Ice Network

Zimmerman's tutelage guiding James, Ciprès

Three-time U.S. pairs champion relishes time instructing French pair
  • Ice Network on Facebook
  • Ice Network on Twitter
Former U.S. pairs champion John Zimmerman has had a positive impact on the development of French team Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès. -Getty Images

John Zimmerman, the three-time U.S. pairs champion and 2002 world bronze medalist with Kyoko Ina, has started a successful school in Florida. Last June, Zimmerman's school welcomed France's Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès, who continue to excel on the international level.

The French champions entered the 2017 European Figure Skating Championships with a new confidence, which is a testament to the teachings of their coach, who was kind enough to detail some of his coaching practices with icenetwork.

Icenetwork: How did your professional relationship with Vanessa and Morgan begin?

Zimmerman: Vanessa mentioned several times last spring that the team wanted to make some changes. She and Morgan referred to the style Kyoko Ina and I had when we were competing. Our style was not a romantic one, and it was by far more athletic, with complex elements throughout. Vanessa and Morgan thought that such a style was more along their own lines. When she called me at the end of last season, I was excited and thrilled, but I also felt challenged.

Icenetwork: How did you manage to help them greatly improve in such a short amount of time?

Zimmerman: I'm always critical of how much my pupils improve. The first thing was never to try to reinvent them. They were already an amazing team. Let's not forget, they came rather late in the season -- in June. You may be tempted to open many directions at the same time, and the risk is always to find yourself with nothing at the end. As a coach, you have to discipline yourself in order to get the most out of your students.

We had to choose the areas in which we wanted to invest. We mostly tried to investigate their relationship on the ice and to improve it. When I say "we," I mean Silvia Fontana (Zimmerman's wife, who was a national champion in Italy), John Kerr and Jeremy Barrett. We all agreed on the music, but each one played an important role. John Kerr has done a lot of the choreography. He and I contributed to the dance lifts.

Icenetwork: How did Vanessa and Morgan manage to get their side-by-side triple salchow, which was eluding them so often in the past, more consistent?

Zimmerman: It improved because their relationship with each other improved.

Icenetwork: Side-by-side jumps are, by definition, individual jumps. What connection do you make between an individual element and the two team members?

Zimmerman: The link is confidence. Each member of the pair supports the other, and makes him or her feel confident. But it only takes one jump to mess the whole thing up. If you miss that jump and are not super-strong, you feel the pressure building up and growing, even from your partner. That's where the relationship between the two partners is so important. It's the same with, let's say, a costume. When you wear a costume in which you're not fully at ease, you may not be affected at all. Some people are not. But sometimes you are, and your confidence can be shattered by it.

We had to re-instill how fierce Vanessa could be. Now she is owning her performances.

Icenetwork: How did you discover this problem with the pair?

Zimmerman: When we had a meltdown at Skate America. Practice was going great, and they had a good skate at the Autumn Classic. But then on the big stage, we messed up one jump, and it opened a field of uncertainty. We realized their confidence was unbalanced and had to approach what we said and how we trained in a different way following Skate America. We incorporated a few things, and they produced immediate results. There is always a lot to do, but it's getting better and better every day.

Icenetwork: Another noticeable aspect of their program is the way they incorporate their entrances and various tricks. They didn't have that in the past.

Zimmerman: Oh yes, the entrance into the death spiral (where Ciprès carries James into her spiraling position while still moving himself) is great fun. I love stuff like that. Actually, that is what makes me stay in the business: trying different things on the ice. As a coach, I want to try things that probably won't work but, if something sticks, would be great.

Icenetwork: Can you share some examples of what you'd like to see?

Zimmerman: We thought of having Vanessa lift her arms over her head during their throw triple flip. It was a fun thing to try. She thought I was insane at first, because nobody had ever done it in the past. We had to leave it out this season, however, as it proved to be too inconsistent. But, if we have more time, we will include it back next season.

Icenetwork: What about the entrance into the throw?

Zimmerman: Jeremy first came up with the idea of the upside down lift, and then we thought we could use it as an entrance into the throw. We always have a good time together, trying those new tricks. Our team also created both programs for Aliona [Savchenko] and Bruno [Massot]. That was fun. Our team is a good mix.

John (twice a European bronze medalist with his sister, Sinead) is amazing with intricate steps and holds. I am more of the tricks guy, while Silvia looks at the overall attention to detail. We will add many more things to Vanessa and Morgan's programs next year when we have the time.

Icenetwork: The 2017 U.S. Championships proved that male skating continues to progress at a rapid pace. What, in your opinion, is the future of pairs skating?

Zimmerman: Pairs will go the same way. The U.S. championships did not display the best in pairs, as there were lots of falls and mistakes. One of my students, Brandon Frazier, who is now the new national pairs champion (with Haven Denney), had a good way of putting it. He said that pairs were going through a growing period. Skaters are trying to push the envelope and do new tricks, such as the quad throws. It may not be the most attractive sport to watch now, but it will get stronger and stronger in a couple of years.

Icenetwork: Those throw jumps seem to require more and more thrust to allow the female partner to rotate more in the air. Does this add a heightened level of danger?

Zimmerman: Falls can be so brutal. I remember at the Turin Olympics, when Hao Zhang threw his then partner, Dan Zhang, for a quad salchow. She hurt herself so badly and needed a long time to recover. Those throws can be super dangerous because all it takes is one stupid mistake for someone to get seriously injured. Throws, at the same time, don't need to be as big as they are. It seems that because it's called a throw, you really have to throw. You can work to limit the throw since it may not need to be huge. People are trying more and more, and they will learn more and more to master those complex throws.

Icenetwork: At the end of Vanessa and Morgan's practice session, several fans received their autographs, and after they finished, you took the time for a selfie with your pupils. Who wanted it? 

Zimmerman: I did. I want to take in those moments.