Danielle Starkey has just been told by an accident and emergency doctor that she has broken her foot. For a skating coach, personal trainer and group exercise instructor, this is not good news. I can hear her one-year-old daughter cheerfully chatting away in the background as Dannielle explains to me how she had been hobbling around for three weeks with a bad foot, not realising the extent of the injury until, two days previously, she had woken up in the morning and couldn’t walk.
Get your skates on
‘A rink opened up in Blackburn, and Mum and Dad took me along, and then I pestered them for skates. That’s how it all began,’ she says. It was a case of love at first sight from that first trip to the ice rink as a seven-year-old, and when she began taking lessons, it soon dawned on her parents that they had better get used to seeing a lot less of her.
‘My coach used to say I was a grafter, and while I had some natural talent, it was mostly my character that helped me,’ Dannielle explains as she recalls those early years. And as the ice never melts, the year-round training schedule began to place demands, not just on Dannielle, but also her parents. ‘My dad’s the only one that drives so he had to face the brunt of it, taking me to training and competitions. But both my parents were fantastic. I can’t fault them. My school was supportive too, and my friends. It didn’t affect my schooling one bit. I was very good, I did all my homework, passed all my exams. I juggled everything. I had to. And that has helped me to become organised in later life.’
Practice makes perfect, and so, after tireless repetition, Dannielle’s proficiency on the ice grew, and success came hot on its heels. She won the British junior championship at 15 and, as the youngest competitor in the senior championships the following year, took home the bronze medal. Two years later, in 2004, she won silver.
Her two coaches were Karen Barber – who was head coach on ITV hit reality show Dancing on Ice – and fellow Dancing on Ice trainer Stephen Pickavance, a two-time British champion. Karen, who was the 1983 European bronze medallist and competed at two Olympic Games with partner Nicky Slater, was the tougher of the two, remembers Dannielle.
‘It wasn’t a case of having a woman’s shoulder to cry on as I would say Karen was the harder person,’ she says. ‘I was closer to my male coach. That said, it was nice to have a female perspective.’ Under their guidance, Dannielle continued to prosper, and she has fond memories of her trips abroad with her Great Britain colleagues. ‘You’ve got the opportunity to travel that most people at such a young age don’t get, and I’m really grateful for that. At 16 and 17, I went to Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Canada. It’s not just about the skating, it’s about life skills and encountering new experiences.’
Dannielle retired from competition when she was 21 and decided to take a year out of the sport.
‘It was something I needed to do, but I missed it so much. Then I had the opportunity to cover Stephen’s business in Blackburn for six months while he was teaching the Dancing on Ice celebrities so I did my coaching exams and filled in for him. When a job at the rink came up full-time, I left my job with the NHS and took it.’
Life in the fast lane
Dannielle, now 30, has approached her coaching qualifications with the same single-minded determination with which she tackled her competitive career and is a qualified Level 2 figure skating coach. She has been teaching adults and children of varying levels for over five years at Blackburn Arena. She has also gained qualifications in the fitness industry and is a personal trainer and group exercise instructor, teaching classes in private gyms and in the community. She juggles these roles with being a student and a mother to her one-year-old daughter, Brooke. She has a first class foundation degree in sport and exercise science – with modules concentrating on psychology, nutrition, anatomy and physiology, biomechanics and research – and is hoping to complete the degree at the University of Central Lancashire in the next 12 months. It is an exhausting schedule, but then she is used to it.
The power of role models
So did she always want to go into coaching after she hung up her skates? Coaching was always on Danielle’s mind after retiring. There were two female coaches at Blackburn ice rink, and seeing them do that job, you think to yourself as a kid, “Maybe that’s something I can do when I’m older. It is not a male-dominated sport. There are a lot of male skating coaches, but there are a fair few females as well.’
Dannielle currently teaches alongside Pickavance, her former coach, and is honest about her chances of unearthing the new Robin Cousins or Torvill and Dean and leading them to national or international glory. For her, coaching is as much about social and emotional development as celebrating individual achievement.
Helping kids develop and have fun
‘But if the kids grow up enjoying it and build a good friendship network and learn discipline, respect and self-confidence, then that can sometimes be more important than having a medal round your neck – especially kids who are quite shy. When you see them coming out of their shell, it is a great feeling. Regarding coaching techniques, toys on ice, says Dannielle, are the key to making your sessions fun and engaging for younger children. We do parent and toddler sessions, and that’s all based on fun and getting them comfortable on the ice and moving. Having toys on the ice is a great way of doing that. With the older ones, we can have a joke and a bit of fun, but essentially, in a lesson, they are there to learn, and the parents wouldn’t be happy if we lost sight of that. If they are having a bad day, I will say, “OK, we won’t do what I was planning. What do you feel like you can do?” And more often than not, it turns out to be a good session.’
Providing the right messages
Figure skating is an ‘image sport’, and as such, negative headlines do sporadically crop up. We are not talking Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan-style controversies, but the spotlight has fallen on the sport in the past regarding the issue of eating disorders. In so-called aesthetic sports like artistic gymnastics and figure skating, there is a magnified focus on body shape and appearance. Former United States national champion Jenny Kirk estimated 85% of national level competitors suffer with eating disorders or serious body image issues.
It is not something Dannielle has ever encountered herself, however.
‘There have never been any issues in my time as a coach,’ she says. ‘Most of the girls enjoy having the new dresses and the sparkly outfits because it makes them feel special. Personally, it didn’t bother me, wearing competition outfits. They have got a little bit better now, not as skimpy, and girls don’t have to wear dresses – they can wear all-in-one catsuits. Some girls do slightly worry about thigh size, silly as it sounds, but they can wear black tights so there are ways around it to make women feel more comfortable. But I’ve not encountered it since I’ve been teaching. If you are at an elite level, you will be training so hard, you will have the body shape that is right for you. And just because somebody might be a little bit bigger than someone else does not mean it will be detrimental, it might actually work in their favour.’
Dannielle’s top tips: