By Hiro Yoshida
For Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland, one moment on June 24, 2016 turned their whole world upside down.
The 2015-2016 season had ended successfully for the British team with a seventh-place finish at the 2016 World Championships in Boston, Massachusetts, their best-ever in five appearances at the event. The result had been all the sweeter after the previous season both of them had been side-lined by separate illnesses which forced them into withdrawing midway through the 2015 European Championships in Stockholm, Sweden and before 2015 Worlds in Shanghai, China.
Just when things appeared to be back on track for them, disaster struck when they were on-ice practising a lift at their training base in Novi, Michigan.
“Nick and I created this cool lift which we’re really proud of,” Coomes explained. “It’s actually one of those lifts that looks really hard, but it’s surprisingly easy. We just wanted to put a difficult entry on it for the level.”
They had been experimenting with various approaches, one of which involved Coomes jumping on to Buckland’s shoulder. However, as they tried that particular entry, her momentum carried her over Buckland and she slid down his back smashing her right knee.
“I landed directly on my kneecap because I didn’t have any ligament damage,” she said. “I was really lucky because if I had slightly hit it at the side I very well could have done. The doctor said it was in eight pieces.
“I just remember my throat hurting from screaming. When the paramedics came, they told me I had a compound femur fracture because that’s what it looked like. I was saying, ‘No, it’s my knee’ because obviously I felt it.
“I asked not to see it because I think I had gone into shock, so I wasn’t in too much pain. I just think it went numb. I just said, ‘Don’t show it to me because it will hurt.’”
After further examination, it was confirmed that Coomes had sustained a patellar fracture. The following day, she was on a plane back to the United Kingdom with Buckland for surgery. The journey was so traumatic that she does not recollect much of it.
“I don’t remember going to the airport. I remember laying on a bed at the airport desk, but I don’t remember getting on the plane or being on the plane. Nick said I slept on the plane, but from Heathrow into central London I screamed the whole way and I have no recollection. I guess it’s like shock. Your body just forgets what it doesn’t want to remember.”
Coomes was taken to Princess Grace Hospital where the surgery to repair her knee was performed by Professor Fares Haddad, a consultant orthopaedic and trauma surgeon, on June 28. The operation to reconstruct her kneecap by bonding it together with wire was successful, but the side effects of the anaesthesia used to sedate Coomes took its toll on her.
“I don’t react well with anaesthetic. They gave me something and they couldn’t wake me up after I had my operation. I think I went down at 2 o’clock for my surgery and they woke me up and it was half-eight. I remember thinking, ‘God, that took a long time.’ Then I went back to sleep again and they woke me up every 15 minutes.”
Putting things straight
The accident, travel back to the U.K. and the surgery had been so taxing on Coomes that it was not until August that she felt ready to reveal publicly what had happened. In the meantime, rumours had been circulating about her injury. Uploading a video to her social media accounts was a way to put the record straight, but she found it a struggle.
“People had started to write about it and they were writing things that weren’t right. I wanted to put it out there and say myself what had happened. I had the idea of doing this video diary and showing people what it is like and what we have to go through when we are injured.
“I was very unwell for a long time. I actually found it difficult to sit in front of the camera and say, ‘I’m finding this really hard.’ Every time I tried to do a video I just ended up crying because it wasn’t a very nice thing for me to go through.”
Coomes faced a long road to recovery and had no idea if she would ever be able to skate again. The rehabilitation process was physically tough and mentally frustrating.
“There’s all these uncertainties. I couldn’t bend my leg for months. I actually have to take medication every day for my knee because I have something called chronic regional pain syndrome. It’s not so much pain as heightened sensitivity. I couldn’t bear anybody to touch it and I couldn’t bend my knee.
“I genuinely thought I would have my surgery, I’d be in the brace, I’d get out of the brace and I would be fine. That just wasn’t the case.
“I was initially told four to six weeks in the brace and I was actually in it for ten. Then I had to wean off it, so the brace was initially locked and they give you a certain angle to bend it in and then they unlock it a little more.
“At first, you are very positive and stay strong for everyone around you because, obviously, they are very upset for you and you want to be okay for them. You don’t want anyone to worry about you and you’ll get through it. Then time ticks on and you’re at this stage where you think, ‘I can’t do anything!’
“When you are used to being so active and you all of a sudden have to be so dependent on everyone it’s really challenging. I was a bit miserable for a few weeks, but I’m very lucky in that I have a very supportive team of people around me that cheered me up and got me going again.”
A new perspective
At a particularly low point in her journey back to full fitness, Coomes had an encounter with a fellow athlete who had triumphed over adversity. This provided her with the inspiration she needed to continue at just the right time.
“I got to go to the intensive rehabilitation unit centre at Bisham Abbey, which is a British Olympic Association rehab centre for Olympic athletes. Through that I got to meet some incredible people. I met a Paralympian who had been through so much and had an awful illness. He put a lot of things in perspective for me.
“He was so positive and happy. He inspired me and enlightened me and made me feel positive again. He got told he would never be able to walk or speak again and he can do those things.”
“No matter what your situation is even if you don’t have a choice of what happens to you, you have a choice how you react to it. He came into my life at the right time and made me feel better about everything.”
While Coomes focused on her rehabilitation, Buckland went back to the U.S. He filled up his free time with coaching, choreography and assisting a young British team prepare for competition. It also afforded him an opportunity to take advantage of the situation and fix a minor injury that had plagued him the previous season.
