In a spilt second an Olympic dream died for skater Jenna
For Coleraine girl Jenna McCorkell, appearing in Vancouver at the Olympic Games was the climax of years of sacrifice, but then it all went horribly wrong. Jamie McDowell reports
While most of us were fast asleep in the early hours of Wednesday morning, one Northern Irish woman was wide awake. The nerves and adrenaline pumping through the veins of Jenna McCorkell (23) from Coleraine would have ensured that she was in a mindset that was far from relaxed.
As she stepped on to the ice at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver to take part in ladies short programme event, her sights were set, not just in entering the top 24 — a necessary achievement in order to progress in the competition — but on reaching the heights of the rankings, and entering medal territory.
But one split-second error left Jenna off balance, out of control, on the ground and out of the 2010 Winter Olympics. It was a heartbreaking end to years and years of hard, repetitive training which began when she first took to the ice as a youngster in her native Coleraine. That rink no longer exists.
From the earliest days it was obvious that she was a natural on ice, catching the eyes of British skating talent scouts and bringing her into the highly competitive world of ice dancing.
She certainly had the talent and ability to be a star, explained family friend Karin McBride: “At Torino, four years ago, Jenna was extremely unlucky not to make the games. She suffered a back injury which meant she couldn't take part. But it was clear from an early age that she had the ability to go far. All through her life, Jenna has never needed any encouragement getting out of bed very early in the morning to go training.”
Karin, from Newtownards, has known Jenna from the age of 11 and has watched her progress down the years. This made the frustration all the more intense on Wednesday morning, when she watched Jenna fall during the most important performance of her life at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
She said: “I remember watching her in the Primary Ladies' event at Dundonald Ice Bowl when she was 12 years old. It was clear even then that she would do very well. She kept such a level head when competing against people who were older than her. She never failed to impress and never missed a test.”
Jenna's journey to Vancouver began at the early age of 10, when she first caught the eye of Team Great Britain. She would train endlessly at the Jet Centre's ice rink in her home town of Coleraine, and when that closed her determination to continue skating led her to make the 100-mile round trip to Dundonald Ice Bowl on the outskirts of Belfast on a daily basis.
After this, she moved to England where she took part in further coaching and competition in order to develop her career.
Her Olympic dream started in 2006 when she had aspirations to join team GB in Torino, Italy. But her hopes were quickly dashed when she suffered a sudden back injury, ruining her chances of competition. Karin explained: “Not making the team for Torino was hard on Jenna. It nearly ended her career. But she bounced back, and she'll bounce back for the next Olympics. She's still only 23 years old.”
It wasn't all plain sailing for Jenna this year either: “She's had to fight through a virus for these games,” added Karin. “She was on and off antibiotics four times and she missed three days of training in Austria, which, when you're preparing for the Olympic Games, is a very long time. But I think she's got another one left in her yet. She won't stop here.”
Jenna told of her own disappointment at missing the games in Torino four years ago.
Before her fall she said: “I was devastated when I realised I was going to miss out on the last Olympics. Going to the Games is something you dream about. So I’m hoping to stay injury-free this time around. I’m focusing on my own performance and my aim is simply to skate as well as I possibly can. If I do that I will be happy.”
Jenna fulfilled her pledge to do the best she could, but in a horrible twist of fate, her tumble resulted in her failing to land a place in the top 24, and qualifying for the next round.
It was a cruel blow to youngster, whose home town of Coleraine remains close to her heart.
Jenna described her ambition to some day become a trainer herself, and pass her skills on to younger generations. “When I retire, which hopefully is still some way off, I would love to open my own ice rink in Northern Ireland,
preferably somewhere in the north west,” she said. “The area taking in the likes of Coleraine, Londonderry, Limavady, Portrush, Portstewart, Ballymoney has huge potential and I would love to go back home and coach some day.”
The pressures that figure skaters endure at the top are understandably phenomenal. As her friend Karin explained: “It's just not as simple as doing the 100 metre sprint and being the fastest. There are so many different elements involved in skating like speed, choreography and the ice.”
Sue Walsh, an ice skating trainer based in Dundonald Ice Bowl knows what it's like to reach the upper echelons of the sport. She and her husband Philip have trained 16 British champions. Sue said that the intense training can make or break a potential athlete: “This is not an easy sport, and the training routine is extremely rigorous.
“Ideally, you need to take the sport up at the age of six or seven to go far, though some people have started later. For a young skater, this will mean training both before and after school, five or six days a week. There's very little room there for a social life, which is why some kids decide to give it up once they hit their teenage years. It requires total dedication.”
Sue added: “Skaters have generally left school by the time they're ready for European competition. Training doesn't just happen for a single event, it's a continuous cycle. We wouldn't just throw someone into a European competition without them having competed in a couple of other events first. Their nerves would destroy them. Top athletes require a lot of off ice training as well. There is much gym work involved.”
The mental aspect is perhaps one of the biggest hurdles that athletes must overcome. For Jenna, the case may be that her body recovers a lot more quickly than her mind.
Sue explains the effect that a big fall can have on a skater. “In terms of nerves, you can either deal with it or you can’t. To some people, nerves aren't really an issue, though I have to say that Philip and I have never come across anyone like this.
“Recently, we were training a pair of skaters for the junior world championships. The boy who was taking part fell on a jump that he had mastered before.
“We knew he could do it, but because of the fall, it became etched in his mind. The next time he competed, he fell on the same jump — and again after that. What was just a small error had turned into a big deal for him.
“Many top skaters now have their own sports psychologist — it's a massive part of the sport. One small fall can throw your confidence, and in the end, it can potentially ruin your career.
“It's slippery out there.”
No-one needs to tell heartbroken Jenna that. But there is always the World Championships to look forward to in Turin next month. That will give her the opportunity to exorcise those mental demons.