Ice skating: Frozen in time

Valentine's Day, 1984: 12 perfect sixes... It was a moment that captured the nation and changed the worlds of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. Sandra Stevenson discovers how those four breath-taking minutes have continued to define their lives - and how the pair are as close as ever
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The Independent Online

Twenty years ago today, the BBC delayed the Nine o'Clock News. Members of the House of Commons stopped in the middle of a debate. The streets emptied. Twenty four million people tuned their television sets to watch - not a soccer match, not an announcement of war or peace, not even a soap opera - but four minutes of the finest ice dancing ever.

An unlikely couple from Nottingham - she an insurance clerk, he a policeman - had created an unexplainable magic. To the escalating tension of Maurice Ravel's Bolero, they wove a mesmerising story of doomed lovers, a sublime embodiment of Valentine's Day.

Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, or T&D as they were universally called, captured a moment in history that many still remember vividly. Almost as a byproduct, they were rewarded with the 1984 Olympic gold medals. The panel of nine judges in the ill-fated Zetra Ice Arena in Sarajevo were carried to such heights they showered T&D with an unprecedented twelve 6.0s, the mark reserved for perfection.

Today their influence is still palpable. Debates rage on the internet about whether the current champions are worthy of being compared to T&D, and strangers still collar them individually to gush over Bolero's merits. At first this unsought attention was overwhelming. But, as time went by, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean learned to live with the intrusions. Now, provided they have time, they are prepared to relive that experience.

"Bolero was a defining moment," Dean explains. "It made it possible for us to have the career we have had. People ask us about it and we repeat the same words over and over, but it is nice they care that much. It's nice that reliving it can give pleasure to people."

While performing Bolero in Sarajevo, he says he and Torvill "were in the zone". "Everything sped by and at the end we were thoroughly exhausted, utterly spent. Neither of us remember much of the actual performance, but afterwards the audience went wild and there were Union Flags waving all over the place. And then when the sixes were posted, everyone went even wilder."

It was the turning point in their lives. Immediately after their performance they had to go through many formalities, the most important of which was the doping control. Drugging is not a problem in skating, but all the medal winners were surrounded by "watchers" who stayed with their individual charges until they provided fluid samples.

Television crews and a fleet of reporters then took over, bombarding the pair with questions for hours. When they got back to the Olympic Village, Princess Anne (head of the British Olympic Committee) was waiting patiently along with a few other British athletes. Alcohol was not allowed in the Village, but someone had obtained some champagne which the group sipped from plastic cups. That night they managed very little sleep. The next day there were masses of congratulatory telegrams to read, people to call and more interviews. Their time was no longer their own.

When they eventually returned to the UK following a month-long detour to Ottawa to defend their world title, the storm of emotion that erupted after the win had subsided. "People tell us Britain went mad, but we never witnessed that," said Dean. "We were in the Honours list. They advanced us from MBE - which we'd been awarded after our first world championship win in 1981 - to CBE." They were also awarded a grant from Nottingham City Council. It was this comparatively mundane event that made it possible for the pair to finally give up their jobs and work full-time towards success in the ice world.

Although for Torvill and Dean the success of Bolero meant a new professional chapter, the public was more interested in a different tale. The intensity of emotion they portrayed had convinced almost all television viewers that Jayne and Chris were lovers. But it was a manufactured picture. "It was acting," says Torvill, now a 46-year-old housewife who lives in Heathfield, East Sussex.

"We were always asked about our relationship," admits Dean. "When we got together we were so young and naïve [he was 16, she 17]. Our first coach, Janet Sawbridge, made us just stand in a dance position, hip to hip, until we became comfortable and felt this was normal." Other coaches could not understand why Sawbridge had teamed the two. He was six foot tall, blond, handsome and had already won the British Junior Ice Dance Championship. She was a petite (5'1") brunette who had been British pair champion, a different discipline to ice dance.

At first, they looked odd together. Torvill had to learn to over extend the leg that was off the ice to match Dean's and that took incredible effort and will power.

