Figure Skating: 'Go on Dancing on Ice? Not for a million quid...'
A brother and sister duo go into next week's world championships as Britain's best ice dancers since you know who. Just don't ask them about a certain TV show. Nick Harris meets the Kerrs
Thursday 19 March 2009
When Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean were in their 1980s pomp, ice dancing was screened at prime-time and attracted massive viewing figures in its own right, and not because it was part of the latest wacky, tacky reality show, spoon-fed to (and lapped up by) a celebrity-obsessed nation.
Top-class figure skating's place in the wilderness is not about to change dramatically any day soon, but for the first time since T&D won their comeback bronze medal at the 1994 Winter Olympics, Britain has a pair of skaters – the sister-brother duo, Sinead and John Kerr – in possession of a major international gong, not to mention hopes of making an impact at next year's Games in Vancouver.
The world championships in Los Angeles, starting next Monday, will act as guide to where Sinead, 30, and John, 28, stand in the global pecking order, but a bronze medal at the European Championships in Helsinki in January says "on the way up".
And a Lottery-funded relocation in 2006 to a training base in America, under the guidance of a top Russian coach, has paid wider dividends in performance, boosting a stardom the Kerrs already have in Russia, Japan and other ice-crazy countries, if not at home.
The place they still regard as home, incidentally, is Livingston in Scotland, where their parents live. And it is on a trip to the UK to see their mum and dad that Sinead and John outline their goals for the coming year to The Independent. It is safe to say that appearing on Dancing on Ice is off the agenda.
They were once asked if they wanted to be among the pro partners for the show's celeb stars. They declined, Sinead says, "because it's our competitive career that matters." She adds that it is "weird" that DOI is so popular yet the BBC does not broadcast more top-class skating. "If it were on, people would watch it."
John adds: "I wouldn't go on Dancing on Ice for a million quid. Okay, maybe for a million quid. But I don't know how they get away with it on health and safety grounds, with such amateurs involved."
The mere mention of Todd Carty has John in hysterics. The former Grange Hill and EastEnders thespian performed notoriously badly in the current series of DOI, which ends this weekend. "So bad, it's almost..." begins John, then checks himself before he can say "good".
"No, he was just so bad, the worst ever, taking the piss basically," he continues. "John Sergeant on Strictly Come Dancing was awesome compared to Todd Carty. Todd made Sergeant look really, really talented."
Sinead got into skating via roller skating, aged eight, and John a bit later, through going to watch his sister. "It was either sit and get bored, or give it a go." After separate careers early on, they paired up in 2000, since when, as a pair, they have made the podium every single year at the British Championships, winning the last six.
It was not until Lottery funding came their way three years ago, though, that they could seriously up their game. Like afford ice time to themselves. "When we trained for the 2006 Olympics, we'd often have to do it during a public session," says John. "Our coach would go around saying 'Move to the sides please. They're going to the Olympics.' The best way to avoid paying for ice time, and we couldn't afford to pay, was to ask politely if people would let us past."
Sinead takes up the story. "We moved to States because UK Sport said 'We'll fund a big change in your training, if you think it's going to get you medals. You decide what that big change is.' For us, that was moving to America, which is where the coach is based and where the coach has all the facilities we need at his disposal."
That coach is Evgeny Platov, who also happens to be the man who beat Torvill and Dean to the gold at the 1994 Olympics. The facility is the Princeton Sports Centre in New Jersey. The Kerrs pay $600 a month for ice time, and skate most days between 9am and 3pm. They rent a two-storey apartment nearby, with a floor each. "We both have [romantic] partners in the States, so we have our own lives," says John.
Sinead sees nothing odd in working so closely with her sibling. "It's easier in some ways that we're brother and sister. Skating partnerships can be difficult. You're together on ice, and a lot of other time too, but you're not married or going out necessarily. You've got a relationship, but not. That can be complicated. With us, we've known each other all our lives, so you can sit there, read the paper, ignore each other and that's normal."
In skating's heartlands, the Kerrs are famous. One of their routines, Scottish in theme and featuring John in a kilt, is well known and popular across Japan and Korea, while they are almost a cult attraction in Russia. "There's an internet discussion board entirely devoted to us," says John. "It's the Sinead and John discussion forum, in Russian. A friend showed it us, translated it for us. It's got stuff about hair colour changes, costumes, what we did in practice, pictures of us."
They are regularly invited to perform to big-paying audiences, most recently in Switzerland and Germany, and at the Rockefeller Rink in New York. The fees supplement their income and they could make "a good living" if they did only exhibitions. That lies ahead, possibly with a major US touring show. But they will focus on the Olympics until the 2010 Games are over.
Can they win a medal at the Games, or next week? "We've got a shot," says Sinead. "There's a bunch of pairs, maybe eight, who can make the top three and I'd say we're among that. We've beaten the current world champions, the Olympic silver medallists and last year's European champions at different times."
John says he and Sinead can benefit from skating's new, more objective and "less pre-conceived" marking system, which penalises errors harder, and makes favourites more vulnerable than in the past.
"In Chris and Jayne's heyday, with the greatest respect, they really only had three Soviet couples to beat," says John. "And that was because everyone else was part-time."
Times have changed. The Kerrs face challengers from around the world. And Torvill & Dean front Dancing On Ice.
Away from the rink
"To earn a bit of extra money when I was younger, I did some acting work, as an extra, through a friend who worked for an agency. I had walk-on parts in shows like Taggart and Take The High Road. My character description was always something along the lines of "Sullen Kid, Kicking Around Can in Background". I also did some photo-shoots for teen magazine problem pages. I was always that sad-looking guy. And back in 2000 I was Ally McCoist's body double in Robert Duvall's small-budget football film, A Shot at Glory. I didn't get to meet Ally at all. He was back playing for Kilmarnock by then, in his post-Rangers days, and he was training that day. That's why they needed a body double. They cut my hair, and I just did a day's running around, head shots and stuff. I got to meet Robert Duvall though, which was cool."
"Fashion's my passion. And shopping, shopping, shopping. I love it. Shoes and handbags are my thing. I've also been lucky enough to do some modelling for Alexander McQueen. He's always wacky with his shows and we did this one-off thing with a catwalk made of ice, and me on skates with huskies and models walking around. I've been to London Fashion Week, to some of the big shows, and would love to go to the New York Fashion Week. As a kid I was sporty but artistic too, and the skating we do combines both those elements and I've also got sporty and artistic interests. I play tennis recreationally. I enjoy going to the theatre and the cinema. I also like my music. U2 are up there among my favourites, and Travis. I've also done a few little bits of telly and presenting, and I'd be open to doing more of that."
Sibling stats: The Kerrs
Born: 2 June 1980, West Lothian
Born: 30 August 1978, Dundee
The siblings teamed up in 2000 and are currently ranked seventh in the world. They finished 10th in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, won bronze in this year's European Championships and are six-time British champions.
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