“I felt bad because I was doing something that was keeping my mind occupied and enjoying it. Penny was in a different place. I would come back and we would be in it together and then I would go off and do my own thing for the rest of the day.
“I had a little bit of a shoulder injury at the end of last season, nothing special. I had a chance to start rehabbing. I did it properly and now I don’t have a shoulder problem.”
The progress that Coomes made astounded all around her and on November 11 she took her first steps back out onto the ice since the injury. Although there were moments when she wondered if skating again was worth all the effort, those doubts evaporated immediately.
“For a while I fell out with skating and I was very angry. I didn’t want to talk about it and I didn’t want to watch it. I think the reason why I did that was because I loved it so much. I was kind of heartbroken that it had done this to me again.
“I appreciated it a lot more. I got back on the ice and I balled like a baby because I was so happy. If anything, I think this injury has taught me how much I love what I do and how lucky I am to do what I do.”
Back in the U.S., the 2014 European bronze medallists started preparing for what seemed like a far-fetched goal – competing at Europeans in Ostrava, Czech Republic at the end of January. It was doing what she had been told was not possible that spurred Coomes on even more.
“Everything had been going really well. Nobody thought I would make Europeans. Literally nobody and that made me want to do it even more. I really pushed myself and I worked so hard with my physio and I was at a stage where everything was ready. I just needed to start doing the run-throughs. I could do all the elements. I was really happy.”
Coomes was still hopeful of being able to compete at Europeans right up until Christmas. However, she soon suffered another setback.
“It was the Monday after Christmas. I was on the ice and I was doing a set of twizzles. I just came out of them and my knee felt a bit funny.
“I would go so far to say that I have been in pain pretty much every day since I injured myself, but you get used to it. You get on with it, but this felt a little different. As it wasn’t getting better, I flew home on New Year’s Day. The plan was that I would fly home, find out what was wrong and then come back. I had a CT scan and it showed that the wires in my knee were digging into my patellar tendon. That’s why I was experiencing the pain.”
Coomes was presented with two options by her surgeon – increase her pain medication so that she could skate at Europeans or remove the wires from her patella and face another three months off the ice. She decided to take the long-term view.
“I had a bit of a choice. I could try and make Europeans and Worlds or I could take the wires out now and have the three months off and start fresh for next season. Three months out after Worlds wouldn’t leave me much time to prepare for Olympic season. Rather than sacrifice two seasons I thought it would be better to just not risk it and just go for Olympic season.
“Through this injury, as much as I love skating, I’ve put my knee and my health first and I said no matter what happens I have to live with this knee for the rest of my life. I’m only young and I don’t want to have chronic arthritis and all the other side effects that come along with these types of things. I want to make sure that when I do this rehab I do it right and don’t rush it. I think that has solely contributed to the reason why I have decided to have this surgery now and try for next year.”
Most of the spots for the 2018 Olympics will be decided at 2017 Worlds in Helsinki, Finland. While Coomes does regret that she will not be there with Buckland to secure an additional spot for Great Britain in PyeongChang, she does feel that she has made the right choice.
“I wanted to make Worlds. I feel heartbroken that I can’t because I felt so lucky that John (Kerr) and Sinead (Kerr) got that extra spot for us those years ago and we were able to go to the Olympics in Vancouver. That just opened so many opportunities and doors for us. I wanted to do that for someone else, but I can’t do what I can’t do. That’s the decision I’ve made to put myself and my knee first and to have the surgery now. That way hopefully I’ll achieve what I want to and I’ll come out with a strong and healthy knee rather than rushing it and risking another injury.”
On Jan. 10, Coomes had the wires removed from her kneecap. Unlike her first surgery, she is much more confident of the outcome this time.
“I think because I know I can skate and I got myself right to a state where I could do a full set of twizzles and I could do my sit spin on this leg that I know I will be able to do all of those things. I think I went into this surgery in a better state of mind. There weren’t as many questions if that makes sense.”
Coomes and Buckland will be keeping the free dance that they had created to “Battle Remembered” by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble for the upcoming season.
“It’s music inspired by journeys along the Silk Road,” Buckland explained. “It’s one piece and we haven’t edited it. It’s got changes of tempo in it so it’s perfect. It starts slow and it builds.”
They will work with 1984 Olympic ice dance champion Christopher Dean on developing ideas for their Latin short dance for next season. The compulsory pattern will be the Rhumba, an area in which they believe Dean’s expertise will come in handy.
“Obviously, he is responsible for the most legendary rhumba of all time so I think getting his opinion on our short dance is a great idea,” Buckland said.
Coomes and Buckland are looking forward to getting back to training and competing. Even though the past few months has seen them apart for longer than at any time in their career, they believe Coomes’s injury has brought them closer together than ever before.
“Everybody thought our relationship would struggle and we’d find it really tough,” Buckland said. “Yes, it definitely has been tough, but relationship-wise the bond between us has just gotten stronger really. It has taught us patience.”
“I feel like we’ve bonded a lot more over it because we haven’t just been skating together,” Coomes said. “We’ve had to do and talk about other things and actually make an effort to talk to each other and spend time together. I think as much as I hated it, it did us both good. You realise how much you want to be or not want to be with someone when you’re not with them all the time.”
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