Ice Network

Coomes, Buckland bring passion, chaos to skating

Reigning European bronze medalists buck tradition of British conservatism
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Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland are exhibiting a fire in their short dance this season not normally seen by British ice dancing couples. -Getty Images

The reigning European bronze medalists in ice dance, Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland of Great Britain have been rather unpredictable during the first half of this season -- just like the English weather. At the same time, though, they have impressed with the content of their performances.

The team began the season by winning gold medals at the Cup of Nice and NRW Trophy. At their first Grand Prix event, the Rostelecom Cup, the British couple won the bronze, their first medal in the series. Their second Grand Prix event, the NHK Trophy in Japan, did not go as well; they were second after the short dance but finished fifth overall, a fall in the free dance eliminating any hope of the team qualifying for the Grand Prix Final.

Despite the missed opportunity, Coomes and Buckland have made a big impression with both of their programs. A fusion of Spanish flaming passion and a deep understanding of the meaning of created images fills their short dance to flamenco and paso doble rhythms. Even more notable is their free dance to Muse's "Exogenesis," in which the duo shows not only increased technical skills but also the ability to become one with a very piece of difficult music as well as Muse's piercing message about humanity.

As the 2015 European Championships get underway, icenetwork talked with Coomes and Buckland about their impressions of the first half of the season, their programs and their preparation for their continent's main event.

Icenetwork: After your Grand Prix event in Japan, we almost did not hear any news from you. Can you tell us about your preparation for the 2015 European Championships?

Coomes and Buckland: [It's gone] really well. Actually, we kind of hid ourselves away after the Grand Prix in Japan just to really get our heads down and focus on the coming Europeans. A little bit of a Rocky montage was going on: lock ourselves away in the rink, work in the gym, work with a ballet teacher in front of the mirrors and so on. We've just really been working hard because every season, before Europeans especially, we kind of feel like we up the game a lot. And we really put some good performances out at Europeans in the past, so that's what we've been trying to do this time.

Icenetwork: You will compete in Stockholm as the reigning bronze medalists. Does this fact add any additional pressure?

Coomes: I don't know, I don't think so. I don't really think about that. I mean last year, getting that bronze medal was a bit of a surprise to us both, and we knew it was there, and we knew we had a chance of getting it, but to actually get it was amazing. I think going into this season, of course, we want to be up there amongst the best, and I think we will be. We've worked hard enough, and we love our material this year.

Buckland: I don't think so either, none that we wouldn't put on ourselves anyway. We want to go and be the best we can be and skate the best we can, so that's our goal. I kind of see it as, last season we learned how to deal with the pressure for medals. We were in third place after the short dance, and to actually be able to deal with that pressure, skating well in the free dance, I see that as a huge advantage over some of the other teams that we'll be competing against; we've been through that, we've done it, and we now have to deal with it. Hopefully, we'll be great if we're in that position again.

Icenetwork: The Grand Prix Series this season must have left you with mixed emotions. At the Rostelecom Cup, you won your first Grand Prix medal, competing with really great passion that impressed a lot of people. After that, you went to the NHK Trophy, where a fall in the free dance left you in fifth place. What are your thoughts on this?

Coomes: I think we had two Grand Prix events quite close together, and I think it was just a bit of a whirlwind. We went at the beginning of the season from competition to competition, and we were just on this incredible high. We worked very, very hard in the offseason, as we always do, and it was nice to go out there, skate well, get the recognition and get that first Grand Prix medal under our belt. After Russia, we were on such a high and we worked so hard that I think when we got there, we just weren't at our best. We were tired…

Buckland: Yeah, I think we were a little bit burned out actually because we did quite a lot between Russia and Japan, and hindsight's a great thing. Maybe we should have just paced ourselves a little bit, and we probably hit it a little bit too hard in training. But we all learned from that, and at the end of the day, we looked at it positively. Actually, not going to the Grand Prix Final gave us extra time to prepare for Europeans.

Icenetwork: On which aspects of your skating have you worked the most after Japan?

Coomes: I think we took December to come down and just work on the intricate little pieces, and also back to our basic skating [to work on] something that we could really put forward going into Europeans: a strength in our basic skating, in our step sequences, because obviously they weigh heavy in the marks. We also worked with our choreographer on little pieces of our program and just stripped the program and really let ourselves come down, so that we could build back up for the week of Euros.

Buckland: I think people noticed a huge difference in our skating skills this season and how we've changed the way we've approached both programs, and it's really paid off.

Icenetwork: Each season you try something new in both music and choreography; you're not afraid to take risks. Tell us what is so attractive and special about the pieces of Muse's music you're using this year?

