Ice Skating: Hard acts for Cousins to follow

Mark Burton looks at the prospects of a breakthrough on to the world stage for one of Britain's young ice skaters

Continue the following sequence: John Curry, Robin Cousins, Torvill and Dean... Nice idea, but all those who think hell will freeze over before Britain again rules the ice rink should rest assured, the National Ice Skating Association is working on producing future champions.

Before triple axeling to the conclusion that failure to follow through on that success was simply showed of a national lack of commitment and represent a missed opportunity it is worth considering that a run of British champions at three successive Olympics was freakish. None of those successes was a fluke, but only the dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean could be said to have been continuing a British tradition in the early Eighties.

Cousins just happened to have developed into a world-beating figure skater at the right time to inherit Curry's Olympic title in 1980. There was no national master plan, just his own remarkable talent and the small matter of a decade or more of total commitment to making the most of it and become a champion.

Another Cousins, Steven (no relation), had been the British champion for seven years but he surrendered his title last night to the more artistic Neil Wilson with a lacklustre free programme in the national championships at Guildford's superb Spectrum Centre. The victory was just reward for 10 years hard work by the exciting Wilson, who came close to dethroning Cousins last year and has this season had to battle back from knee injuries. It also shows that there is hidden strength in British skating as Cousins, who now lives in Canada, has established himself in the world's top 10.

Champions like Brian Orser, Brian Boitano and Cousins' close friend Elvis Stojko have raised and changed the image of the sport in North America. Figure skating is now seen as a more masculine endeavour and men represent an increasing proportion of television audiences for not only the major championships, but also for the invitational and exhibition events from which Cousins can hope to raise the pounds 30,000 a year he needs to finance the coaching and competition that he needs to try to maintain his world status.

But looking beyond Wilson who are the next generation of skaters who could emerge as potential forces on the European and world stage? Among the junior men is another Cousins, Tristan (he is related), but while he shows glimpses of uncle Robin's style it was another 14-year-old, Alan Street, who skated away with the junior title this week. Street, who lives in Bingley but heads west off the Yorkshire moors to train at Blackburn, has not only obvious ability but also that certain something that marks him out as a class above his rivals. For him, too, it is a matter of investing in his future to build on the international experience that has already made a difference to his skating. To that end his parents are prepared to move to a smaller house to release money to finance him.

Skating is a tough world, and progression through the junior and senior ranks is not always automatic. Carol Bartlam, the vice-chairman of the Nisa coaching committee who was guiding Stuart Bell's fortunes in the senior event, offered a word of warning when she said: "Physical development does affect balance and co-ordination, so sometimes you do find that skaters who are very good at a young age can't make the transition to become very good when they get older." Then again Russia's Igor Kulik went straight from winning the world junior championship into the European senior event and won that.

The national association, Nisa, is putting in place a pyramid structure that starts from a grass-roots, nationwide "Fun Skate" scheme to draw in new skaters. Like so many sporting bodies, Nisa has its eyes on lottery money, particularly after the changes announced this week in the approach to using such funding in sport, and has also attracted sponsorship from Tesa, who helped to protect this week's championships from the cold draught of financial failure.

Celia Godsall, Nisa's chief executive who came into the job with no experience of skating and was staggered by how difficult the sport is, explained the way forward. "We're developing a whole new squad structure, which will take us from the grass roots, with talent identification and regional squads, through to a national development squad and right at the top the elite athletes," she said. "One of the challenges of skating is that it is such a long-term business. Most of the junior champions will have been skating for 10 years to get that far."

All a skater needs to get on is athleticism, grace, physical and mental strength and a feel for music. That's all. Curry, Robin Cousins, Torvill and Dean had it all. Steven Cousins has Street already has the essential elements and is building the rest. Somewhere out there, Nisa hope, are six-year-olds who do not yet know that they could have the lot.

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