Next Monday, Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland will perform their ice-dance routine at the Winter Olympics. For a time it did not look as though Britain’s top pair would be competing in South Korea. Alasdair Hooper hears about their rocky, often painful road to Pyeongchang
Eighteen months ago, everything was going well for Britain’s leading ice-dance pair Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland. Maybe a little too well. With two Winter Olympics appearances behind them, and renewed funding from UK Sport, they were gearing up towards making a real impact at Pyeongchang.
The couple have had to deal with their fair share of injuries throughout their careers – including reconstructive foot surgery for Coomes and an operation for Buckland to fix a faulty nerve in his heart – but finally results and training were coming together. However, after a career-best seventh place at the World Championships, disaster struck in June 2016. And it was unlike anything they had faced before.
While practising a daring new lift during training in the United States, things went badly wrong for Coomes. Instead of landing on her partner’s shoulders, the 28-year-old plummeted to the ice and landed heavily on her kneecap. She had fractured it into eight different pieces.
After a night in hospital, Coomes was flown back to the United Kingdom where she was told it could be months before she would walk again. Some doctors suggested her skating career was over.
“I thought they were all crazy,” says Coomes. “I didn’t really listen to much of what my doctors were saying at that point. It’s funny – you kind of have this goal in the back of your head, that I have got to be ready for the Olympics, and that’s all you think about.
“People talk to you but you don’t really hear. You sort of pick out what you want to hear and you hear the good parts. I very much ignored the negative words and the negative connotations and said, ‘No, I’ll be fine’.
“I put a brave face on for the people around me, but also for myself, and I was definitely in a little bit of denial. I hit a low point about three months in when I realised I actually wasn’t getting better very quickly.”
The rehabilitation process was arduous for the Maidenhead skater. Indeed, it took five months before she could set foot on the ice again. With the on-going battles she had inside her head, Coombes even started to fall out of love with the sport she had always adored.
“It was the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to deal with, but at the same time it’s the strongest I’ve ever had to be,” she says. “In your darkest moments you somehow find the strength from within, and you see if you can get through it. There were times when I hit such bad lows that I didn’t know if I could ever do it again.
“I fell out with skating – I didn’t want to watch it, I didn’t want to talk about it. Then there were times when I was just frustrated, and times where I was happy when you hit those moments and did something good that you couldn’t do before. Then you lose them again and it’s just this big cycle of every single emotion you could think of. It was really challenging but very, very rewarding at the same time.”
Her partner, meanwhile, just felt a sense of being completely helpless. All Buckland, a 28-year-old from Nottingham, could do was continue training by himself with the Olympic Games in South Korea as the motivating factor.
“You do feel powerless,” he says. “We are a team and we do everything together. We’ll go in, do the same training sessions, listen to the same music and think about the same choreography. When it becomes something that is totally out of your control you feel a little bit like a spare part.
“So I was having to do as much as I possibly could to support Penny, but trying to keep myself fit and active and focused because we still had a goal. Regardless of how low you were at that point, the goal was still the Olympic Games. We had to get even more focused, think of a plan and a process to get us to where we wanted to be.
“But it’s hard in multiple different ways. You’ve got to motivate yourself to do something. Obviously you’re thinking of the end-goal, but you’ve got to motivate yourself to be training on your own, which is really hard when you’ve always had a partner to bounce off. I could see how difficult things were for Penny, and how far away getting back on the ice together was, that was hard to take as well.
“You think I’m doing this, but I’m going to be on my own for a long time – it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But we both had jobs to do, we had goals and that’s what you keep yourself focused on.”
Coomes credits a trip to the psychologist as the trigger that reignited her love for the sport. “I remember being in a psychology session,” she says, “and Nick had sent me through a video of a little trick that we’d done when we were in Colorado Springs with Christopher Dean. I watched that video – where I sort of flipped over and bent my knee – and I remember saying to the psychologist that I didn’t think my knee was ever going to be able to do that again, or to cope with that again.
“She said, ‘Well, you can’t do that now, but let’s break it down’. She made me look at different videos of myself skating – elements where I was scared or feared that I wouldn’t be able to do anymore. I’m really critical of myself as a skater. I’m my own worse critic and I hate watching myself – I see everything that’s wrong. In that one psychology session, where I was watching videos of myself skate, I appreciated how good I was. I had never looked at myself like that before. To have that break away, and that step back, just to appreciate what you’ve done and how hard it was, made me fall back in love again.”
It was a long, tough and painful journey, but the pair rode the rollercoaster and eventually qualified for their third Winter Olympics. With that experience behind them they hope to improve on both their 20th position in Vancouver in 2010, and 10th four years ago in Sochi.
“It has been tough, and sometimes you do think, ‘Oh God, something else again’. But you do learn from them,” says Buckland. “It sounds a bit clichéd but you learn from what you’ve gone through. It makes you a stronger athlete, skater and person. We wouldn’t be the same people we are today, going into the Olympic Games, if we hadn’t gone through all this.
“You have to put a positive spin on things and that’s what makes high-level athletes the way they are. Mentally we are so much stronger than we’ve ever been before. We’ve gone through so much that we have to be.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alasdair Hooper is a gold standard NCTJ-qualified journalist working for Essex Live and the Essex Chronicle. He is the co-presenter of the SportSpiel podcast and is also the host of the Humans of Chelmsford podcast. A former British fencer, he is also a big fan of both football and ice hockey. Alasdair’s latest articles.