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James and Cipres may be on the verge of a swan song, but first must conquer the Grand Prix Final

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Before they retire from competitive figure skating, French pairs team Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres should skate a program either to “The Long and Winding Road” or to “Truckin,” which includes the famous phrase, “what a long, strange trip it’s been.”

Or maybe one program to each. After all, the Beatles’ song title and the words in the Grateful Dead song cover a big part of their story, both individually and together.

Their lives’ itineraries have encompassed significant stops in Scarborough, Ont.; Bermuda; Great Britain; Melun, France; Paris; Moscow; Coral Gables and Wesley, Chapel, Fla. And that doesn’t count all the places where they have competed, a list expanded this week to include their first joint competitive visit to Vancouver, B.C., one of the most significant stops in nine seasons as a team on the ice.

James, 31, and Cipres, 27, made it to Vancouver by qualifying for the Grand Prix Final for the first time by winning both their Grand Prix “regular season” events. Those were their first victories in 14 appearances on the annual circuit.

Not only that, but they also are likely to win just the second medal by a French pair in the final, which takes place Friday and Saturday. And it would be no surprise if they topped the silver earned by compatriots Sarah Abitbol and Stephane Bernadis in the 2000 Grand Prix Final.

And, in a season of significant transition on the global pairs scene, a world title seems within the grasp of this team whose world bronze last season was their first medal at a global championship in two Olympics and seven world championships together.

“Of course, the top at worlds is our goal,” James said.

And if they reach the pinnacle of the podium, it could be their final competitive step.

“If we get the world championship this season, I think it will be the end,” Cipres said. “I don’t see a reason to keep going. The (next) Olympic Games are far from now.”

Of course, it was just three seasons ago that James and Cipres already had been on the verge of quitting, not because they had achieved their goals but because they had become frustrated by not getting closer to them. Since then, they have moved from barely in the top 10 to consistent medal contenders.

“I think they have no idea what to expect beyond what is in front of their faces, which is good for them right now,” said three-time U.S. pairs champion John Zimmerman, who coaches James and Cipres with his wife, Silvia Fontana, in Florida.

“They are a team that could have some success and feel more hungry by it. But there could be a point where they’ve run their course. I think they still have a lot more to offer. Silvia and I hope they stay three more years.”

Ah, but we’ve gone down the road too fast. Time to retrace steps and see how it led James and Cipres here.

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Vanessa James and her twin sister, Melyssa, were born in Ontario to a Canadian mother, June, now a real estate agent, and a Bermudan father, Kevin, who now works in IT security for the Washington, D.C., airports. The family soon moved to Bermuda, where they lived until the girls were 9, when they relocated to North Carolina to help care for an ailing grandparent. The three generations then moved together to the Virginia suburbs of Washington.

It was in Virginia the sisters began skating. Melyssa, more passionate about the sport at first, went on to represent Great Britain as an ice dancer, skated in ice shows, coached on the East Coast and now is studying in Grenada to be a dermatologist. Vanessa started in singles, competing in U.S. events as a novice and junior, then switching to Great Britain (she had British citizenship as a Bermudan and would become a French citizen in 2009.) She won the 2006 British senior singles title and finished 27th at the 2007 World Junior Championships.

Later in 2007, Vanessa James turned to pairs, first with British skater Hamish Gaman, then with Frenchman Yannick Bonheur, whom she had found on the web site, icepartnersearch.com. By 2010, James and Bonheur won the French title and went to the Olympics, finishing 14th. They split after finishing 12th at the 2010 Worlds.

“We weren’t progressing, and we weren’t able to work well together anymore,” she said.

Cipres, meanwhile, was growing up in the Paris suburb of Melun, the son of an elementary schoolteacher mother, Beatrice. He first tried skating at age 5 and eventually began competing in singles, getting 13th at the 2010 World Junior Championships. At that point, he was encouraged to try pairs and, knowing James was looking for a new partner, he contacted her via Facebook, leading to a tryout showing potential that soon began being realized – to a degree.

In a country with fewer than a half-dozen senior pairs – this year, only three are entered for next week’s national championships – it took James and Cipres just two seasons together to win the first of five French titles. Moving up globally was more difficult, especially in an era when the quality of the top 16 teams in the world has consistently improved.

After the 2014 season, when they finished 10th at both the Olympics and Worlds, James and Cipres thought they could benefit, especially on technique for their twist, by working with a Russian coach, Stanislav Morozov, in Russia, which has dominated world pairs skating for most of the last six decades. They also hoped training with other elite pairs in Moscow would help raise their level.

