'The Olympics seemed very far away': How Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland defied the odds
A year ago, the Olympic dreams of Britain’s leading ice dance couple lay in tatters after a horrific training injury. Now after an improbable qualification for PyeongChang 2018, they tell David Cox how they’re chasing a career defining medal with the aid of an Olympic legend.
For once, everything seemed to be going smoothly for Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland. It was June 2016, and after a career peppered with injuries and health concerns - from a foot injury which left Coomes requiring reconstructive surgery, to a bout of arrhythmia which saw Buckland undergo an operation to burn off a faulty nerve in his heart - Britain’s leading ice dancing pair appeared poised to establish themselves as serious contenders for the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics.
That June, Coomes and Buckland had just received news of renewed funding from UK Sport, reflecting their status as potential Olympic medallists following a career best seventh place finish at the previous year’s World Championships. They were working on a stylish new entry for a lift they’d created. But one Friday in Novi, Michigan, disaster struck.
“I jumped up, but I just gave it a little too much, and rather than landing kneeling on Nick’s shoulders, I ended up falling off the other side and landed directly on my kneecap,” Coomes remembers.
Lying prone on the cold ice, the shock of the fall initially numbing the pain, Coomes was vaguely aware of people calling for an ambulance. She began to panic and tried to sit up. “I was worrying, oh my god, they’re going to arrive and there won’t even be a bruise there. Wishful thinking I suppose. But then a paramedic rushed onto the ice, and just went ‘Woah, massive deformity!’”
Coomes was taken immediately to hospital where surgeons splintered her knee. The next day she was on a flight back to the UK, and three days later she underwent an operation to repair the fractured kneecap. She was told it would be months before she could walk again, never mind skate.
With each passing day and week representing time lost to their rivals, accepting the reality of the situation wasn’t easy. “I remember always halving the time that any of the doctors and physios gave me and saying, ‘Yeah but I’ll recover quicker than anyone else,’” Coomes laughs. “I even told them off and said ‘Stop using the word serious, I’ll be fine!’
" But three months on when I was still bedridden, the realisation began to sink in for both of us."
It was five months of intensive rehabilitation before Coomes returned to the ice. By now her muscles were atrophied and doctors were concerned whether she had the strength to skate. “One of them even said to me, ‘It’s really slippy out there!’ which is the funniest thing for an ice dancer to hear, as for us, skating’s like walking. My physio was even joking to me that I’d need one of those little penguins that little kids hold onto. And I believed her. I was so nervous initially stepping onto the ice, but then I just skated off and burst into tears.”
But their problems were not over. Although Coomes could skate and train again, the thin wires threading through and holding her fragile knee together were aggravating the tendons. By January 2017, training left her in constant pain, leaving the pair with an agonising dilemma.
The World Championships were just two months away, the pinnacle of the season and the main means of Olympic qualification. But pushing through to March on medication risked further inflaming the tendons, and a long layoff. However, a second operation to remove the wires meant being off the ice till April, leaving them with just one chance to qualify for PyeongChang; a last-chance saloon style competition in September in the small resort of Obsterhaf, Germany, where the final five Olympic slots are made available.
“There was a moment where Penny looked at me and said, ‘I don’t think I’m going able to be able to be strong enough in time for us to be competitive', and that was really hard as a partner to experience, because you’re pretty helpless in that situation,” Buckland says. “I said, ‘If that’s the case then it’s ok. We’ll work through it together,’ but at the time it was really hard for us to see any long-term goals. The Olympics seemed very far away.”
Coomes opted to remove the wires, and three months later she was back on the ice. But as she tried to regain her strength, she had to relearn from scratch many of the innate muscle memories most elite ice dancers take for granted. “I had to learn how to sit into my knee again which was difficult as it gets stiff in the cold,” she remembers. “We do a lot of work with video cameras because we’re an aesthetic sport and I’d notice my upper body looked very tense or my legs would be very straight. Our coach would shout out, ‘You can bend your knee, you know!’ Because I found bending my right leg so difficult, I’d cheat by bending at the hip instead.”
Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland from Great Britain perform during their free ice dance skating program of the 49th Nebelhorn trophyGetty Images
With just five months to get their performances back to a point where it looked as if nothing had ever happened, Buckland admits the mental and physical strain was immense. “There were times we were like, ‘What are we doing? This is so hard,’” he remembers. “Because at the end of the day, the judges don’t really care if we’ve rehabbed and come back to where we are, we’re competing against everybody who hasn’t been injured.
" People don’t realise how difficult it is to regain that level of fitness because during the routine we’re always smiling, but our heart rates are close to maximum for three minutes."
But come September, they were ready. In their first event for almost two years, Buckland and Coomes produced one of the finest performances of their career to not only qualify, but win the entire competition. Remarkably, given what was at stake, they described the experience as simply enjoying the thrill of competitive skating again.
“The cost of failure actually only really dawned on us after we qualified,” Buckland says. “Robin Cousins said that the entire of our funding and support had been based on qualifying for the Olympics, and if we hadn’t made it, everything would have been taken away the very next day. I think we kind of knew that, but as athletes you never think that way.”
With their Olympic place secured, Buckland and Coomes turned their attention to fine-tuning their routines for PyeongChang. But after finishing seventh at the NRK Trophy in November, they came to the realisation their freedance, choreographed to Battle Remembered by Yo-Yo Ma, was not up to scratch for the biggest competition of their lives.
“We sat down, and I was a little upset with one of the scorings,” Coomes remembers. “And it clicked that it had always felt a little flat. The music we’d picked wasn’t necessarily the music that would get the crowd and the judges on our side.”
With just two months to go before PyeongChang, they decided to enlist the help of a British Olympic legend, and one of the few people in the world to understand their predicament, to help choreograph a new freedance. Back in 1994, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean claimed Olympic bronze after deciding to change large swathes of their freedance with just three weeks to go.
And now Dean would help them reconstruct their freedance, combining the best elements of their whole career into one routine. “The music is now based on a Muse programme we’d done previously which suits us a lot more, but we’ve altered bits of the music here and there,” Coomes says. ““It’s been a massive risk but Chris completely understands the decision. We knew we needed to make sure both routines are the best we’ve ever done. We’ve worked too hard to do something we’re not 100% happy with.”
After the past 18 months, an Olympic medal for the pair would be one of the most remarkable stories in ice dancing history, but Buckland and Coomes are quietly confident that if everything clicks on the day, they can improve on their previous finishes, having come 20th in Vancouver and 10th in Sochi.
“We’re a much stronger team since Sochi, both mentally and physically,” Buckland says. “We’ve developed much more of our own style. It’s been a tough couple of months as Penny’s knee is still recovering, and we’ve been redesigning the freedance, but when you come to the Games so much can happen. It just depends how everyone else skates, and if we go out there and put in two good performances, we can get high up there. It’s always been the goal to get an Olympic medal, it’s just that we’re coming at it from a very different place than we imagined.”