Q&A: Irish figure skater Conor Stakelum - 'I know I should say I have an interest in hurling but I really don’t. It’s just not my thing'

Conor Stakelum, 24, is Ireland’s top male ice skater. The four-time Irish champion, from Stillorgan in Dublin, developed his skills originally on the Dundalk Ice Dome and in Belfast, but is now training full-time in Dundee, Scotland. Last weekend, in Germany, he became the first Irishman to qualify for figure skating’s senior European Championships.

Q: How did you discover you had a talent for ice skating?

A: I went to one of those temporary Christmas ice rinks in Booterstown when I was around 12 and took to it straight away. I used to travel up and down to the Dundalk Ice Dome to practise and get lessons and when it closed in 2010 went up to Belfast for training.

Q: Your dad Ritchie and uncle Conor are very famous Tipperary hurlers who have also both gone on to work with senior inter-county teams (Dublin and Tipperary backrooms respectively). Were you not destined to be a hurler?

A: I played a bit but wasn’t very good. I have absolutely no hand-eye coordination whatsoever. To this day. I can’t catch anything! I’m the eldest of four and my little brother Tom plays for Kilmacud Crokes. I know I should say I have an interest in hurling but I really don’t. It’s just not my thing.

Q: How did your family and friends feel when you pursued such an unusual sport?

A: My parents are wonderfully supportive. When I started to get good and the rink in Dundalk closed my mum (Catherine) drove me to Belfast every single weekend which was incredible. At school, in Oatlands College, people thought it was cool really, a bit different.

Q: Do some people underestimate the athleticism and fitness needed in artistic sports like ice skating and gymnastics?

A: Definitely! Our short programmes are two minutes and 50 seconds long and our long programmes are four and a half minutes. You have to perform such difficult physical skills while making it look beautiful and effortless. Learning some of the skills can be terrifying and you can get badly injured. When you land a triple jump apparently the force on your landing foot is the equivalent of eight times your own body weight.

Q: Have you had any serious injuries?

A: No, touch wood. Dislocating my shoulder in training last year was my worst but I was lucky there was no fracture and I was back training within a week. Skaters sometimes use harnesses to soften their fall — there’s one that’s suspended from the roof and another that looks like a fishing rod — but I’ve never used them.

Q: How much do you train?

A: From Wednesday to Sunday we have warm-up, off-ice, at 6am and then skate from 6.30am to 9.45am. On Wednesdays and Fridays I also skate for two hours in the afternoon and for one hour also on Saturday afternoons. It’s fairly full-on. I also do two weights sessions and our elite training group also does Pilates twice a-week.

Q: You’ve just graduated from UCD with a first-class honours degree in microbiology. How on earth did you do that alongside that kind of training?

A: I didn’t! Last year I was at home and only got over every few months because I was studying and training in Belfast at weekends. But I took a whole year off college in 2014-2015 to train in Dundee where I’m coached by Simon and Debi Briggs and I’ve moved back over here since June to train full-time.

Q: How do you manage financially?

A: I have a part-time job here - in Clarks shoe shop. I work between 16 to 20 hours a- week and fit it in around my training. My parents are still supporting me and the Ice Skating Association of Ireland also support me in any way they can, especially when I’m competing internationally.

Q: How do ice skating competitions work?

A: You do a short programme and a long-programme. The short programme has compulsory elements that you must include, including three jumps. There’s one combination jump (one after the other without taking any steps inbetween), a jump out of a step sequence and a double or a triple Axel. You also have to include three spins and one step sequence. In the long programme you have to have eight jumps, three spins and one step sequence but have more of a choice about which ones you do.

Q: Do you throw all the jumps in early in the long routine, before you get knackered?

A: No, you spread them out throughout because if you do them in the second half you get a 10% bonus! You have to weigh up, strategically, where you put them. You can’t just go out all guns blazing. Four and a half minutes is a long time. When you’re having a good skate it feels like one minute, but when you’re going badly it feels like 10.

Q: What was your first big physical breakthrough?

A: I’ll always remember getting a double Axel. It’s a jump with two and a half rotations. All the other doubles only have two so it’s a big one to get. Axels are also the only jumps with a forward take-off which is a bit scary. All the others start backwards and, for some reason, people find that easier. The double Axel is easy for me now but, back then, it was terrifying. I’m working on a triple Axel and a quad toe loop which is four rotations. Quads are really where it’s at in men’s skating now. I can do triple jumps but not a triple Axel yet. It’s a work in progress.

Q: When did you make your competitive breakthrough?

A: My first big international was a junior grand prix in Lake Placid, New York in 2012. I remember waiting on the ice for my music to start and my heart going 100 miles an hour. For me practising my routine and getting it into my muscle memory really helps me mentally. You know then that once the music starts you can do it.

Q: Who are the superstars of men’s figure skating right now?

A: Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno and Spain’s Javier Fernandez who I really admire. I’ve met him as he was teaching at a summer camp I did in Madrid.

Q: Is it true you’re going to be skating in the desert soon?

A:  My next competition is the Denkova Staviski Cup in Bulgaria (Oct 31-Nov 4) and then I’m competing in Abu Dhabi (January 4-7), just before Europeans. I’ve never been before but presume it’s in an indoor snow centre.

Q: Do you ever go back to your roots and work at any of the temporary Christmas rinks in Ireland?

A: I do. I taught in the rink in Dundrum a few years ago and I also worked there as an ice marshall. I did a bit of teaching last Christmas too but it’s unlikely this year so close to the Europeans. I’ll be home for my Christmas dinner though, never miss that!

Q: Before you go please, please, tell us how to skate backwards so we can show off at our local ‘Christmas on Ice’ this year?

A: (Laughs) That is the question I’m asked most, probably because everyone is impressed if you can skate backwards. The most important thing is to lean a little bit forwards. Get your weight forward. And instead of trying to push your feet forwards — like your instinct tells you — just try and wiggle from side to side. That should start you going backwards.


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