Great Britain’s figure skating history isn’t deep, save ice dance icons Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.
Torvill and Dean memorably took gold at the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984 and returned to the Olympic stage in 1994 to win bronze in Lillehammer. Their medals are Britain’s most recent figure skating medals of any color, and only set of ice dance medals.
In 2010, Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland picked up the mantle and have been Great Britain’s strongest ice dance team since. Being on the ice runs in the family for the team. Coomes’ stepfather was a national champion ice dancer for Great Britain and is part of their choreography team. Before moving to their current base in Novi, Michigan, the team trained in New Jersey. Buckland has ice in his veins too: his grandfather was a national champion speed skater and his grandmother performed in ice shows.
At the Vancouver Games, they finished 20th, and then gained momentum. At Worlds in 2011 they improved to 16th, followed by 14th in 2012. In 2013, they reached a new high with 13th place.
In Sochi, they improved to 10th. A few weeks later at the 2014 World Championships, they finished ninth. And then came the turbulent times. The team had already dealt with various concussions, broken noses, and Buckland’s 2010 tachycardia diagnosis (for which he had a USB stick-sized heart monitor embedded in his chest).
At Worlds in 2015, Coomes’ pneumonia forced the team to withdraw. They bounced back to finish seventh overall at Worlds in 2016, another new peak.
A few months later, the team was working on a lift during a June practice session. Buckland lifted Coomes over his shoulder, but she went too far.
“I fell and smashed my kneecap into eight pieces and a lot of people said it was a career-ending injury,” Coomes told BBC Sport.
The team was flown back to the United Kingdom so Coomes could undergo surgery, which included implanting wires to stabilize her knee. Coomes said her memory of those few days is cloudy – she doesn’t remember the plane or the flight – but Buckland said she screamed the entire way from the airport to the hospital.
Coomes took her first steps on the ice in November, with the hopes of training for January’s 2017 European Championships. Later in December, she felt something tweak coming out of a twizzle, and realized a second operation would be necessary. She underwent another surgery to remove the wires in her knee, which were irritating her.
Meanwhile, Buckland was acting as part-time nurse, part-time dance partner. He would practice without her, using sandbags as her stand-in.
The team missed the 2017 World Championships, too, which would’ve been their first (and best) chance to qualify a quota spot for their country in ice dance.
Coomes did extra cardio work in the pool, despite being terrified of water.
“I hate swimming,” she recalled. “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.”
Coomes came back again to the ice in mid-March, with eyes on the only other Olympic qualifying competition: Nebelhorn Trophy in September. Instead of being able to qualify multiple spots at Worlds, Nebelhorn only gave them the opportunity to earn one spot.
Coomes and Buckland qualified Great Britain for the PyeongChang Olympics in ice dance. Notably, their short dance, to “Rumba d’Amour,” was choreographed by Dean.
The duo was officially named to Great Britain’s Olympic team in October. The team continued to gain momentum: 15 months had passed since Coomes had shattered her knee.
The knee earned the nickname “Mr. Wimpy,” Coomes explained, partly because he’s a man and he’s temperamental, and partly because he lost all of his muscles.
Coomes and Buckland returned to the Grand Prix series in November after a two-year absence. They were selected to compete after a last-minute withdrawal by another team.
Coomes and Buckland won their fifth national title in December. Of their win, High Performance Program Manager Robin Cousins, who won men’s figure skating gold at the 1980 Olympics, said:
“I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone like Penny, who might appear so fragile, and yet such a tiger inside. It doesn’t seem to matter what knocks them, they come back stronger. This has been a real test of their mettle but they have come back as strong and determined as ever.”
Going into the Sochi Olympics, Coomes and Buckland earned a bronze at the 2014 European Championships – their best ever finish there. At the 2018 European Championships in January, the team finished seventh.
Coomes said on Twitter that a “simple error was very costly” at Europeans, but instead of choosing “to smile all the way to the Olympics,” where Coomes and Buckland will be competing in their third Games.