Vanessa James is back on “Battle of the Blades” for a second consecutive season, this time paired with professional Canadian hockey player, Akim Aliu.
In her first year on the show, James and partner Brian McGrattan were the second team eliminated. This time around, James is aiming for a much longer stay. “I had no expectations that I would be asked to come back for another season,” she said. “I was not even sure if the show was going to happen this year so I was pleasantly surprised when I was asked.”
Last year was a learning curve on many levels for the 33-year-old former French pairs skater, who said she discovered a lot about herself. “After skating with someone for 10 years and then going into the unknown, trying something with someone who had never done anything before — as far as pairs goes — that took a lot of confidence in myself and in the other person, so I feel like it was a learning experience for me.
“I had to trust someone I barely knew — and just go for it and expect the best. That was a learning experience in itself. Also, learning more about the basics of figure skating. It just comes so naturally to us, but being able to articulate and explain to someone who had not done it before it really got me back to basic skating. It ended up helping me with my own skating.”
Aliu had never watched the show, but said he knew about it. When the idea of competing on it was first proposed to him he admitted it took a lot of convincing. “It was just so different for me. It was something I had never done before and I just didn’t think I had the personality to do it. I am a pretty closed-off kind of person,” the 31-year-old explained. “I had to talk myself into it and my family talked me into it.”
Having never donned a pair of figure skates in his life, Aliu soon learned the danger of the toe pick, and said that was “a whole journey in itself.”
“Oh man! It was — and still is — the only thing that haunts me in my life. That is my biggest fear in life right now. This is so different. In figure skating there is not a lot of straight line skating and in hockey everything is straight lines. You go to a place, you stop, then you go to another place. Figure skating is more circular. I talked to the other guys about it as well and I don’t think it is anything we will ever get used to but we just have to get over the fear.
“In total I have taken about five falls. The problem is, I think the reason I have not fallen over more is because I over-exaggerate my ‘not toe picking’ so then it makes my skating look worse. It is hard to explain.”
Aliu had also never before worked with a choreographer. He feels very fortunate to have David Wilson assigned to the team and said working with him has been an inspiring experience. “He has been unbelievable. He is my favorite human on earth I think. Vanessa is a close second, but David is No. 1 for me. He is so personable, I love him.
“The culture of figure skating is a lot different to hockey, which is very macho, and you put up this persona as if you are tough. But figure skating is a little more raw and emotional. To be honest, I think I have learned a lot and I believe David and I are going to be friends for a long time. I am privileged and honoured to have met him and I think he is a beautiful human.
“But, choreography is hard. Everything is so different than what I am used to, which is read and react, so that is obviously how my brain is wired. Remembering little steps here and there … Vanessa is really good — she talks to me while we skate, which helps a lot. I forget little steps here and there — it has not been as hard as I thought it would be, but I would never say it is easy.”
James feels her partner’s modesty does not reflect the reality. “He is a natural — wait until you see him. He’s got the look, the sex appeal on the ice, and he is picking it up naturally. Like he said, he has to get used to the steps and everything else, but he is being modest. He does not see himself as we see him. Everyone will be surprised.”
She has also enjoyed her first experience of working with Wilson and said he does not “try to change either of us on the ice, but just finds what works for us naturally without forcing anything upon our bodies or our personalities. He is so creative and so talented that everything is just happening so naturally. I think everything is going to be great.”
James and Aliu have been working on lifts and throws. Both feel they are in a comfort zone with those elements and James said fans can expect to see some “really cool throws and lifts from the team. Akim was already doing really good double flip throws on his eighth day.”
“She is so little. It was cool,” Aliu responded when asked about the first time he lifted his partner. “To be honest, I think the more I get to know the sport a little — I know it is always going to be at a minimal level — I think she does a lot in holding positions and not being dead weight almost. It was weird when I tried doing it with my girlfriend — I wasn’t even close. It is a work in progress, but I think it is going really well. I am just doing what I am told but it is fun and it is creative.
“The craziest thing to me is how trusting Vanessa is. If I was her, and some random guy showed up and said he was going to pick me up when he had never done it before, I would be like hell no. So kudos to her for doing that.”
While James is “super excited” about making their debut on Thursday, Aliu is a little more reserved. “I think that will be a different experience than last year and it may feel a little bit more like practice because there won’t be anyone in the audience, and no family will be in the arena. So I feel they will be more in their comfort zone performing right off the bat,” James said with enthusiasm.
“I guess that makes one of us who is excited,” Aliu added. “I would say I am more nervous. But it is a good nervous. I think it is going to be fun and hopefully it will be like hockey. I get nervous before a game or in front of a large crowd but as soon as the puck drops that feeling goes away and I get tunnel vision. I am hoping this will be the same kind of experience.”
“I guess we will find out,” said James with a laugh.
The duo are competing on behalf of Aliu’s “The Time To Dream Foundation,” which aims to make youth sports more diverse, inclusive, affordable and accessible to all, regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic background.
The season premieres Thu., Oct. 22 at 8:00 p.m. on the CBC network.
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