“The point was to go to a great technician in pairs and work with some of the best, because you become your surroundings,” she said.

That experiment ended quickly. It became clear to James that Russian skating officials were disinclined to help a team they saw as a possible threat, especially at a time when Russian pairs were in relative decline.

“We ended up with very short, very early training times, and we were skating with babies, which was dangerous,” she said. “Stanislav was great with us, but it was out of his control. And our twist did get better.”

Within four months, they were back in France, training with Cipres’ former singles coach, Claude Peri-Thevenard. They were all trying to teach themselves – and each other – the refinements needed to be more than workmanlike pairs skaters. James and Cipres had become a couple off the ice – a part of their relationship that would end five years ago – but remained strangers on it.

“We still skated like two singles skaters next to each other,” she said. “We weren’t a real team, and we didn’t have proper technique.”

Their results, ninth and 10th at Worlds in 2015 and 2016, showed stagnation. They were spending time and money and beating up their bodies with little to show for it.

“Morgan and I hit a point where we said, ‘Either we improve, or we stop,’” she said. “There was no point in anything else.”

So, they began looking for a dramatic change – new coach, new environment. That led them to Florida.

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John Zimmerman, now a 45-year-old father of three with Fontana, his wife of 15 years, was part of the last U.S. pairs team to win a world medal. He and Kyoko Ina took the bronze in 2002 after having had a strong fifth-place finish with an excellent free skate at the 2002 Winter Games. After several years performing in shows and TV specials, he began coaching in 2009.

From having watched videos, James and Cipres saw Zimmerman and Ina looked like them in many ways, from style (athletic and innovative, not classically balletic like the great Russian pairs) to size (Cipres and Zimmerman are both 6-feet tall; James is 5-2, Ina, 5-0.)

“That was the only thing they had to go on, because we didn’t know each other,” Zimmerman said.

James and Cipres did not even know where Zimmerman was coaching (at that point, it was Coral Springs, near Fort Lauderdale.) Contacts were made in the summer of 2016 through mutual acquaintances. A key factor in the French team’s decision was Zimmerman’s being able to make them his primary focus, since he had no other senior pair at the time.

“I was a little nervous, since it’s always hard to take on an established, adult team,” Zimmerman said. “It’s easy in one way, because they already know what they want, but at the same time, they already know what they want.

“I told them, ‘If you’re going to come, you have to be willing to make changes. If not, let’s save ourselves the time and trouble.’”

Zimmerman realized immediately the problem wasn’t work ethic but rather the value of the hard work James and Cipres were doing and some issues in their working relationship. He felt they needed more dedication to what he called “the craft of their skating.”

“It’s technique, like the quality of their crossovers, and maturity in realizing the look you are trying to capture isn’t just facial expressions,” Zimmerman said. “It’s the quality of the relationship with each other, the one-ness that a team together for a long time has, a one-ness about furthering their development.

“Two weeks before Skate America (in 2016, their first Grand Prix event under Zimmerman’s tutelage), I could see their impatience with each other in wanting to be already amazing. That led them to boiling points that needed to be addressed and to going back to old habits as pressure mounted.

“What stopped them before wasn’t their abilities. It was their inability to cope and work with each other. It’s a skill to survive a relationship like this.”

Their progress became inexorable. They fell three times in the free skate of that 2016 Skate America. They won a bronze medal in their second Grand Prix of that season, beginning a streak of five straight Grand Prix event medals. They won their first European Championships medal in 2017 (bronze). Rebounding from her shoulder dislocation that kept them out of last season’s French Championships, they finished fifth at the 2018 Winter Games among one of the strongest Olympic pairs fields in history, a group that showed mastery of the most difficult elements ever done.

They moved with Zimmerman 18 months ago when he shifted his training base to a rink in Wesley Chapel, 20 miles north of Tampa. They love life in Florida, as evidenced by James’ Instagram posts from the beach. They are proud of keeping their skating relationship alive after the romantic one ended.

“Good weather changes your mood,” she said. “We’re lucky we have a great dynamic – indoors, outdoors and with each other.”

Her current boyfriend, former French national team judo athlete Jordan Amoros, has a judo academy in Miami. Cipres said merely, “I’m okay, I’m okay” when asked if he had a significant other.

