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British skaters give Kerrs for optimism

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Ollie Williams | 12:19 UK time, Monday, 30 November 2009

One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is filming short video biographies of Britain's Winter Olympic stars.

The premise is simple: produce a short video where our usually-terrified sporting victim shares a few insights into their character.

Calling them biographies is probably a poor choice of words. You won't be able to watch these and find out dates of birth, how athletes grew up, or facts and figures about their career. But you will, hopefully, get a sense of what they are like - what motivates them, why they chose their sport, and what they hope to achieve.

Sticking a camera in front of someone also tends to do a fine job of showing how confident they feel about themselves in the run-up to an event as big as February's Winter Olympics. So it's no surprise that Britain's top ice dance duo, Sinead and John Kerr, shone in front of the BBC lens.

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The Kerrs came 10th at the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006, a solid performance but well outside the medals. They have, however, continued to improve in the years since, and are considered one of Britain's top medal chances in Vancouver in three months' time.

They have won the British national title on every occasion since 2003, including last week's competition in Sheffield, and with European bronze under their belts, the pair recently earned a second-place finish at the highly-regarded NHK Trophy in Japan.

They have now gone back to Japan to compete in the Grand Prix final, an achievement which even their governing body appeared not to expect - a photo opportunity with the skating team, scheduled for Monday in London, was hastily cancelled once it was learned the Kerrs would be in Japan, not Britain.

But while they have become used to waving a lone flag for GB at world-class skating events, they are no longer our only hope. Britain is sending its strongest team in 16 years to the 2010 Winters, having named the Kerrs alongside fellow dance competitors Nick Buckland and Penny Coomes, pairs skaters David King and Stacey Kemp, and women's figure skater Jenna McCorkell.

"All of a sudden figure skating has become a bit more professional, whereas maybe before it was thinking of itself as a minority sport," 30-year-old Sinead told me. "It has become a lot more professional in its thinking, involving people who know what they're talking about."

"When we did the Olympics in Turin we were the only competitors in the figure skating," added younger brother John, 29. "When it's just you, you're under pressure to perform as the sole representatives of your country in your sport. Having the other guys around us in the village, everybody will feed off each other and do their best job."

That sense of camaraderie needs to be maintained in Vancouver, because the Kerrs remain so far ahead of their team-mates that there is a worry Team GB will become Team Kerr for the duration of the Games. Officials told me that has been the case at some major events in the past and, with the Kerrs' physiotherapist reportedly set to double up as the sport's team leader in Vancouver, it is easy to see how some of the team could slip into a mindset of "as long as Sinead and John do well".

That would be a shame when you see the raw enthusiasm displayed by 20-year-olds Nick Buckland and Penny Coomes, who travel to Vancouver as the Kerrs' understudies but are still determined to produce the performances of their lives. They won the British junior title last year even though Coomes competed with a broken foot, so are more than capable of beating the odds.

Buckland bounded into the room for his video biography, then suffered heckling from his partner when he couldn't think what his 'hidden talent' might be. "I can cook a little bit, but I wouldn't call it a talent," he pondered. "And I can't really do the splits."

"You're really good at guessing how much things cost," exclaimed Coomes, sitting behind the camera. But Buckland seemed less than keen on having a head for prices as his hidden talent. Sat in the hot seat, athletes are intensely aware that what they tell us on camera will probably define them to a vast chunk of our audience, who have never heard of them before the Games and will probably never see them afterwards.

Jenna McCorkellJenna McCorkell, left, will be part of GB's biggest Olympic skating team since 1994

With that in mind, words are to be chosen carefully, and Coomes cut a fretful figure when asked what her pre-event superstitions are. "I don't want to sound weird," she complained, but with the help of Buckland - behind the camera playfully winding her up - she told the camera how her right boot must be put on first and must be tighter than the left. The part about her intricate pre-skate number-counting ritual was left out, and I have sworn never to go into detail.

John Kerr, asked what he would be doing if he hadn't become a figure skater, had no such inhibitions. "To help pay for my skating, I did some modelling and a bit of extra acting work for a bit, and I was once the body double for Ally McCoist in the movie A Shot At Glory," he recalled.

"I spent the day running across a hill pretending to be Ally McCoist. I even got my hair cut like his. I didn't manage to put on quite as much weight as he did but it was good fun, because he was a big hero when I was a kid watching Glasgow Rangers."

His showmanship is evident in the routines he and his sister have chosen to prepare for Vancouver, even if it's hard to detect much of McCoist in their graceful movements on the ice. The two songs chosen by the Kerrs are performed by Johnny Cash and Linkin Park, by no means safe options in a sport where classical numbers are still the norm.

"Last year we skated to Muse, a band we really love, and we've always wanted to skate to music that we enjoy listening to," said Sinead. "It surprises us that ice dance hasn't moved forward, but we've picked a piece, in Linkin Park, that isn't going to offend anyone and is very skate-able to. With Johnny Cash, we love listening to him and wanted to pick something a little bit cowboy.

"We've always felt that our responsibility to the sport is to try to bring a new generation of fans into it, and the only way you can do that is by making figure skating cool."

Their Johnny Cash routine even challenges the odd gender stereotype, not a cause traditionally associated with ice dancing. The choreography calls for a truck driver and a hitch-hiker. You might reasonably expect the male to be the truck driver, but Sinead wasn't having that.

"We worked with a world champion country-and-western dancer and he helped us come up with the storyline. We wanted to turn it on its head a bit and make me the truck driver," she explained, before nodding at John and adding: "He knows I'm a toughy."