And their personalities were completely different as well. "Chris is very up," Torvill explains. "He's excitable, enthusiastic, less patient, very transparent in his moods. I was much calmer. If I had to repeat something ten times to get it right, I was quite happy to do it. Chris would want to get it right straight away, but I never minded because, although we had different ways of getting there, we always had the same goal - to make what we were doing a little better each time. We never had long-term goals. Neither of us dreamed it would end up where it did."

Dean, aptly, chooses a different introduction to their relationship. "Our commitment to each other was total. It was a monk and a nun, both dedicated to a way of life. Sex had no part in the relationship. A psychologist might say we devoted all that young, sexual energy into our athletic training. We certainly worked hard and were exhausted at the end of the day."

But, of course, the public didn't see it that way. "When you are seen as a couple, no one asks you out," says Torvill. "People would ask us when we were getting married, and we just found it easier to keep saying, 'maybe next year'. Then I met Phil [Christiensen, her husband} when he worked as a sound engineer on one of our shows in the United States. We became engaged but I couldn't wear the ring because I didn't want to destroy the public image Chris and I had. We were really afraid, but the fans did accept it."

"Twenty years," Dean says, shaking his head and laughing. "It doesn't seem possible. I do believe we stay a certain age in our heads. I feel like I was when I was 24 or 25 - with some maturity added, of course. When I think of what a 45-year-old was when I was 25... Aaah! I still feel more like a 25-year old."

Shortly after Torvill became engaged, Dean quickly courted and won the hand of French Canadian Isabelle Duchesnay but the marriage was brief. Right from the start Dean realised he'd made a mistake. "During the wedding ceremony [in May 1991] I tried to get cameras barred from inside the church but no one listened to me."

Duchesnay, who, with her brother Paul, won the Olympic silver ice dance medal in 1992, resented the amount of time Dean devoted to his professional career with Torvill. It was a bitter divorce. "We had each married a false image," Dean later confessed. But he soon found happiness with an American, former US and 1990 world singles champion, Jill Trenary. They became engaged just before the 1994 Winter Olympics when a change in rules allowed Torvill and Dean to return to competition.

They may not have had an extracurricular relationship, but it is certain that their working partnership was special. Uniquely in the world of ice dance, Torvill and Dean devised their own choreography. Skaters often pay specialists huge amounts of money to create a routine for them, but that was never necessary for T&D.

Dean would come up with unique ideas and Torvill would translate them into manageable steps. Sometimes he would go over the top. For the circus motif routine for their 1982-1983 season using music from the show Barnum, Dean conceived the idea of a "levitation" lift. Trying to turn inspiration into reality, they tore Torvill's shoulder so badly that they were forced to sit out the European championships. She was still not 100 per cent recovered at the world championships which followed, though they still won by a large margin.

When Dean is asked to choreograph for others, Torvill will often accompany him to modify his ideas. Often the recipients say his moves are just too difficult. One year he made a routine for the then British champion, Joanne Conway. Conway threw up her arms and replied she just couldn't do it. Later asked how much of the original choreography remained when she actually skated in competition, Dean said, "about ten per cent". "He's a genius but that doesn't make it easy for the rest of us," Conway added.

T&D achieved their special look because Torvill could make that genius work for them. Bolero's incredible impact was born from the melding of those two very different abilities.

It was Dean's imagination that led to the pair competing in the 1994 Olympics in Norway. "When Chris suggested we compete again, after ten years, I thought he was drunk," says Torvill. "We were on a train to Zurich, returning from the 100th anniversary of the International Skating Union [ISU] in Davos. As part of the festivities they had shown a film of highlights from past world championships and everyone told us how wonderful we'd been. But I never made the leap Chris did. He had to convince me we could win again after ten years. We wouldn't have taken part in the 1994 Olympics unless we thought we could win."

Of course, they didn't win. It was a traumatic period; training was intensely difficult and they felt crushed when they finished with the bronze medal. "We didn't realise how much had changed," recalls Torvill. "The language in the dressing room was mainly Russian, not English as before. For ten years we'd had the luxury of our own dressing rooms, but in Norway it was back to communal changing rooms. There was so much talk of controversy about the result. People still say to us, 'We thought you should have won.'"

