On home ice? Britain's figure skaters emigrate for success

By Ollie WilliamsBBC Olympic sports reporter

When Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland embraced in delight before a sea of union jacks, it wasn't because they had won a medal.

They had in fact finished sixth at the recent ice dancing European Championships - a personal best for them, if still some way off the French gold medallists.

What made the event special for Coomes and Buckland was the chance, possibly for the only time in their careers, to compete in a major figure skating event on British ice.

"Our coach says the last time there was one like this here, it was the 1995 World Championships," said Buckland. "I remember coming to watch that as a kid.

"The crowd were amazing, to be skating at home was out of this world. I didn't know whether it was going to make or break us with that much pressure, but it made our performance 10 times easier to get through."

Yet if major figure skating events come to Britain all too rarely, British skaters are as hard to find here. Coomes and Buckland may be British, but they live and train in the American state of New Jersey.

"It's a public rink in the middle of nowhere - in the middle of a field," said Coomes. "We've got really comfortable there with where we live, and with the rink, and the guys there are very helpful.

"We have as much ice time as we need, and we've built up a really good relationship with our coach. We're lucky to have one of the best coaches in the world."

That is what attracts GB's top skaters abroad: the quality of coaching. In New Jersey, Coomes and Buckland are under the wing of Evgeny Platov, once an ice dance superstar.

Platov, now 44, formed one half of the Russian partnership which took gold at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, a result famous for which the indignation with which the British media greeted the result, convinced that bronze medallists Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean had been robbed of victory on their Olympic return.

By the turn of the millennium, Platov had turned to coachingexternal-link. He moved to New Jersey in 2005 and has since transformed from tormentor of British talent to ringmaster of the next generation, nurturing first siblings John and Sinead Kerr - eighth at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympicsexternal-link - and now Coomes and Buckland.

Asked if anyone like Platov is plying their trade in Britain, Buckland, at 22 still young in the sport, shook his head.

"No. And I don't think we could put what Evgeny has done for us into words, he's been invaluable: the combination of the amount of ice time we've had, his input, and the confidence he brings to us."

Coomes, the same age, added: "He's very open to letting other people come in and work with him. We have acrobats, ballroom dancers and ballet teachers we work with. It feels like we've got a great team behind us - Evgeny manages all of that, and has the final say."

While a home event may be a thrill for the young duo, it is telling that when Coomes talked about "going back home to work even harder for Worlds", she meant the United States.

They only see the UK once every few months at best and, in this sport, they are far from alone. Fellow ice dancers Louise Walden and Owen Edwards are based in the French city of Lyon, while Britain's top pairs skaters, Stacey Kemp and David King, live in Florida having previously trained in Poland.

While plenty of sports require their athletes cover great distances to compete globally, and some winter sports such as bobsleigh necessitate British athletes training elsewhere through lack of facilities, it is the gap in coaching talent and performance infrastructure that has driven Britain's figure skaters abroad.

"We have to travel abroad to get that expertise," said King, watching Coomes and Buckland from the stands in Sheffield having finished ninth with Kemp in the European pairs event.

"The expertise isn't really in the UK for our sport. We decided we'd gone as far as we could in the UK, so we moved to Poland in 2007. After each year's World Championships we'd have a week or two in Britain, and at Christmas we'd have a few days. But, now we live in the States, we don't even get back for Christmas."

Figure skating's decline in Britain has reached the extent that the sport no longer receives a penny in high-performance funding from UK Sport.

Other government-backed organisations like Tassexternal-link - the Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme - have helped, but Kemp and King, at a combined age of 50, are back relying on their parents to fund their training in Florida. King's father owns a jewellers' store, Kemp's mother manages an RSPCA shop.

"With the Europeans being in Sheffield, they couldn't turn down our hopes and aspirations so they kindly obliged, and here we are," said King.

"We enjoy different cultures and training abroad, but it would be great to just do this for the summer and spend the rest of the time at home with friends and family. But at the moment I really can't see where we could train or be."

If that is to change, a raft of British coaching talent, to match the pull of Platov, needs to emerge and then decide Britain is the place to stay. Kemp and King have embarked upon their own coaching qualifications but admit the conditions - and money - on offer coaching abroad makes it less likely they will return.

For the time being, they press on abroad in preparation for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Between now and then, if they are lucky, they may spend a few weeks in Britain.

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