Tuesday 11 December 2018

Blades of Glory: from a GAA dynasty to the ice rink

Conor Stakelum just became the first Irishman ever to compete in Europe's Figure Skating Championships. The son of a former All-Ireland winner, he tells our reporter why he took a different sporting direction

Ireland's Conor Stakelum performs his routine in the men's short program at the ISU European Figure Skating Championships in Moscow on January 17, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Mladen ANTONOV
Ireland's Conor Stakelum performs his routine in the men's short program at the ISU European Figure Skating Championships in Moscow on January 17, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Mladen ANTONOV
Canonball spin: Conor Stakelum finished 36th in last month's figure skating championships. Photo: Alexander Zemlianchencko
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

The typical competitive figure skater tends to follow a certain trajectory. They start when they are very young; they train consistently and relentlessly and they have easy access to a local ice rink that becomes their home from home.

This being the case, it might be fair to say that Conor Stakelum, who last month became the first Irish man to compete in the European Figure Skating Championships, isn't your typical figure skater…

Conor discovered skating at the ripe old age of 12. (For context, 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu from Japan started at four and Spain's two-time world champion Javier Fernández at six.) In later years, he found the time to get a first-class honours degree in microbiology from UCD and - most impressively of all - he comes from a country that doesn't have a permanent ice rink.

"There used to be an arena in Dundalk, which was a fantastic facility, but it closed in 2010," he explains, chatting a few days after his performance in the European Championships. "Since then there has been nothing, which is really surprising.

"The Ice Skating Association of Ireland has a waiting list of people for the beginner classes they offer on seasonal ice rinks," he adds, "so there is an interest but no facilities. It would be great if more people had the chance to try it because I think it's a wonderful sport that a lot of people could enjoy."

Conor's pedigree makes his passion all the more intriguing: the four-time Irish figure skating champion is the scion of a GAA dynasty. Dad Richie and uncle Conor won All-Ireland hurling titles for Tipperary; his younger brother, Tom, plays for Kilmacud Crokes in Dublin and many of his cousins are rising up through the ranks. GAA is in Conor's blood so what made him choose figure skating instead?

"I was never a great team person," he explains. "I just wasn't very good at any of them... and if I wasn't going to be good, then I didn't enjoy it."

At face value, the grace and poise of figure skating is very different to the cut and thrust of hurling. Conor agrees, but points out that both sports require huge endurance and "massive passion".

Canonball spin: Conor Stakelum finished 36th in last month's figure skating championships. Photo: Alexander Zemlianchencko
Canonball spin: Conor Stakelum finished 36th in last month's figure skating championships. Photo: Alexander Zemlianchencko

Pressure and disappointment

"They are both sports that require you to be really fit and strong and agile," he says. "And obviously, from performing in sport at a high level, Dad has exceptional advice to pass on.

"There are a lot of things that are universal like dealing with pressure and disappointment... and he's been really helpful."

The Dublin-born figure skater says he was hoping to get to the Europeans last year but, after "one too many mistakes", he didn't make the cut. He was disappointed of course, but his Dad remained sanguine. "I remember him saying, 'Look, there's always next year so if you still want to do it, just keep training and stay positive'."

Twelve years ago, Conor and his friends visited a pop-up Christmas ice rink in Booterstown, Dublin. They were only there to while away an afternoon but Conor took to the ice immediately. "I loved the way it felt," he recalls.

Did he not have any fear of the injuries that many of us imagine when we think of figure skating? "Going around very fast with blades on your feet can of course lead to injuries," he says. "But I've never seen or heard of fingers getting chopped off - although everyone is obsessed with the idea of it…"

Soon afterwards, he started training in the Ice Dome in Dundalk, where his first coach, Chynna Pope, from Boston, took him under her wing. "She was lovely to me," he says, "and she was such a good first coach to have. She always told me that I was good and I should keep it up - even when she went back to America, she told me that I should keep going."

Four years after starting at the Ice Dome, Conor began to see what Chynna saw in him when he performed a double axle for the first time. "I went from skating as a hobby to actually taking it seriously when that happened," he says. "It's quite hard and a lot of non-competitors never get one. When I got that I thought, 'I'm actually quite good at this' and I thought I could compete properly."

At this point, the Ice Dome had closed down and he was training in Belfast under coach Caroline Hopper. "She was really instrumental in the development of my skating when I first began to compete internationally," he says.

"I wouldn't say I was the most successful skater when I was younger at the lower levels - at the juniors," he adds. "Most of my competing internationally and having a bit of success happened after I was in university."

While many professional figure skaters focus entirely on their sport, Conor took a different tack. Last September, he graduated from UCD. He took a year out from 2014-2015 to focus on his training before going back to complete the degree. It was a strategic move, he explains. "To make sure I finished it."

He won't be putting on the white coat just yet, though. For now he's training full time in Dundee, Scotland, and working part-time in Clarks shoe shop to help pay the bills. "Obviously any sport at the elite level is expensive so you've got to do what it takes, I suppose."

Even if it means no sleep-ins… Conor's days begin with an off-ice warm-up at 6am, after which he's on the ice from 6.30am until 9.45am. On Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, he skates in the afternoon, too. "We do Pilates in the rink twice a week - it's great for injury prevention," he says. "I also do weights in the gym twice a week. But you have to make sure that what you're doing is beneficial for your sport. There's no point getting really bulky if that's going to slow you down."

As for diet, it's much the same as any professional athlete. Breakfast is generally porridge and a banana, and lunch and dinner is some variation of lean protein and vegetables. "I enjoy pizza and Chinese as much as the next person but I don't like feeling sluggish."

At the end of the day, he's exhausted and usually unwinds in a horizontal position, either watching TV, reading or doing "anything where I don't have to move".

There's little time for anything else, he says - let alone a romantic relationship - but he has made lots of close friends through figure skating. "It's a shared experience," he says. "You understand each other."

For his first ever competition, Conor wore black trousers and a white shirt. Last month, at the European Championships, he opted for a simple, understated black all-in-one. "Some people have really flashy costumes," he says. "I try to keep it classy."

Before he steps on to the ice, he does some breathing exercises and tries to "think of just myself and feeling my body on the ice". Like mindfulness? "Yes," he says. "Exactly."

"But it can be hard sometimes," he continues. "I suppose at the Europeans it was hard for me as I've never competed in a competition of that magnitude.

"It's kind of hard to block out everything that's going on: the bright lights, the crowd, the fact that you're excited and you're somewhere that you've always wanted to be."

He finished in 36th place, but felt that it was far from his best performance.

"I would like to go to the Europeans again," he says, "and I would like to keep pushing my score up and adding some new elements into my programmes.

"Obviously the Olympics is the ultimate goal but a lot has to line up for that to happen. For now, I'm just focussing on my smaller goals every year, and hopefully they'll lead to that."

"And I want to keep enjoying it," he adds. "That's the thing: Sometimes you can kind of get too caught up in what your results are and getting nervous in your competitions.

"If you're just worrying about what might happen, maybe you won't skate very well. Whereas if you just focus on trying to enjoy your training, the rest will come."

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