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None of the three 2018 Olympic medalist pairs has competed this season (one has retired; another is taking an indefinite break; the third is recovering from an injury), opening the way for James and Cipres to move to the top of the world. Even knowing that was not enough for them to move unhesitatingly forward into this season.

“We finally just decided to keep going because we didn’t reach our best level,” Cipres said. “It’s good for us to just do it year-by-year.”

Watching Germany’s Aljona Savchenko win her first Olympic pairs title (with Bruno Massot) at age 34 last winter has shown James that age should not be a limit on her career. Sort of.

“I don’t think Aljona is human,” James said, laughing. “She is a very strong woman, mentally and physically. I need to stay healthy mentally and physically to continue this.”

Savchenko and Massot remain on Zimmerman’s mind as a standard to which James and Cipres should aspire.

“Our job is to try to improve whether the other people are out there or not,” Zimmerman said. “We don’t want to be just the de facto best team. We want to be a reputable team against anybody in its own right.”

So they have taken on artistic challenges this season, eschewing the old warhorses of pairs music and choreography in favor of more recent music and innovative programs choreographed by two of the finest ice dancers in history.

“Dancers are the best at partnering,” she said.

Guillaume Cizeron of France, the still-competing three-time world champion and 2018 Olympic silver medalist with Gabriella Papadakis, did the short program to an Alanis Morissette version of “Uninvited.” Charlie White of the United States, 2014 Olympic champion and two-time world champion with Meryl Davis, did the free skate to music by Chris Isaak (“Wicked Game”) and Maxime Rodriguez (“The Last Feeling.”)

“Having watched their ascent over the years, I believe they would be succeeding at this time, regardless of the specifics of the choreography or even music,” White said

It is the execution of subtle things, like transitions and body positions, especially in lifts, that stand out more than the big tricks (throws, twists and jumps) in these programs. In fact, they have stopped doing a throw quad salchow, partly because their success rate on that element was very low and partly because it is worth 20 percent less (8.2 to 6.5) in the revised code of values this season.

They begin the short program lift with James’ left leg stretched upward so her ankle is on Cipres’ left shoulder. Cipres picks her up from there and, 10 seconds later, tips her upside down before the exit from the lift.

In the free skate, the signature move comes after the opening triple twist, when Cipres does a spread eagle while drawing her gracefully to him by pulling her leg into a camel spin 90-degree position. James accentuates the line his feet and her legs make by placing her arms parallel to the ice.

“One of the best pair programs I’ve ever seen,” said Eurosport commentator Simon Reed after their free skate performance at Skate Canada.

“I think they have always been good, have the skills, but (they) seemed to fall at the final hurdle,” said Chris Howarth, a 1980 British Olympian singles skater who also is a Eurosport Commentator. “This year, they really seem to believe in themselves. They are skating as if they believe they are champions.”

The Grand Prix Final will be the first meeting this season between James and Cipres and their current main rivals, reigning world silver medalists Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov of Russia. The Russians also won two Grand Prix events after a badly flawed free skate (four errors) at their season debut in a Challenger Series event. Both teams have won all three of their competitions this season.

But James and Cipres have received negative grades of execution on just four of the 54 elements in their six programs this season (to nine negatives for the Russians.) The French team’s only serious blips came in a third-place short program at the French Grand Prix two weeks ago, when she doubled a planned side-by-side triple jump, and they had a wonky throw. They rallied with a strong free skate.

“That was a very important moment,” Zimmerman said. “Sometimes you are thinking, ‘OK, I’ve got this competition,’ and then something happens, and you get freaked out, and you don’t know if you will bounce back. This was just a little bit of a hiccup.”

Or just one of the inevitable bumps on a long and winding road.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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MORE: Vanessa James, Morgan Cipres can conquer Russians at Grand Prix Final

Hallelujah! Mariah Bell strikes secret chord with mentor Adam Rippon

Mariah Bell and Adam Rippon
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Mariah Bell hit the final pose of her “Hallelujah” free skate in Greensboro, North Carolina on Friday night and couldn’t hold back her tears. The 23-year-old skater had just had the performance of her life at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

When Bell reached the kiss-and-cry, the first person she hugged wasn’t Rafael Arutunian, her coach since 2016, but former training partner Adam Rippon. A jubilant Rippon thrust Bell’s arm up in the air in triumph. As her score – a whopping 225.21 points, good for a silver medal – flashed up, he repeated the gesture.

