Injuries are the constant bugbear of skaters and it is always hard to cope with being off ice for any length of time, undergoing physio and taking things much more slowly than you would like. And the return to training can be fraught with self-doubt and anxiety that you might get injured again, or that the break in training will set you back too far. GB Ice Dancers Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland are a fantastic example of how you can overcome serious injury and come back even stronger and more confident than ever.
In June 2016 they were practising a lift in training when Penny fell directly onto her knee-cap, resulting in a fractured patellar. She travelled back to the UK for treatment. Initially keeping news of the accident under the radar until around August, Penny decided to start a video blog of her recovery, partly as a way to show what it was like to come back from such a huge injury, but also to put the record straight regarding the inaccurate stories then circulating in the media. But it wasn’t easy. She found it difficult to admit on camera just how hard it was for her at the time.
Penny expected to have surgery, come out with her leg in some sort of support for the 4-6 weeks she had been told was needed, and then have the support removed, ready to train again. But the brace had to be on her leg for longer than expected – ten weeks – until she was slowly able to have it removed. And it wasn’t always easy to stay positive. “At first I tried to stay strong for everyone so they didn’t worry about me. But as time went on I just ended up thinking ‘I can’t do anything’” As an independent and active athlete, depending on other people to help her was also challenging and frustrating. But her support team made sure to cheer her up during the mentally frustrating recovery process.
Penny stayed strong. She was inspired to become more positive again after meeting a Paralympic athlete at the British Olympic Association’s rehabilitation centre, realising that we can’t control what happens to us, but that we can choose how we respond to situations. Penny surprised everyone with the speed of her recovery and finally stepped onto the ice again on 11 November 2016. They had until the end of January to be ready for the European Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic and nobody believed it was possible – which made her even more determined. Working with her physio and pushing herself hard, they began to have hope – until she met with another setback just before Christmas, just weeks before the competition. The wires which had been put in her knee had started to dig into a tendon.
They were faced with a stark choice. Increase the pain medication to get her through Europeans and then have further surgery which would take her off the ice for another three months, or forego Europeans and Worlds and have the surgery there and then. Penny chose the latter – she knew they would need plenty of time to prepare for the Olympic season and by putting off the inevitable this could affect the training time available for the Olympics.
It was a hard decision, made all the more difficult by another dilemma. By not skating in the Worlds, they would not have the opportunity to secure another Olympic spot for GB skaters. Something which had enabled them to compete in Vancouver thanks to John and Sinead Kerr. But Penny takes her health seriously and she knew that she had to prioritise the long term.
A highly emotional moment for both of them, they were over the moon to get such good scores in their first international event since the 2016 World Championships. “We worked so hard for over a year,” said Penny. “You have to trust the training. If you go out there and know that you’re confident in your programme it really helps.”
So what did Nick do while Penny was recovering? At first it was a shock and he didn’t know whether they’d be able to continue but Nick says the bond between them strengthened and it taught them patience. Not skating meant they had to spend more time together just talking. Nick worked on his own skating skills and used some of the time out to strengthen a minor shoulder injury.
Working with the legendary Christopher Dean, especially on the compulsory Rhumba pattern dance, Nick and Penny trained hard for the upcoming Olympics and on 20 February 2018 danced their free programme to the aptly named “Battle Remembered” by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.
The couple came tenth in the short and in the free, with an overall position of eleventh. A credit to the hard work, grit and determination after such a rocky road to Pyeongchang.