Radford-James partnership could give Canada boost for Beijing Olympics

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Vanessa James, left, and Eric Radford, right, are both coming out of retirement to form a partnership no one saw coming.  (Getty Images - image credit)
Vanessa James, left, and Eric Radford, right, are both coming out of retirement to form a partnership no one saw coming. (Getty Images - image credit)

Vanessa James, 33, and Eric Radford, 36, surprised the figure skating community by announcing a last-minute bid for a competitive season, which just so happens to be an Olympic year.

But what is the likelihood that these two powerhouses in the pairs event can foster an Olympic-level performance in just 10 months? Especially considering Radford's been retired since 2018, and James since 2020?

"It will be very interesting to see how things shape up," Dylan Moscovitch, Olympic pairs skater and host of That Figure Skating Show, told CBC Sports. "They only have one season to do this and it can sometimes take time for a team to gel and get used to skating programs together and handling each other under pressure.

"But based on what I've seen and based on their track record, they have the goods."

That's apparent in a series of training videos. It doesn't look like either athlete has been away from the sport for years, or with a new partner, for that matter.

WATCH | Vanessa James, Eric Radford come out of retirement:

Despite late start, initial skates look exceptional

"After seeing their initial videos, my impressions are that they have beautiful lines which can be very striking," said Moscovitch, who competed alongside Radford and against James for years.

"Their tricks look effortless. Like their twist, which usually takes people quite a bit of time to get that timing synchronized, it looks very easy and technically sound. Their throws are amazing, they both are very good jumpers."

Moscovitch says those technical skills are a key part of making this comeback a reality.

"They're both well rounded, packaged skaters, so when you put them together on paper that looks amazing. However that doesn't necessarily mean they'll work," he said. "But when you look at how their bodies are together, their stature is very compatible."

Their ability to jump back into the fire was a surprise to James and Radford.

"Some of the elements we thought would be the hardest are actually some of our easiest," James said.

Eric Radford, top centre, is shown celebrating his 2017 world championships gold medal in pairs with former partner Meagan Duhamel, bottom centre. Radford announced on Wednesday that he will return to competition with a new partner, Vanessa James, who shown with her world championships bronze medal at bottom right.
Eric Radford, top centre, is shown celebrating his 2017 world championships gold medal in pairs with former partner Meagan Duhamel, bottom centre. Radford announced on Wednesday that he will return to competition with a new partner, Vanessa James, who shown with her world championships bronze medal at bottom right.(File/AFP via Getty Images)

Past wins and losses will help tight timeline

So with the technical skills well on their way to being competition-ready, Moscovitch says their experience is another thing giving this comeback a shot at success.

"Both of them have a huge laundry list of accomplishments but losses as well, which are very valuable when you're trying to speed up a timeline," he said. "You have a lot to draw from and I think this team has it in spades."

Radford is one of the most successful pairs skaters to ever represent Canada. He retired in 2018 after eight seasons partnered with Meagan Duhamel and winning three Olympic medals, three world championship medals and seven national titles.

James and her previous partner Morgan Cipres had success in their own right in France, winning a 2018 bronze world championship medal, the 2019 European title, and also winning seven national titles. She retired in 2020.

They'll fall back on this experience most when it comes to their programs. Having just solidified their music and plans this spring, they'll have spent less time fine-tuning their performances than everyone else.

"We'll see a lot of pair teams going back to previous programs, fine tuning them," said James. "They were able to see what works for them, what doesn't work for them, judges feedback and stuff like that. And we're just being thrown into the deep end."

Their experience will also have to make up for their lack of competitions together.

"We're starting from really far behind," said Radford. "We don't have half the amount of competitions under our belt, not even close."

Vanessa James, shown in this 2019 file photo, had formerly competed in pairs skating while representing France, winning six French national titles, a 2019 European title, a 2018 world bronze medal and a fifth-place finish at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.
Vanessa James, shown in this 2019 file photo, had formerly competed in pairs skating while representing France, winning six French national titles, a 2019 European title, a 2018 world bronze medal and a fifth-place finish at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.(AFP via Getty Images)

Tough international competition

But despite the obvious challenges, Moscovitch see's them being able to be competitive.

"From my experience just having watched a lot of pairs over the years, when I see them skate I see things gluing very quickly," he said. "I think this is a team that's going to be putting pressure on the teams out there right now."

And pressure will have to be applied in droves: the top echelons of the pairs field is a tough one to pierce. The Russian teams are making a push as seen at the 2021 world championships, with first-time seniors Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov taking the title and their teammates taking the third and fourth spots. Then of course there's the world silver medallists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong who are very dominant and looking to take gold in 2022, especially in front of a home crowd.

But no one knows the competition or appreciates the challenge ahead more than James and Radford.

"We have nothing to lose," said James. "This is something that we can't compare with anything that we've done before. And I think it's an opportunity for us to get back into skating and see what we have to offer to the skating world.

"I think there's room for us."

And the two are re-energized by experiencing their sport and through a new lens, with Radford likening it to coming home but feeling completely different.

"I see an opportunity to express myself with my skating in a completely different way than I've ever been able to do," he said. "That sort of curiosity and sense of exploration is what intrigues me the most and what makes me excited.

"What are our limits? How far can we go? What can we do artistically? What stories can we tell together? How can we explore our chemistry? There's so many unknowns we get to learn in this journey."

It's that attitude, on top of all the other checkmarks the pair ticks off, that makes Moscovitch believe they can shake up the pairs event this season.

"All the reasons I mentioned paired with what I know about them as people and as athletes, it is a likely possibility they could make it onto the Olympic and world championship teams."

What does this mean for Team Canada?

But the new team doesn't want to count their lifts before they're scored — although the Beijing Olympics in February 2022 is the goal, they'll have to earn one of Canada's two quota spots in the pairs event.

But should they have the great season that's expected from them, their return could shake up the Canadian pairs team and mark the end of a young Olympic dream. Veterans Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro are the top Canadian team right now and their spot in Beijing is relatively safe. But for young skaters Evelyn Walsh and Trennt Michaud, who helped secure Canada's spots and were widely assumed to go to Beijing, James and Radford's return may make that 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."