The French skating pair, Yannick Bonheur and Vanessa James electrified spectators at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Dancing to the tune of Romeo and Juliette, the duo received a standing ovation after a memorable performance, and although they placed a distant fourteenth, history was made. They are first black figure skating pair ever at the Winter Olympics.
Although they failed to win a medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, the French skating pair, Yannick Bonheur and Vanessa James made history as the first black couple at the Winter Olympics. Canadian-born British, Vanessa and her partner Yannick captured the heart and soul of the Canadian public who gave them a generous standing ovation at the end of their free program. They finished in fourteenth place. Strangely, Yannick finished in the same position with his former partner, Marylin Pla, at the 2006 Turino Winter Olympics, in Italy.
But despite the roaring standing ovation from the audience, this result remains a disappointment for the two. They had hoped to make it to the top ten. But Vanessa James is optimistic. “We have put all our hopes on the 2014 Games. We have only just begun our careers together,” she said after their free program. After having skated together for two years, industry experts see it as only the beginning for the figure skating duo. And Vanessa agrees with them: “at the Olympics we will compete against couples that have been skating together from five years to fifteen years”. In fact, veteran couple Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, skated together for 17 years before taking home a gold medal at the Vancouver games.
Yannick and Vanessa nearly missed the Olympics. Despite having already represented France at various international competitions, Canadian-born Vanessa, whose parents are English, needed a French passport to be able to represent France at the Olympics. After two years of legal proceedings, and with the intervention of the National Commission of elite sport, Vanessa’s French passport was issued only a few days before Christmas. The selection of the couple was confirmed on February 1, just fifteen days before the Vancouver Olympics.
The 28 year old Martinique-island-born Yannick Bonheur is not new on the French sports landscape. He began participating in French championships in 2002 and held the French championship title, alongside his former partner Marylin Pla, for three consecutive years; 2005, 2006, 2007. But for the arrival of his current partner, Vanessa James, Yannick’s career could have come to a screeching halt after his former partner, Marylin Pla, retired from figure skating in 2007.
After months of combing through lists of possible partners and several unsuccessful attempts with various skaters, Yannick Bonheur finally met Vanessa James, who responded to an announcement he had placed on IcePartnerSearch, an ice-skating networking site. The chemistry was instant. “We had a perfect connection. A week later, I moved to France,” says the pretty skater. That was in December 2007. 10 days later, despite the language barrier – Vanessa did not speak a word of French -, the couple showed up at an amateur gala in Courchevel.
The 23 year old Vanessa James was the first black English figure skating champion in 2005. The athlete made headlines in the UK in January 2008, when she announced her intention to retire from solo competitions in order to concentrate on the pairs competition. At the same moment, she revealed her intention to adopt French citizenship in order to participate in the Olympics with Yannick, dashing the hopes of the British federation, who had hoped for a British participation at the Games.
Before the pair began competing internationally in 2008, Vanessa’s twin sister Melyssa James, also a figure skating champion in the U.K., said she was “not surprised by Vanessa’s decision, because it a unique and a great opportunity for her.” Shortly afterwards, Yannick was injured during the short program at the French championships. Although he managed to finish the program the pair had to throw in the towel.
After a long absence from competitions due to Yannick’s injury, their return was marked by a tenth place win, right behind the new French champions, Adeline Canac and Maximin Coia, at the European Championships in Helsinki in January 2009. In March 2009, they were selected for the World Championships in Los Angeles with a nearly flawless program (they were treated to one of three standing ovations from the audience). “It was our first standing ovation,” said Yannick. From there, they continued their preparation as they multiplied training programs abroad under the aegis of some of the best industry choreographers while participating in international competitions. At the World Team Trophy they placed 5th, bringing eight points to the France team which came fourth at the end of the competition behind the United States, Canada and Japan. 2010 is a decisive year for the pair. They have so far taken part in the French championship, the European Championship, and the Vancouver Olympics, placing first, 7th and 14th, respectively.
Behind the pair’s youthful smiles lies a ferocious will to take on some of the toughest challenges. Supported by a great sense of discipline, they train at least four hours a day, apply a no-alcohol-rule, and respect a strict sleep pattern.
Vanessa and Yannick caught the immediate attention of the Canadian media as soon as they arrived in British Columbia for the Olympic games. They have become role models for young Black skaters. “We were indeed approached by a lot of people from the United States (…) who said their children had taken up ice skating because of us,” Vanessa James told the Canadian press. “They realize that it is now possible… I hope we see more black skaters”. And according to Yannick, they “want to push pair skating for Black people because there aren’t many”. In fact, since the beginning of the Winter Olympics there have been only two black skaters in the singles competition: American Debi Thomas, who took the bronze in 1988 Games in Calgary and became the first black medalist at the Winter Olympic Games, and the French skater, Surya Bonaly 1992, 1994 and 1998. As for Black male skaters, with the exception of Yannick Bonheur, there is the German Robin Szolkowy, partly of Tanzanian descent, who won the bronze medal with his partner Aliona Savchenko.
Many see a medal in the offing for Yannick and Vanessa at the 2014 games, and they may be right. Having been together for only two years, the pair has come a very very long way yet.