Figure skating: Singular man resolves to triple efforts

Steven Cousins, Britain's sole skater at the Winter Olympics which open in Nagano next Saturday, is about to throw caution to the winds. Mike Rowbottom hears his new plan.

Britain's ice skating team arrives for the Winter Olympics in Nagano on Monday feeling just a little lonely. It numbers one person: Steven Cousins.

His solitary state is a product of the British Olympic Association's stringent new selection requirements, whereby all competitors have to show they are capable of finishing in the top half of their world rankings.

Thus the British skating contingent - at the last Winter Games, Cousins was accompanied by contenders in the women's singles, pairs and ice dance - is cut to a single figure.

It was always going to be a monumental task for Britain's skaters to fill the void following Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean's decision to retire in 1994 after they had added Olympic bronze to the gold secured a decade earlier.

"They took a lot of the pressure off at the last Olympics, but unfortunately that's not going to happen in Japan," said Cousins.

However, this 25-year-old Welshman is responding vigorously to the weight of expectation currently settling around his shoulders. For the past fortnight, training in his adopted home town of Barrie, north of Toronto, he has worked on altering his routine from the one which earned him sixth place at the European Championships earlier this month.

While the temptation to change his soundtrack must have been considerable - "Only the Lonely"? "So Lonely"? So many to choose from... - he has concentrated on changing the jumps he will attempt. One word sums it all up: bold.

In liaison with his long-time coach, Robert Tebby, and after pep talks from Britain's last Olympic champion in his event, Robin Cousins - no relation - he has hardened his approach for what he believes will be his last Olympics.

"Either I make the triples, or I don't," he said. "Doubles aren't worth trying." Quadruples, too, are now a necessary part of the equation.

His resolve has been strengthened by experience in the recent Europeans. "I skated really well there, I had no falls, but it didn't really get me anywhere. I was miffed only to get sixth place when there were others above me who had had falls," he said.

"I can't afford to skate conservatively in Nagano and leave the door open for the judges to mark me down again. I have to try and make sure they have absolutely no excuse to do that.

"So yes, I'm going to be bold. I'm going for it. If I make a mistake, I will only end up where I would have been if I had skated safely. But I'm going to try not to even think about making a mistake."

For all his disappointment at the rewards his last competition yielded, he was nevertheless able to draw considerable benefit from it. "It was still a big step in the right direction for me before the Olympics," he said. "I was saying, `don't count me out of winning an Olympic medal.' It will be a real help in terms of the respect I will get from the judges."

There is a hint of bitterness in the last statement. Over the years, Cousins believes he has often had a rough deal from those who sit and mark his efforts.

"Of course, judges should be absolutely impartial," he said. "Unfortunately the way it works is you need to maintain a high reputation or your stock falls. It's like an unspoken rule."

Cousins, who finished ninth at the last Olympics and 12th in the previous Games at Albertville, felt he lost his unspoken place in the scheme of things at the last World Championships but one, in Edmonton. After a short programme which placed him fifth, he slumped to 15th overall after an error-strewn free programme.

"When that happened, I knew that as far as the judges were concerned, the trust was lost. Once your performance drops, you can be in a lot of trouble. Although there are some people for whom it doesn't seem to apply. They can have a bad competition and still get a good reaction from the judges next time around."

He lost his confidence, and then his national title, as he was beaten to what would have been his eighth top place by the up and coming Neil Wilson.

"It was partly my fault because I was skating badly," he said. "But it becomes a vicious circle."

However Cousins, whose accent is now a weird mixture of the Welsh and the transatlantic - "I would describe it as all buggered up" - wrenched the wheel of fortune back in the opposite direction at last year's World Championships, where he did well enough to earn his precious Olympic place.

"I had been through some very bad times, and there had been a lot of rumours around that I was on the point of quitting. But some of the people doing the talking don't know me that well. It just made me more determined to come back."

It was as well he had approached the competition so positively. He had skated under the impression that he need to finish in the top 15 to qualify for the Olympics. Afterwards he learned that a top-12 place had been required. And after a short programme which had left him in 17th place, he had pulled up to 11th overall.

He is philosophical about the way the selection has operated this year. "A lot of the other skaters are still in a state of shock at not being chosen. It's sad for them, and for me, because having the support of a team around you can make a huge difference.

"But I totally understand what the BOA are trying to do in terms of raising standards. Too many British competitors have reacted by going, `Oh! It's too hard!' I like to think that if I was just coming into the sport now, it would make me chew the bit even harder to make sure I had to be picked. I hope that's what a lot of people do. If not, we are going to have some very sad displays at future Olympics."

Cousins is attempting to overcome the camaraderie shortfall by rooming with the speed skating team at the Olympic village - "I'm going to see if they'll let me skate the last leg of the relay," he said.

Expanding horizons has been the theme of the month for Cousins, whose reflections upon the way the sport is going reflect his positive state of mind.

"There is no limit to what skaters can achieve," he said. "Twenty years ago, nobody would have thought skating quadruples was a possibility. But I don't think it will be very long before people are skating `quints'. So much of it is in the mind."

In the meantime, Cousins is readying himself for what could be one last hurrah. A top-six place would be a significant achievement. But he his hoping for even more.

"If everything goes right for me, I could bring back a medal," he said. "Watch this space."

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