“Adam has been such a major part of my success this year,” Bell said. “He’s completely changed my outlook on training. … To have that moment with him here was so special. I was hoping something like this would happen, because he deserved to have that moment, too.”

Considering all of the irons Rippon has in the fire, he is an unlikely candidate to be a coach, even part-time. Since the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, the personable 2016 U.S. champion is in high demand for reality TV, hosting and comedy gigs. He crossed the country promoting his autobiography, Beautiful on the Outside: A Memoir. But something was missing.

“After the Olympics, my plan was always to work with Rafael,” Rippon said shortly before the ladies’ free skate in Greensboro. “Then, I had a lot of opportunities come my way. One of my dreams was always to do what I do now, to be involved in comedy. I’ve always done it off the ice, and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just be the funniest person at the party.’ But when I got to do it as a job, it was a dream come true.

“Still, I felt I learned so much as a skater, because I was so self-directed, with Rafael’s help. Part of me that thought, ‘I can still help.’”

So after U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp last August, Rippon teamed up with the talented Bell, then a U.S. bronze medalist known for her on-ice sparkle as well as occasional inconsistency. With his help, she had her best Grand Prix season ever, winning two bronze medals.

As Rippon tells it, the key was helping Bell work harder and smarter on the ice.

“She needed to switch her mindset,” Rippon said. “What she thought was hard work, I thought of as a light day. Her hard work was what I considered a warm-up.”

After Champs Camp, the Los Angeles-based Rippon had two weeks free, so he visited Bell at their training rink in Irvine, California for three hours each day. There, he sharpened her work ethic.

“All of a sudden I was (telling her), ‘You’re going to do a double toe, double loop at end of every jump, or a triple toe at the end of every jump,’” he recalled. “It was just challenging her in a way she hasn’t been challenged before, so that when she got to the competition the pressure was much less.”

Rippon created a training plan with Bell, charting everything from workouts to breaks to program run-throughs.

“We did this, so that when she got to a competition, she could look down on the paper and say, ‘Look at all of the stuff I did; I’m ready,’” he said. “She could just go and enjoy it.”

After the two-week period following Champs Camp, the busy Rippon could only work with Bell three or four times a month. The two stayed connected via frequent telephone conversations and videos.

Then, a few weeks before Greensboro, both Rippon and choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne visited Irvine to help Arutunian prepare Bell for the U.S. Championships.

“We did a lot of work before nationals, running and polishing programs,” Rippon said. “I think Shae-Lynn is one of the best, if not the best, choreographer working today. So yes, I did the choreography of Mariah’s short (set to a Britney Spears medley), but when Shae-Lynn is there, you take advantage.”

Rippon’s strategy, along with Bourne’s choreography and Arutunian’s technical expertise, paid off big time. On Friday, Bell landed six clean triples, including a triple Lutz, triple toe loop, in a stirring free skate choreographed by Bourne to “Hallelujah.”

“Mariah took my advice and she worked hard and she transformed herself,” Rippon said. “She’s one of the oldest ladies in the competition, and she’s kind of having a renaissance, and I relate to that. I felt like that happened to me, too. At the end of my career, I that I was in the best headspace.”

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

Despite the success, Rippon isn’t planning to expand his coaching to other skaters. He’s too busy with a new project, developing content for Quibi, a short-form mobile video platform.

“It’s my biggest thing right now,” Rippon said. “Everything on the platform is 10 minutes or less. I sold them a show and we started filming last week. I just had this week off, because I asked to go to nationals.”

It’s a comedy show, of course, with Rippon, other comedians and celebrity guests poking fun at the events of the day.

“We do a review of whatever idiotic thing happened,” he said. “It will be funny. I’m very excited.”

But no matter how successful this project, or the next, becomes, Rippon will never abandon figure skating.

“(Quibi) is my work,” he said. “When I have days off, I come to the rink  and I get to work with Mariah, and that’s sort of my relaxation. I reconnect to my roots.”

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MORE: Alysa Liu unflappable under intense pressure to successfully defend national title

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Alysa Liu unflappable under intense pressure to successfully defend national title

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Not long before Alysa Liu was to take the ice as the last of 18 women to do her free skate Friday night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the 14-year-old sat amidst the comings and goings and general commotion of a hallway leading to the ice. She had ear buds in place, munched on an apple and watched the skater who preceded her, Mariah Bell.