Among their supporters was Sir Howard Stringer, then the head of CBS, the company which bought the American television rights to the Olympics. After falling on an icy bridge he broke his leg in more than one place. As he was carted off on a stretcher he was heard to say: "At least I got to see Torvill and Dean."

They lost the competition in the compulsory round. Despite being streets ahead in this division in 1984, they had underestimated the great strides made by the Russians in the interim. Although T&D won the original section, gaining 6.0s for their Rhumba D'Amour, judges decided the pair's lighthearted replacement for Bolero, Let's Face The Music And Dance contained an illegal move. Since then the Rhumba routine has been developed by the ISU into a compulsory routine, which all future competitors will have to perform.

Nonetheless, the Games were a personally bruising experience, made worse by the release of scenes from a video showing Dean forcefully shouting at Torvill during training. Many of their loyal fans were shocked.

"At 33 and 36 we felt old," Torvill said. "There was criticism of my hair and my dress. It was difficult but I think not winning gave us more publicity and gave our professional career a big boost.

"After the 1994 Olympics and Worlds, we turned professional. We never expected to perform Bolero again. We had always come up with something new each year. We thought that people had seen as much of Bolero as they wanted and it was time to move on. I remember the producers of our first show were horrified. What? Not do Bolero? They wouldn't hear of such a thing. So it stayed forever. In all the five tours we did, it was there either at the beginning, in the middle or as the climax. We actually improved on it. It was still very raw in Sarajevo. I can't tell you how many copies of the original costumes we went through. They would just disintegrate from wear, but the original is in a museum in Nottingham."

T&D stopped skating together in 1998. "The last show was in Vancouver," says Torvill. "We deliberately didn't make it a big farewell performance. I didn't want that. But we still get invited to do things together and Chris and I talk on the phone every day."

Their last appearance together was at the 50th Anniversary of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in December 2003. They won this in 1984 and at last year's event were voted as one of the five "decade" winners.

Last Monday they should have been in Sarajevo where the stars of the previous week's European championships in Budapest skated in the finally opened Zetra Ice Rink in Sarajevo. The Zetra, the arena where T&D performed their Olympic Bolero, was reduced to a battered skeleton in July 1992 during the war. The opening of the rebuilt arena has been scheduled and cancelled on several occasions. Each time T&D had planned to attend. But it was not possible this time because Torvill is in Chicago where her husband's father is gravely ill, and, when the last-minute invitation came, Dean already had unchangeable work commitments.

Today Torvill describes herself as a housewife. She lives a quiet life with her American husband Phil, whom she married in September 1990, and Kiaran, a 19-month-old boy they adopted last year, and their Alsatian dog, Louis.

Torvill does not skate much nowadays. "There's no rink nearby and when you've been at a certain level, it's too frustrating. But I am part of the organisation planning to get a new training centre opened in Brighton." She gives occasional seminars and carries Kiaran around when she does take to the ice. "I'd love to be a skating mum. I'm hoping when he's two he'll be wobbling on his own."

Dean is the director of the Smuckers Stars on Ice show which mainly tours in Canada with the Russian and Canadian pairs who were the centre of judging scandal in the 2002 Olympic Games. Today he is in Colorado Springs where he and Trenary, whom he married in 1994, live in a magnificent $3m (£1.6m) home which they built on a mountainside. They have two boys, Jack Robert Dean, aged five, and Sam Collin Dean, aged three.

Dean will tonight take his wife for a romantic dinner, while a babysitter looks after the children. They'll spend the day enjoying their home. In previous years he may have gone for a run on his great love, a Harley Davidson motorbike, but he turned it in for a station wagon when he became a family man. He may field business calls about the show and go on the computer, briefly. "My typing's not good so I don't do much e-mailing." One thing is guaranteed, he says. Today he will call Torvill and toast Bolero's anniversary.

Torvill's plans for today are less certain. She is in Chicago where she, her child and husband will spend time with her ill father-in-law. But she is looking forward to Dean's call.