Sochi 2014: Nick Buckland reveals life-threatening heart condition

Nick Buckland has a USB stick embedded in his chest.

At least, it looks like one. The 24-year-old figure skater actually sports a "reveal device" - an oblong, electronic slug sewn into his flesh to monitor his heart rate.

Buckland wears this because matters of his heart have come to a head, just three months before the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. But his story began last time around, at Vancouver 2010.

"The morning after the opening ceremony I was skating around and, all of a sudden, my heart started beating out of my chest.

Road to Sochi 2014

Nick Buckland, with Penny Coomes

Major results - Penny Coomes & Nick Buckland:

  • 2010 Winter Olympics: 20th
  • 2011 World Championships: 16th
  • 2012 European Championships: 6th
  • 2012 World Championships: 14th
  • 2013 European Championships: 5th
  • 2013 World Championships: 13th
  • 2013 Trophee Eric Bompard (Paris Grand Prix): 7th

"It wouldn't slow down. I went over to my coach and said, 'This will sound silly, but put your hand on my chest.' He was like, 'Whoa.'

"They took me off the ice. I was lying down for half an hour - I remember it clearly - and then it started calming down."

Buckland and partner Penny Coomes pressed on, a little shaken but undeterred, finishing 20th on their Olympic ice dance debut.

On their return to the UK, doctors diagnosed Buckland with tachycardia - a form of arrhythmia, a condition in which the heart beats faster than normal.

"I'd have the symptoms for an hour or however long, then instantly I'd feel fine. A little light-headed but apart from that, absolutely normal," says the Nottingham skater.

"But it's been getting more and more frequent. This year, I can count six or seven times. It's happening at times I don't want it to happen, like competitions."

The couple say their performance at this year's World Championships, where they finished 13th, was affected. Things had to change.

This is where the reveal device beneath Buckland's skin comes in. When his heart palpitations start, the device begins recording data. Doctors can then use the information to keep tabs on what is happening.

What is tachycardia?

  • A form of arrhythmia, in which heart beats faster than 100 beats per minute
  • Normal adult resting heart rate is 60-100 bpm
  • Heart beats too rapidly, becomes less efficient, more demand for oxygen
  • Symptons include fast pulse, chest pain, palpitations, low blood pressure
  • If condition persists, can lead to heart attack
  • British 1500m runner Andy Baddeley also has a form of tachycardia  

If you check your heart rate now, the chances are - assuming you are an adult, at rest - it will hit 60 to 80 beats per minute. Perhaps 100 at most. Compare that with the heart data Buckland took to a Nottingham hospital in October.

"I was getting readings of up to 270, 280 beats per minute," he says.

Imagine trying to get through a normal day with your heart beating more than four times per second, for half an hour or more at a time, with no explanation.

"They told me they needed me in hospital straight away. That this was really serious. Life threatening."

Coomes - also 24 - was at home booking their flights back to the United States, where the pair train.

"I texted him with some flights," she recalled. "He texted back from the hospital and said, 'Don't book anything yet. Something's not right.'

"When it's your heart, it's very scary. It's your main organ. I knew Nick had arrhythmia but I never thought it would be a big deal or anything too serious."

Specialists in London examined the data and reassured Buckland that he was in no imminent danger. But they needed to operate, just a few months before the Winter Olympics, an event the two skaters have been training to reach for four years.

"When somebody mentions you're going to have heart surgery, you think that's the Olympics gone," admits Buckland.

GB ice dancers at the Games

Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean with their gold medals from the 1984 Winter Olympics
  • Since 1976, 11 British ice dance couples have competed at the Olympics
  • Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, the most successful and famous British contenders by far, won Olympic gold in 1984 and bronze a decade later
  • Siblings Sinead and John Kerr finished eighth at Vancouver 2010, GB's best showing since 1994, with Coomes and Buckland 20th

"They made tiny cuts in my groin, went up through a vein, and pumped me with adrenaline to try to bring on the palpitations so they could find out exactly what was causing it.

"I was awake for the operation, because your heart reacts differently under anaesthetic. It was really weird. I was lying there and talking to the surgeon while they were inside me doing all sorts.

"They discovered a nerve was causing a short-circuit effect in my heart, so they ended up burning off the top of the nerve. Now, my heart functions normally."

Just like that, an uncomfortably pulsating four years came to an end. But would it also arrest Buckland's ambition of a second Olympic Games?

That question lingered over Coomes. Training alone in the US, she waited for Buckland to return. Without him, her Olympics would be over. It was hard not to think about the Games.

"First and foremost, Nick as a person is more important than skating. I was really concerned about him," she says.

"After the initial 'I hope he's OK', these thoughts do come in your head. I am a figure skater. That's my life."

A week after the operation, Buckland landed in New Jersey. This was the moment of truth.

'Figure skating OCD'

Penny Coomes describes how her sport has taken over her life:

"I enjoy watching skating, I always have. I'll look at the scores, see how people got what they did, and analyse it. It's like figure skating OCD, it's constantly on my mind. Nick and I also have someone come in and film us, we then take those videos home and watch them, analyse everything. We have a plan for each and every practice for what to improve, what to make better.

"Nick's worse than me. Honestly, Nick is such a huge, huge perfectionist. If he can't sleep at night he'll just watch skating videos."

"He seemed normal," Coomes continued. "He had spoken to me and told me he was OK but I hadn't seen him, I didn't know. But he was fine. It was the most incredible thing."

Buckland says: "The relief was unbelievable. I had to take it easy, I wasn't doing everything straight away, but you know what? I don't have to deal with this problem any more.

"It's gone, it's not going to happen again."

The "USB stick" will be a lingering reminder for some time yet. Surgeons cannot get at it until after the season is over. To go fishing inside Buckland's chest now would needlessly disrupt their build-up to the Olympics, having come safely through the bigger deal.

Instead, Buckland will compete at this week's British Championships - where the two are set to confirm their places on Team GB for Sochi - as the closest thing to a bionic figure skater.

"It's not very nice. It's really disgusting. I can move it," jokes Buckland, prodding the device with his fingers.

"I've got used to seeing it now, but I'm looking forward to getting it out, put it like that."