By the time Liu reached the Greensboro Coliseum rink for her final warmup moments, the ice surface was littered with stuffed animals, a form of tribute to an outstanding skater, and packed with the flower girls who pick them up. It was also awash with noise from an audience saluting the brilliant skating Bell had just done, an elegant, near flawless performance to k.d. Lang’s haunting interpretation of the emotionally powerful Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah.”

With the crowd’s reaction roaring in her now open ears, Liu weaved through the girls and the plushies in what seemed an eternity before the announcement of Bell’s scores. Liu waited and glided around with an aplomb that is just one of the many extraordinary parts of the personality of this 10th grader who last year had become the youngest U.S. senior champion in history.

In the crowd, 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano watched with his coach, Linda Leaver, trying to see how Liu would react to what could be a discomfiting, pressurized situation.

“When she came out, I said to Linda, ‘Welcome to the big leagues, girl,’” Boitano said. “I thought it was really a sign of a champion she was smiling, and she was relaxed.”

And when her four minutes of skating to “Illumination” by composer-pianist Jennifer Thomas was over, Liu had moved into a league of her own in the United States.

“I was very happy for Mariah,” Liu said. “I didn’t get nervous or excited. I was kind of like, ‘Okay, she did well, and I also have to do well.’”

Capitalizing on the high values of her difficult jumps, Liu skated so well she won her second title by more than 10 points, with 235.52 to Bell’s 225.81. Bradie Tennell, who led Liu by 3.56 points and Bell by 5.74 after the short program, dropped to third (220.86) after mistakes on her final two jumping passes, including a fall on the last.

As they had done last year, Bell and Tennell had to lend their arms to help Liu ascend the top step of the podium for the awards ceremony, a delightfully ironic circumstance given how the 4-foot, 10-inch Liu towers above them in competition.

“It’s so exciting,” said Liu’s coach, Laura Lipetsky. “I’m so proud of her and happy for her. She really wanted to do well.

“She just blocked out what was going on beforehand and did her job.”

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

Liu went into the free skate with a technical base value advantage of more than 16 points over both Bell and Tennell. She made the most of it by executing all but one of the 12 elements very well, failing only on her attempt to be the first woman to land a quadruple jump at nationals.

Her quadruple Lutz was called under-rotated and produced her only negative Grade of Execution. Both Liu’s triple Axels were solid, and her final two spins were of surpassing quality.

Liu said she had begun preparing for one potential psychological hurdle as soon as she saw the free skate draw: the guaranteed 40-minute gap between the end of the final group warmup and the time she was to skate. But she handled just as coolly the unexpected – the crowd reaction to Bell, whose only error was an under-rotated triple Lutz, and her own hard fall earlier in the day.

Liu’s fall had come on a quad Lutz attempt at the end of her final practice, some seven hours before her free skate. It was the last thing she did in that practice, running out of time before she could try another jump.

Some skaters are rattled by a competition-day practice that ends in such a failure, especially if it stings physically. Liu just shook it off.

“I have fallen like that before so it wasn’t like, ‘Omigosh, what am I going to do?’” Liu said. “I guess I knew how to recover from that and focus on other things. I relaxed the rest of the day and iced it so it wouldn’t hurt any more. I just didn’t let that fall get to me.”

Liu joined Ashley Wagner (2012-13) as the only women to win consecutive women’s national titles since Michelle Kwan won her last of eight straight in 2005.

“Last year was more special because it was my first,” Liu said. “This year, I’m just as excited. I’m thinking, ‘It’s a new decade, wow, what a good start.’”

This year is different because her competitive season does not end at nationals.

In 2019, when she was 13, Liu fell below the age minimum for even the Junior World Championships. (U.S. Championships do not have that rule.) Liu will be able to compete at the 2020 Junior World Championships this March in Estonia, but she is not eligible for senior international events until the 2021-22 season – the next Olympic season.

This was her first junior season internationally. She has won a silver medal at the Junior Grand Prix and won two Junior Grand Prix events. But Liu faces formidable competition now and in the future from what seems like an endless stream of young Russians doing quads and triple Axels.

“I am aware a lot of skaters around the world are getting these difficult jumps, and I’m just trying to keep up,” she said.

In Year Two of the Liu Dynasty in America, she has become the youngest to win consecutive national titles and, earlier in the season, the first U.S. woman to land a quadruple jump in competition. She is the only U.S. woman to do those difficult jumps.

“I just want to keep improving and hopefully make history along the way,” Liu said.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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MORE: Gracie Gold in tears at figure skating nationals after emotional comeback

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.