AMY Tinkler's emergency Dancing on Ice debut felt like starting at a new school halfway through term—complete with night-before butterflies.
The Olympic bronze medal-winning gymnast, 21, and her pro skating partner Joe Johnson were training as back-ups for the ITV competition when they got the call.
Denise Van Outen had fractured her shoulder. They were going to be on television.
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Reality - and nerves - immediately kicked in. It was Tuesday. There were just four full days before they had to compete against an already close-knit group of competitors with a two-week advantage. What, they wondered, would everyone think about the 'new kids' on the ice block?
Tinkler and Johnson's first routine wowed judges and audiences alike. Many have now tipped the duo to win the entire celebrity skating competition.
"I can't even put into words how amazing it was to be out there," Tinkler gushed.
"Me and Joe just had so much fun together. We never expected to actually go in. I think [debuting] almost lifted the pressure a bit.
"I felt quite a lot going into it, being sort of the new girl and the reserve, and are they going to be good?
"But now we went out there, and people now know us, and know what we're capable of. And now all we need to do is just go and enjoy every week."
Johnson and Tinkler performed their peppy Musicals Week routine to 'Fame', an apt theme for their Dancing on Ice journey: they want it to live forever.
Tinkler, who had never skated before signing up for the contest, said: "The main thing for me is I'm having so much fun in training and on the show, and it's not even about the winning.
"I just want it to last for as long as possible, which obviously means through to the final. I don't want this whole experience to end yet. I'm having the best time."
Much of that, for Tinkler, is due to the close relationship she's developed with Johnson. The 26-year-old American ice dancer skated competitively for 16 years before retiring in 2019.
The pair have been training at Stockton-on-Tees' Billingham Forum Ice Arena since late September. When asked about their impressions of each other, they collapsed into a fit of giggles.
Tinkler, recovering, explained: "I got asked what Joe's coaching style was like and at first I had no words for it. Together, we both came up with 'chaos'.
"We just have so much fun in training, we've spent so much time together, and obviously with Covid as well, he's been the only person I've been really allowed contact with.
"He really does feel like a brother to me now. We're so close and we have so much fun together."
So #TeamChaos? Absolutely, agreed the athletes, who both keenly felt a familial tie.
Johnson said: "I think 'fierce' is a good word for her. She's fiercely loyal, a fierce competitor. I think she's incredibly kind.
"She took to this challenge so quickly and how headlong she devoted herself to it, and just how willing she is to participate and show up every day and be positive.
"She's just an ideal partner. And she's a wonderful friend. She described me as a brother, I'd describe her like a sister.
"She's been a wonderful person to be with in a very, very dark time in the world, in all of our lives."
Tinkler is all too familiar with dark times. She made headlines in 2016 as Team GB's youngest Rio Olympian, becoming the first British female to win an Olympic floor medal.
But a crisis was brewing beneath the surface of success. Tinkler retired from gymnastics in January 2020, later revealing she had submitted a formal complaint to British Gymnastics over allegations of mistreatment in the sport including bullying and body shaming.
It resulted in a very public battle for the athlete, who was only 20 when she turned her back on what was once her dream.
She told ITV last year: "I would give up that medal to not have gone through what I did, which is really sad."
UK Sport and Sport England commissioned the independent Whyte Review, which will look into claims made by Tinkler and other gymnasts who have lodged similar complaints. The assessment, launched last summer, has now completed its call for evidence stage.
With the review still underway, Tinkler has time to focus on more immediate problems—like learning how to stop with blades on her feet, something she admitted was still a challenge.
"It's really nice to be back in a sport and to be really enjoying it, literally having the best time," she said, adding: "This is completely different to elite sport."
And her beaming smile made it abundantly clear: there's something completely different about Tinkler, too.
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