Ice Skating: K and Z draw from tracings of T and D

FIRST NIGHT: JULIE KEEBLE AND LUCASZ ZALEWSKI: Alan Hubbard in Belfast witnesses a breakthrough for Britain's new ice stars

WHEN TORVILL and Dean finally glided off into their showbiz sunset it was with a defiant flourish which declared in the finest traditions of the footlights: "Follow that". No one has, and the likelihood is that no one ever will, for since those heady days of Barnum and Bolero the ice has melted slowly under the blades of British skaters.

How do you emulate perfection? T and D's six-appeal was an indication that ice dancing had reached its summit, leaving would-be successors to clomp around in the foothills of mediocrity.

Yet there is hope. There are now new kids on the ice block. Last month, in Vienna, a couple skating for Britain struck gold for the first time in a major international event since Torvill and Dean won their last European title five years ago.

Julie Keeble and Lucasz Zalewski are their names - she's from Cardiff, he's from Gdansk in Poland, but now lives in London. The new Torvill and Dean? Don't let's be hasty, but at least it's a start. When the pair skated home in the 11-nation Karl Schafer Memorial event the chief judge asked their coach, Garry Hoppe: "Where have you been hiding them? Boy, can they skate."

This weekend that hidden talent was further declared when they captured the title in the Sensodyne- sponsored British skating championships, held for the first time in Belfast. In the corresponding event last year they had finished fourth after being together for only a few weeks but last night they comprehensively deposed the two-times champions Charlotte Clements and Gary Shortland with a programme which included a tumultuous flamenco.

Like Torvill and Dean, Keeble and Zalewski are an item on the ice, though not a couple off it. Theirs was an arranged match made in Lee Valley, London, where Hoppe brought them together after both had fallen out of step with previous partners. Hoppe was already coaching Keeble when Zalewski, a youth Olympics silver medallist, was recommended to him by Polish contacts - Hoppe has both German and Polish ancestry - and the combination gelled immediately.

"Between them they had rare talent and loads of strength," said Hoppe. "Like Jane and Chris they fit together pretty good, balancing each other with different qualities. Julie is very lively, a get-up and go girl who sometimes loses her cool but gets over it quickly. Luke is calmer, more even-tempered. Nothing fazes him. There are far worse marriages."

Like other wannabe ice dance champions Keeble and Zalewski find both inspiration and desperation in their admiration of Torvill and Dean. Inevitably, the names of the untouchable twosome are bracketed with the phrase "Invidious comparison". But the 24-year-old Keeble, pert, blonde and far more athletic- looking than Torvill, says it was their achievement at world and Olympic level which caused her to gravitate towards ice dancing.

"As a kid I always admired them but never dared to dream of following in their footsteps. Yet it doesn't bug me that we will always be compared to them whatever we do. Actually it's rather nice," says the now Essex- based Keeble, who fits her 5.30am-10am training schedules around her full- time occupation as a book-keeper. "We're not Torvill and Dean and never will be. We are just happy to be Keeble and Zalewski."

The names may not trip as easily off the tongue but if they can translate their own natural rhythm and technique to the world stage there will be a welcome familiarity about them. But one stumbling block is their ambition to achieve Olympian heights. At the moment Salt Lake City in 2002 poses something of a problem because Zalewski, a 22-year-old student who has been top of his class for the last two years in his computer science degree course at London University cannot skate for Britain in the Games - although his UK residency qualifies him for the national team.

He may speak with a Cockney accent - he has lived in London on and off since 1991 - but he would need to marry his partner to qualify for the Olympics, and her carpet- fitter fiance might object to that. But the powers that be are working on a solution. "I really believe they can go all the way," says Hoppe. "But it must be one step at a time. This is still an early partnership. We must never forget Torvill and Dean. Theirs was a fabulous talent and they took ice dancing to another planet. I am forever telling Julie and Luke, `I know you want to be like them, but first you must be yourselves. Just get out there on the ice, control your feet, and go.'"

A month before their triumph in Vienna, the pair were taken by Hoppe for a concentrated month-long coaching session with the Russian guru Tatiana Tarosova in New England. She had coached several of Torvill and Dean's old Eastern bloc adversaries and is a renowned martinet. "I do not think many British competitors would have stood the pace," says Hoppe. "What all of us learned there from her was quite phenomenal. Tatiana would stand in front of them beating her chest and roaring, `From the heart, from the heart'."

Hoppe himself is also something of a tough taskmaster, someone who might seem equally at home bellowing at the ref from the football dugout. What he wants from Keeble and Zalewski is more than a mere production number in a sport which might easily be dismissed as a piece of refrigerated fringe theatre. He demands an expression of their full range of athleticism. Inevitably, however, it is the dance which dominates. Zalewski, tall, dark and ear-ringed, is as different from Dean as his partner is from Torvill. But his bonding with Keeble exudes similarly sensuous vibes, especially in their silky version of the rumba. "Essentially, Latin American dancing has to be sexy," says Keeble. "It has a natural body tick and the rhythm must always be in your head, as well as your heart."

Whether their rumba will bring them riches remains to be seen. At the moment neither receives financial support from the sport, although Lottery funding might be available next year now they have reached national status. Keeble says she can skate only "because I have an exceptionally good boss," adding, "I don't think I've ever added up how much skating has cost me. If I did, I'd be very shocked." Zalewski, who lodges in Essex with his coach, is supported by his family in Gdansk.

It is five years since Torvill and Dean drew a TV audience of 24 million, the biggest ever for a sports event on a single channel. After that the sport, which also touched the heights with Curry and Cousins, slipped, slithered, and ended up on its backside. Yet there are signs that it is beginning to pick itself up. There's a new man at the top. Haig Oundjian, 50, once a skating contemporary of John Curry and now a business entrepreneur and vice-chairman of Watford football club, is the new chairman of the National Ice Skating Association, determined to restore it to its former glamour and glory. A sell-out at the Dundonald Ice Bowl for yesterday's finals was perhaps a beginning. "We are having to play catch-up with the rest of the world," says Oundjian. "We have to ensure that our coaches and skaters have the same support and advantages as those in other countries."

One of Oundjian's ideas is to get many of Britain's 70 ice stadiums to provide facilities for young skating enthusiasts to go there after school, have tea, do their homework under the supervision of a teacher and spend time on the ice before being collected by their parents. It is a scheme employed successfully in football by Watford. "If we want to produce winners in all sports we have to go out there and find them," he says.

Meantime the beat goes on for K and Z and those who follow in the tracings of T and D. "They're lucky because the international judges know they've kissed gold," says Hoppe. "That must help." True, but as British sport has learned only too well, it takes more than two to tango.

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