An email conversation with...Robin Cousins: 'It's what you do on the day that counts'

Britain's chances of Winter Olympic glory in Turin; The inspirational genius of Gene Kelly;Dancing on Ice and a new generation of talent; Freedom of expression in the theatrical world
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The Independent Online

There have been a few, not least working in the commentary box in Sarajevo when Jayne and Chris did [Ravel's] "Bolero". From a male skating point of view the battle of the Brians at the 1988 Calgary Games - Boitano won gold for the United States, Orser won silver for Canada - was great. Also it was great to witness Katarina Witt's consecutive golds in 1984 and 1988.

Did John Curry's Olympic ice skating victory of 1976, four years before you won your gold in Lake Placid, have any effect upon how you approached that competition? Or was it merely a historical fact?

He was very much an influence in how I went forward after watching him win. He was a man of few words but his conduct and clear vision of what he wanted to do when he was on the ice were obvious. Being on the same training ice at the 1976 Games in Innsbruck gave me an insight into how he ticked and coped with the pressure of being favourite. It helped me ignore everything four years later and feel somewhat selfish without feeling guilty.

How do you explain the golden years for British skating, when Curry, then you, then Torvill and Dean were Olympic champions? Where are the golds of yesteryear?

There are many factors regarding the lack of British sports stars these days. There are more outside distractions, with virtually no coverage of lesser sports (even when we win medals), and so there's not much incentive to get into sports. In schools, sport is becoming less important, too. Grass-roots level training is so important, and it's hard getting parents to encourage their children to try something different. If they are not there to teach and nurture we can't create the champions.

What is your favourite film - and why?

I am a huge Gene Kelly fan so any of his movies work for me. His work in An American In Paris is hard to beat, though. Every time he starts to dance it looks like he is being spontaneous and while you know it is rehearsed to within an inch of its life you know it only looked like that once. He is an influence on my skating and that's how I tried to be when I performed.

You are chief judge for ITV's current Dancing on Ice show. Are the people you expected to be good the ones who are doing well? And how effective do you think the show will be in persuading people to take to the ice themselves?

I am very impressed by what the stars have achieved in such a short time. However, to take themselves to the next level will be a bigger challenge. I think the male stars have the disadvantage of having to lead, and to lift their female partners. Plus the "real" skaters have to able to trust them as partners! As with any sport it's those who have the knack and talent versus those who don't quite have the knack but have the desire to learn - at all costs. Compelling viewing.

Wouldn't it be nice if Michelle Kwan could win an Olympic gold in figure skating this month at the third time of asking?

It would be nice for her, but unfortunately with not having competed at all this season, she has her work cut out just to make the top five. She was given a place on the US team without taking part in their national championships and it will be a tough call. She is a strong competitor, but we will have to see how she stands up to the scrutiny of the new judging system too. It is not really conducive to a performer like Kwan.

How long do you think it will be before Britain wins another Olympic medal in ice skating? What will it take? Would skaters have to be coached abroad, as you were from 1977 by Carlo Fassi?

So many youngsters will get the skating bug as a result of Dancing on Ice and this being an Olympic year. The rinks nationwide need to be ready for the influx, and once the children are hooked we need to make sure that their coaches and classes are able to sustain the interest and keep them involved once the TV interest has ended. Quite a few rinks are not as inviting as they could be for the public at large. We have to remember what we are competing with - swimming pools, cinemas, bowling alleys, etc. But we have more coaches who are capable of taking skaters to the top internationally now than 25 years ago, so it is possible.

What music most inspires you?

Anything but rap. I enjoy a wide range and am constantly on the lookout for something with an edge that would work in a performance for a show or for an individual skater somewhere. Obviously most of what is used for competitive skating is instrumental. But ice dancing allows vocals so it gives more breadth to what is available.

Which soundtrack from your competitive routines causes you to cringe most now?

It's got to be "Disco Superman" by Meco! Funky pop versions of soundtracks were very popular in the late 70s but no one dared use this for competitive events until Carlo told me to try it. It had worked well in exhibition events so he thought "why not try it out in competition?" The rest, as they say, was history.

Same question - but about your outfits.

A red catsuit with mirrors all over it designed by Bob Mackie for a TV special in America. I first saw it on the day I had to wear it - "no" was not an option!

How many medals do you think Britain will win in Turin?

Tough call. We have some great performers in the newer sports - skeleton, half pipe, etc. But as we know with any sport at this level, preparation is only that. It's what you do on the day that counts. I know they all have the same goal and will do the best they can.

Some of your artistic offerings have been displayed in galleries. What kind of things do you like to do?

Whatever takes me when I decide to play with a canvas. I used to doodle all the time when I was travelling for competitions. Now it's a way to forget ice shows and skating work and lose myself for a few hours. Finding those hours is a problem at the moment!

What was the most nerve-racking moment of your career?

Making my professional debut with Holiday on Ice and thinking I had to deliver an Olympic performance 10 shows a week. It took me a few weeks to allow myself to enjoy the moment each time I stepped on to the ice and not panic that it wasn't going to be good enough. Three shows on Saturday soon made me aware of how I had to work if I was going to last the season.

Did you ever consult a sports psychologist? If yes, did they help? If no, would they have helped?

No I didn't. They didn't really exist in my day - we didn't even have a team doctor or physio. Personally, I was always someone who did what they did, and if it worked, great. If not, let's work on it for next time. The less I knew about what, why and how, the easier it was for me to do my job.

What is the biggest luxury you have treated yourself with?

My house. After years of travelling it's great to have you own space.

You once said that as a kid you wanted to be Gene Kelly, not a skater. Why?

If the skating had not come along I would have tried to make a career on stage. As a performer, Gene Kelly was a genius, and I liked the natural, unconventional style he possessed. You don't teach what he had - either you've got it, or you ain't.

Since retiring from competitive skating in 1980 you have appeared in the theatre, including Cats and The Rocky Horror Show, where you were Dr Frank-N-Furter. Did you enjoy the fishnets, make-up and stilettos?

Who knew that my main foray into the theatrical world would involve two shows with the most make-up? Cats was one of the most incredible experiences, working as a group with the dancers was exhilarating, so different to what I did on the ice, and Rocky took it a stage further. I enjoyed the larger-than-life character of Frank-N-Furter. Once you don the make-up and clothes you get a freedom to act and speak in a way you never would otherwise. The shoes were not as secure as the ice skates, but I learned to deal with them. Don't miss the fishnets, though...

If there was anything in your life you could have changed, what would it be?

I am happy and thankful for everything so far. There's no time to think of "what if" - it's done, and you move on.

Which three words best sum up your character?

Giving, impatient, spontaneous.

Attachment: The Robin Cousins lowdown

* 1957: Born Bristol, 17 August

* 1969: British novice champion

* 1972: British junior champion

* 1973-75: Runner-up in British Championships

* 1976-79: British champion

* 1977: Trains with Carlo Fassi

* 1978-79: European Championships, third; bronze at 1978 World Championships

* 1979-1980: Silver at World Championships

* 1980: European and Olympic champion (Lake Placid)

* 1980: MBE, BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Turns professional with Holiday on Ice.

* 1985, 1987: World professional champion.

* 1983: World records for distance - 19ft 1in in axel jump and 18ft with back flip

* 1992: Professional Skater of the Year Award from American Skating World (photo)

* 1984: BBC commentator at Winter Olympics; West End appearances in Cats and Rocky Horror Show; runs production company for ice skating and non-ice events; Advisor and choreographer on Hollywood movie The Cutting Edge, also performing some of the stunts.

Robin Cousins is now a judge on the ITV series Dancing on Ice.