Coomes skating again after devastating knee injuryBritish ice dancer underwent months of painful rehab to get back on ice
On June 24 of last year, British ice dancers Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland were working a new lift. They liked it, but they weren't sure it fit the criteria for a Level 4. They had experimented with a new entrance on the floor and were trying it on the ice for the first time.
"We started with a sort of lasso entrance, up onto Nick's shoulder," Coomes said. "I think I just gave it a little too much 'oomph' and instead of landing on Nick's shoulder, I went over him and landed directly on my kneecap."
Coomes' patella, the kneecap bone, shattered. The tendon pulled half of the pieces up above the knee and half below.
"It looked like my femur was popping out one side," Coomes recalled. "I didn't look at it; I was lying there, screaming. I remember my throat hurting from screaming, and then I kind of went numb. I think I went into shock."
"It was truly horrible," Buckland added. "I went over to her on the ice, I placed my hands on her leg, and I could feel pieces of bone in places they shouldn't have been. You totally feel helpless in that moment."
Someone called an ambulance, and Buckland phoned Coomes' parents in England to break the news to them.
"That was awful," he said.
Paramedics quickly arrived.
"I went to sit up and the paramedic said, 'Whoa, massive deformity,'" Coomes said. "The paramedics thought it was a femur fracture, but I kept saying, 'It's my knee, it's my knee.'"
Once the extent of the injury was known, it was clear Coomes would need surgery. She called her medical team in England, and they decided to have the procedure done in London, so Coomes and Buckland flew to England the following day. She was supposed to check into a hotel, but she was in so much pain by the time they landed that she was admitted straight into the hospital.
"My memory of those days is rather patchy," Coomes said. "I don't really remember the flight. I have no recollection of the plane. Nick said I screamed the whole way from the airport to the hospital. It's good I don't remember."
The surgery was performed June 28 at London's Princess Grace Hospital by Fares Haddad, one of the top knee and hip sports surgeons in the world.
"I'm terribly lucky he worked on me," she said. "They used wires to put the kneecap back together again. It was like two big pieces of metal around the outside of my knee, and then thinner pieces of metal in a figure eight inside to keep everything together."
Coomes was off the ice for four months, recovering from surgery and gradually doing physical therapy and off-ice strengthening. She divided her time between the Team GB Intensive Rehabilitation Unit in Marlow and the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Health (ISEH) in London.
"I did a lot of cardio work in the pool -- and anyone who knows me knows I hate swimming," she said. "I have a completely irrational fear of sharks; I fear I'm going to get eaten in the pool. It's the one thing I'm literally terrified of."
Meanwhile, Buckland had to work hard to stay in shape and keep his skills up.
"It was a long process, but it was quite motivational seeing what Penny was putting herself through," Buckland said.
To simulate practicing lifts without a partner, Buckland worked with a sandbag on and off the ice. He would actually skate through the team's programs carrying the sandbag or a piece of equipment filled with water.
"It moves like a person and not like a rigid weight," he said about the sandbag. "It does provide quite a good substitute. It replicated the feeling of the rotational lift."
A few months after the surgery, Coomes developed complex regional pain syndrome, which affected the nerves in her knee. She experienced heightened sensitivity in that area and had trouble bending her leg.
"It was excruciating," she said. "I would sit there with my physiotherapist, biting the sleeve of my jacket in pain while he bent it. And I had a lot of muscle atrophy; one leg is still skinnier than the other. And I couldn't walk.
"Skating is a hard sport, and I kind of wondered if I'd ever be strong enough."
When she returned to the ice in October, Coomes was at first only allowed to skate for one hour a day. She slowly increased her training, doing everything in her power to be ready for the European championships in January.
"I was skating pretty much full out," Coomes said. "I felt like I was going to do it. We got cruelly close."
But the pain returned. Coomes went home to England on New Year's Day to have a CT scan, and it showed that the wires around her kneecap were impinging on the patellar tendon.
The only solution was another operation.
"I had four weeks where I wasn't allowed to do anything -- no exercises, rehab, anything -- then two weeks of a little work, then a month of intense rehab, and I got back on the ice about two weeks ago now," Coomes said.
After her long, painful recovery, the vivacious skater is bubbling with positive energy.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever had to go through," Coomes admitted. "Even now, there are still things I can't do and I struggle with, and I get frustrated. But I feel like I've come out a stronger person, a different person. To have worked so hard for something, it made me realize what I really want."
To his credit, Buckland stood by his partner (they are an off-ice couple, too, after all) the whole time.
"I didn't really ever have a doubt that she would be able to do what she set her mind to. It really made her dig deep," Buckland said.
"Having gone through all that, we've both fallen in love with skating again," he continued. "I'm confident that Penny's recovery can continue the way it's been, and we'll be better than we've ever been."
Looking ahead to the Olympic season, Coomes isn't sure when the team will be back at full strength. They're planning a visit to Christopher Dean, who is going to choreograph their new rumba short dance at the beginning of May. Coomes' physiotherapist, Terassa Taylor-Kaveney, plans to fly out to work with her once a month.
"I've learned I can't look too far ahead," Coomes said. "It's about making sure I do everything possible every day. I hope in a couple months I'll be back to normal."
The team plans to keep its free dance from last season, which they never performed and which they choreographed themselves, to "Battle Remembered" by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. They have ideas for their short dance music but haven't settled on anything yet.
The first outing for their new programs will be the IJS Sheffield competition in England at the end of July, followed by the Nebelhorn Trophy in September. Great Britain's Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson did not finish high enough at the recent world championships to gain Great Britain an Olympic spot, so Coomes and Buckland need to earn a place for their country before they compete at their own national championships in November. (Nebelhorn is the qualifying competition for the remaining 2018 Olympic spots.)
"The Olympics have been the goal all along," Coomes said. "We just have to go at it from a different angle."
The team has a long way to go to make it to PyeongChang, but Coomes is eager to get back to work.
She said, "When something you love so much gets taken away from you, to have it given back is very empowering. It makes you fall in love again."