go for it, try it’. I still loved figure skating, it was harder for me to be on the ice alone and perform, rather than have somebody next to me and share the stress and ups and downs.
“We only skated together for about eight months before I started picking it up very quickly and exceeded his level. We decided to stop our partnership and I found Yannick Bonheur, who is originally from Martinique, and we hit it off quite well. The French federation loved what we were doing and were like, ‘All right, are you ready to skate for France?’
“It wasn’t the time to think about citizenship, so I went there one week later and started skating for France. We exceeded everyone’s expectations, won every competition for France, and then it was time to think about the Olympics because I had moved to France in 2008 and had two years before the 2010 Olympics.
“Because of my British citizenship it was easy, especially at my level and having won nationals. The federation pushed for my citizenship and I got it in January, 2010, about a month before the Olympics.”
Her parents have travelled the world to see her perform.
“She left for France in 2008 not knowing how to speak French and didn’t know anyone there,” said James’s mother June, who is Canadian. “I consider that courage. We just came back from Japan to watch her in the worlds; before that it was the worlds in Milan and before that South Korea.”
James believes the key to her success with Ciprès is having the right chemistry. “We started skating together in September, 2010, not too long after doing the Olympics with Yannick,” said James, who speaks fluent French.
“It’s like a relationship, Morgan knows me so well because he is one of the people, other than my parents, who spends so much time with me. We have good chemistry and know each other inside out. We were friends first and made each other laugh on the ice.”
Surya Bonaly, a black France figure skater, has been an inspiration to James. “When I was figure skating I can’t say I had a role model other than Michelle Kwan, because she was the person I watched,” she revealed.
“What I do respect about Surya is being the only black figure skater at that time. I can’t say my life would be so easy without her having gone through so much before me.
“She is an idol for her persistence and determination and going through solitude as the only black woman and being discriminated against.
“She deserved gold medals, but was only given bronze; she made my figure skating career easier. It’s an honour to travel, motivate and inspire people all over the world.”
James encourages young female athletes in any sport to believe in their ability. “Just believe in yourself, believe your parents when they tell you can do it,” she encouraged.
“There were many times that I wanted to stop skating, but if I did, where would my life be? I don’t have any regrets today, I’m very proud of my path and what I’ve done for future skaters of colour. Right now, there are maybe three black skaters, which isn’t a lot, but I never felt discriminated against.
“My dad told me, ‘Don’t give them the benefit of the doubt; you have to be ten times better than anyone else in order to succeed’. That’s always been my drive. I think I’m bringing a different dimension to the sport because of my colour.”
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