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British nationals benefit from American presence

But 2006 ladies champ Vanessa James 'defects' to France

Sinead Kerr and John Kerr.
Sinead Kerr and John Kerr. (Getty Images)

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By Alexandra Stevenson, special to icenetwork.com
(01/10/2008) - British officials are reeling over the 'defection' to France of Canadian-born U.S. resident Vanessa James, who won the ladies championship in December 2005, her first attempt at the British national title. James was to compete in two events in this week's British National Championships in Sheffield.

She planned a rematch with Northern Ireland's Jenna McCorkell, who dethroned her in January 2007 when McCorkell returned to competition after injury.

Moreover, James and her British partner, Hamish Gaman, were hoping to snatch the title from the two-time senior pairs champions, Stacey Kemp and David King, who now train in Poland.

King said he was disappointed because they "were looking forward to the competition. The last time we had challengers in the British was ages ago, when we were novices."

Melyssa James, 20, is seeking to compensate a little for her absconding twin. She won the 2006 solo ice dance championship, and, after a false start with another Briton, is now partnered with Jamie Burns in ice dancing this year.

They certainly do not pose a danger to four-time title holders Sinead Kerr and John Kerr, the brother-and-sister team that trains in Princeton, N.J. But they are a welcome addition to the small field of seven couples.

They have one advantage when the senior events get underway Thursday with the Yankee Polka compulsory.

James said, "The Yankee Polka was created in the rink where we now train, so everyone there is very familiar with it." (Then-U.S. champions and world silver medalists Judy Schwomeyer and James Sladky invented the dance at The Skating Club of Wilmington.)

Her partner added, "And Melyssa's so bouncy and outgoing, the dance really suits her."

Asked why her twin sister, who's younger by 10 minutes and shorter by four inches, chose to desert the country, James, who is 5'6", said, "It was a better opportunity."

Vanessa James is now skating with Yannick Bonheur, who represented France with his previous partner in the 2006 Olympic Games.

James and Bonheur appeared in public for the first time in an exhibition program on December 28 in Courchevel in the French Alps, where their performance was flawed but promising.

A British official confirmed Wednesday that James informed the British Association that she wished to obtain her release from Great Britain, but they were waiting for papers from the French Association which must request clearance. France has a history of welcoming outsiders, including Russian Marina Anissina, who left Russia to join partner Gwendal Peizerat. Together they won the 2002 Olympic ice dancing gold medal, while Anissina's previous partner, Ilia Averbukh, won silver with his wife Irina Lobacheva.

The ladies event, which concludes on Saturday -- as do all the senior level events -- was further reduced to three with the withdrawal of Kaysi Kitsell, from Atlanta, due to an ankle injury. Kitsell won the short program but finished sixth overall in the very competitive 2005 U.S. Novice Championship (won by Rachael Flatt while Caroline Zhang placed fourth).

McCorkell, who will marry Belgian star Kevin van der Perren in May, is both the British and Belgian champion. When asked if she too was going to change her allegiance, her face filled with mock horror and she said, "Definitely, no."

The small entry for this ice dance championship is a sad situation for a country who literally invented the sport by creating a whole series of "compulsories" in the 1930s. The field includes American Christina Chitwood, who is partnered with Mark Hanretty of Glasgow.

Chitwood was born in Sioux Falls, S.D., before her family moved to Colorado. She is now a student at Sheffield University. In January 2007, in their first year together, Chitwood came down with mononucleosis, and they finished only seventh at the British championships.

Their situation is a Catch-22. Even if they are runners-up in Sheffield this week, the National Ice Skating Association of Great Britain (NISA) may not give them the second berth into the European championships.

Because of government specifications, skaters must earn a specified number of points in competition before they are selected for an international event, and Chitwood and Hanretty have not been given the opportunity to do this.

A petition was circulating this week in the iceSheffield two-rink complex in this city made famous for making steel. It asked for a vote of no confidence in NISA officials, in part, because of the very unpopular, relatively new exclusionary policy, which denies entry to skaters if they don't gain enough points in certain events.

The policy was implemented because NISA accepts funding from government agencies which demand accountability. Measuring talent and progress by certain ages, however, is an extremely difficult thing to do in the sport of figure skating because success is not just a case of athleticism.

John Hamer will not defend the men's title because, although he won his third consecutive British title last January by a considerable margin and had represented Great Britain twice before in the world championships, NISA declined to enter him for the 2007 worlds. "It seemed pointless to keep competing," Hamer said.

Lindsay Cohen and Evan Roberts, skaters from Pennsylvania, who were 11th in the 2007 U.S. Championships at the junior level, received their release from U.S. Figure Skating in June. They are among the five couples competing for the British junior ice dancing title left vacant when two-time champions, Leigh Rogers and Lloyd Jones, dissolved their partnership after a row three weeks ago.

Another American of British ancestry, Dane Carter, from Falmouth, Maine, who competed at intermediate level in the United States, was entered for his first British championship, but he pulled out of the junior men's event because of a back injury.