Coomes: It took us so long to decide on music for this year. We wanted to do something that would be a different style for us. We wanted to do something more mature but then, at the same time, to not lose ourselves and try and be something that we're not. I think that Nick actually texted me after we were looking at the music all night, and it was, like, 3 in the morning, we're both at home in England, and he texts me saying, "What about these pieces from Muse?" And I was awake, too, thinking about music also, and I replied straight away like, "Yes, that's it." I just knew as soon as he mentioned those two pieces of music that that would be perfect for us.

Buckland: Yes, that was kind of almost decided instantly. We loved the first (piece), the "Exogenesis Part 1" -- we'd liked that from the beginning of looking for music -- but it was just the fact it didn't provide a whole program, it didn't have an ending, so then we found the second piece, which actually provided the story for us.

Icenetwork: Muse's lead vocalist, Matthew Bellamy, said the following about the meanings of "Exogenesis": "It is a story of humanity coming to an end and everyone pinning their hopes on a group of astronauts who go out to explore space and spread humanity to another planet." What is your meaning and message that you want to tell through this free dance program?

Buckland: We've actually taken the meaning from the "Butterflies and Hurricanes" part of our free dance. The song is based on chaos theory, and an example of the chaos theory is if a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the Earth, it can create a hurricane at the other side of the Earth. We kind of expressed those two entities throughout the free dance.

People think that the hurricane is the strongest entity, but actually it's the butterfly that creates the hurricane. We kind of explore that throughout the program, and that's where we base the majority of the story of our free dance this year.

Icenetwork: Your short dance to flamenco and paso doble goes against the preconceived notion that inhabitants of the British Isles are not passionate enough. How do you manage to bring originality to a still very conservative region of ice dancing?

Coomes: I think British people, I guess, do have a kind of conservatism. But I think Nick and I are very, very passionate people. We're passionate about what we do and our goals and wanting to achieve them, and I think that maybe we're putting that across in our skating. In terms of the actual flamenco, we worked with a lady named Nuria Garcia. She works for London Flamenco, and just having those lessons with her was incredible. [She] actually provided a new outlook as to what paso doble and flamenco actually are; like, they're not what we thought, and they're actually a lot softer than we thought. It was really great to work with her; she was amazing, and I think that's kind of given us that flavor within our choreography that Phillip [Askew] (their coach) has done for us.

Buckland: I think British people, indeed, are a little conservative, but it's just not so in your face. The passion's there; we're all extremely patriotic, and something that we love doing is competing for Great Britain, flying the flag and competing with Great Britain written on your back. We take that into training every day first of all, and I think that passion, we've been able to tap into that and to do the flamenco and the paso doble. 

Icenetwork: What do you think about your main rivals? This season we saw the surprising rise of France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron and the fast rise of the newly formed Russian team of Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin, to name a few.

Buckland: Each year there are Europeans that bring out their best. I think there are certainly some great teams that are going to be competing. We've used that as fuel for our training. Every day we think we've got to be at our best, and I think it's just made us even stronger.

Coomes: I think now we're concentrating on ourselves and our own training, and our goal is ultimately to be working harder than everyone else and pushing ourselves more than everyone else. I think that the Russian team has done really well, especially since they had a crazy start to the season, with new teams being developed and things like that. Nick and I have a lot of admiration and respect [for them], that they were able to do so well after a bumpy start.

Icenetwork: Nick, your brother, Joseph, with his partner, Olivia Smart, won British nationals this season. Do you have some friendly competition with them or is it too early to talk about that?

Buckland: It's great to train with them every day. We don't train with a huge amount of our rivals that we're going to be in direct competition with at these Europeans and worlds. But having a talented younger brother to train with keeps you on your toes and pushes you. It's great to have somebody there that you're so close to but also that you understand is so talented. We push each other a lot. 

Icenetwork: What are your main goals and expectations for the rest of the season?

Buckland: For me, these two programs that we've had are, to be honest, our favorite that we've ever had. It's a little bit sad that we're only going to get to compete with them at Europeans and then again at worlds, so my personal goal is to be able to get four great skates out. If we can do that, we can put the programs to bed at the end of the season and be really pleased with what we've done. I think then the results will just take care of themselves.

Coomes: I think after the Olympic season there's always a shift in the ranks. And with people retiring, and new couples being formed, I think this season is a season to establish yourselves as main competitors for the next four years, for the next (Olympic) cycle. I think this year our focus has been to kind of re-establish ourselves and really prove that we are up there, and hopefully we will be one of the top few teams in the world. That's definitely our goal, and like Nick said, we love our programs and we just want to perform them these last couple more times as well as we possibly can.