"Originally he wanted her to wear a John Deere back-to-front baseball cap," John pointed out. "So we've toned it down a bit." But even without that finishing touch, it is a lively, exciting and crowd-pleasing routine - ideal, you might say, for an Olympic platform in front of the world.

Next time they sit in front of our cameras, the Kerrs may be Olympic champions. In the meantime, their video biographies will appear on your screen when our 2010 Winter Olympics website launches in the coming weeks.


  • Comment number 1.

    I wish them well. When I last saw them they were entertaining, but lacked the very highest levels of skill. It is good to hear of their progress.

    What I find strange is that millions switch on their TVs every week to see celebrities of limited dancing ability 'improving' every week; (mainly) very average singers kid themselves they are talented every week; people competing to run a restaurant every week; ladettes trying not to be obscene every week, but sports people who are working just as hard and really need our support are not even reported on. TV needs to do some thinking and come up with a formula to generate interest and hence support for the likes of the Kerrs and similar people in other 'minority' sports.

    But perhaps they prefer anonimity so that they don't become targets for the 'sneer at everybody' comedians and press. Shame, because we could do with some national pride.

  • Comment number 2.

    Good to see you've changed the original picture! What were you thinking of Ollie? The Kerrs would have been horrified!

  • Comment number 3.

    Can't help but think this would be better in the News->Entertainment section of the site. Skilled and technically challenging it undoubtedly is, I'm yet to be convinced that anything that requires makeup and a mock-cowboy outfit is a sport.

  • Comment number 4.

    Boilerbill - a good point. I wonder what people like John and Sinead Kerr make of celeb-packed ice dancing competitions when they struggle for media coverage for three-and-a-half years till the Olympics rolls around.

    FranMerida - I wrote this blog then disappeared off to do some more filming before it was published but, if it's the same pic I initially added (the one replaced by the video?) I don't see what was so wrong! I thought it was a cracking pic. I can only think you may have to wash your mind out with soap. Honestly.

    Rafa - That's rodeo out, then. You'll find plenty of people who don't accept darts, snooker, chess, and countless others as sports. My personal bugbear is poker... how that ends up being broadcast live on sports channels, I'll never know. Fun to play, but I can't think of a worse television spectacle.

    As for the comment about make-up and mock-cowboy outfits, I realise you're being slightly facetious to make your point but those aspects are the icing on the cake. The meat of the routine (mixing metaphors horribly there... the cake now has meat in it) is the "dancing" itself, which is more accurately described as highly complex synchronised skating. It's physically demanding, a tough mental challenge, requires dozens of hours of training each week, and one wrong move can badly break your bones, let alone lose you a tournament. Counts as a sport for me.

  • Comment number 5.

    If you say so, Ollie.

    It was a cracking picture - for ALL the wrong reasons! But I can see why you might have taken it off: to keep it all to yourself. Fair dinkum!

    On a more serious note, what kind of coverage will we get of the Winter Olympics. I've only been able to use the red button in the last couple of years, and I remember having to watch little bits here and there on BBC 2!

    Hopefully we can get some live uniterrupted coverage!?

  • Comment number 6.

    It's a pity the BBC has removed 2 of the Red Button channels on Freeview, as they have shown all 24 couples in the Freedance Final at previous World Championships, and repeated it throughout the day. That was a great facility to have. No doubt Skating will lose out again to other sports when decisions are made about coverage on the one remaining Freeview Red Button channel.
    Good Luck to the Kerrs, and the past 2 seasons have been hugely successful for them, but they will be very much an outside hope for a Bronze Medal in Vancouver rather than a "realistic chance", as too many non-Skating journalists are describing them, and falsely building up hopes which will lead to disappointment.
    I'm excited to see a promising young Notts couple being selected, and also a full GB Skating Team (bar Men's) going to Vancouver.
    Good Luck to all. Looking forward to it immensely.

  • Comment number 7.

    Full plans for our Winters coverage will be announced shortly. Bear in mind the time difference, so plenty of the events will happen in the early hours British time.

    While that does mean you may need your eyes propped open on matchsticks, it also means the terrestrial TV schedule is relatively clear at the time many events are happening. Skeleton, ice dance and curling are all examples I can think of where this might apply. By contrast, a lot of the skiing takes place in morning sessions in Vancouver, usefully placed for evening viewing in the UK. But as I say, more details will follow soon.

    Lilly_Lane - the Kerrs and the ice dance will be a story we follow closely in Vancouver so I'd expect our TV coverage to echo that. As I wrote in the blog, they are one of GB's "top medal chances" - which is not the same as being a "realistic chance". What that means is, they have more chance of winning a medal than most other British competitors going out to the Winters. It doesn't mean they are nailed on for one, as you point out.

    Penny and Nick, the Notts couple you mention, were very happy, friendly people, even though I spoke to them in the nerve-wracking 24 hours before the final performance that sealed their Vancouver place, and I hope they do well at the Games.

  • Comment number 8.

    Ollie, I know you're in Vancouver right now, but I just wanted to say I love your video bios of the GB Figure Skating Team - they're all really interesting, and I learnt new things about the competitors, like Jenna McCorkell having a penchant for hairdressing!

    Thanks for your reply to me, and the funny story about filming Penny & Nick - they are so adorable and very talented! I hope they've tweaked the choreography of their OD and FD slightly to make them even better than they were at Europeans, where they did so well on debut.

    You are one of the BBC's top journalists Ollie - even though City have temporarily usurped Spurs to be 4th in the table. ;-)

    Counting down the days till the Opening Ceremony. All the Best to all GB competitors and the BBC crew.


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