Belfast Telegraph

Why Northern Ireland skating star Jenna has designs on TV's Dancing on Ice

 

She won an incredible 11 British championships in 12 years and competed at the Winter Olympics. Now, Coleraine's Jenna McCorkell tells Laurence White how her own range of clothing is being worn by all the female skaters in the hit ITV show and about her life with husband, Belgian skating star Kevin van der Perren.

Jenna McCorkell, Northern Ireland's greatest ever figure skater, has more than a passing interest in reality television show Dancing on Ice. She will be tuning into the third show in the series tomorrow night to catch a glimpse of the professional dancers and their celebrity partners in training.

For Jenna has supplied all the female skaters - celebrities and professionals - with her own range of training clothing which she launched at the world championships in Helsinki, Finland, last year.

Coleraine-born Jenna, who won 11 British championships in 12 years, a feat unlikely to be repeated, turned entrepreneur after retiring from competitive skating in 2014.

She explains: "I had suffered a lot of injuries during my career and there came a time when I knew it was right to bow out. The idea of developing a sportswear range had been in the back of my mind for a few years and when I finished skating I had the opportunity to pursue that dream.

"It took me about two years to develop the range, finding the right materials and the right manufacturer. The clothing needs to be robust as skating is a very athletic sport and there can be a lot of falls. It also needs to fit well as, for example, no one wants leggings which keep slipping down.

"The pieces all fell into place last year and I took the range to Helsinki. I wanted to introduce it to some of the top names in the sport and see what their reaction was. They agreed to try it out and I got positive feedback from them."

Jenna (31), who lives in Ninove in Belgium with her husband, former Belgian champion skater Kevin van der Perren, has been amazed at the success of the range to date. She is now despatching orders to Europe, the US and Canada, Korea, China and Japan.

"It has spread a lot further and a lot quicker than I expected in such a short period of time", she says. "That has meant a lot of hard work for me. The last nine months have been hectic and I have had to hire additional staff as it is physically impossible for me to manage every aspect of the business at the rate at which it is growing.

"As well as overseeing the development of the business and thinking of new ranges I have to attend skating events in the UK and Europe to make contact with my immediate market."

Team GB skaters taking part in the European championships in Moscow next week will be wearing jackets designed by Jenna, who also designs teamwear for a number of other nationalities.

Selling under the brand name Chique Sport, the clothes are made by a European manufacturer using Italian fabric and despatched from a warehouse in Northern Ireland. That requires Jenna to make frequent trips home, adding to her already hectic schedule.

Given its multi-national background is she worried about how Brexit may affect her business if the UK cannot negotiate a good trade agreement with the EU? She adopts a wait and see attitude. "I will cross that bridge when I come to it," she says.

For she and her husband have not completely broken their association with the sport. They run coaching classes around the world for aspiring competitive skaters and Kevin also takes part in various skating shows. Jenna appeared in some infrequently but really cannot fit them into her diary.

While Dancing on Ice is essentially an entertainment show Jenna is full of admiration for the celebrities who take part and is also a big fan of the series.

She says: "It is a very demanding task for the celebrities. They are dancing on skates which are only 2mm wide and most of them do exceptionally well to reach the standard that they do during the series, especially if they have never skated before. They are very brave to do what they do".

And she knows well the dangers of the sport. The only time in 12 years when she failed to win the British Championship was when she had to take a year out of the sport due to a broken leg in 2005/6, one of a number of injuries she suffered during her career.

But it is the added profile which the reality show gives to the sport which pleases Jenna most.

"After the first show went on screen this month there were huge numbers of kids turning up at rinks across the UK. It was an insane reaction after just one show. Seeing the celebrities taking on the challenge of ice dancing is obviously inspirational to kids and it is great publicity for what is still a minority sport in the UK.

"I would love more people from Northern Ireland to get onto the ice. I would love that my success in the past would inspire more young people to follow in my footsteps but sadly there is only one rink in the province and therefore opportunity for them is limited."

The rink that Jenna first learned to skate on at the Jet Centre in Coleraine closed many years ago. It was there as a seven-year-old that she fell in love with the sport and where her talent was first nurtured.

When it closed she made the 100-mile-a-day return trip to the Dundonald Ice Bowl and then, at the age of 14, moved to Coventry for even more intensive training.

Looking back, she accepts that meant huge sacrifices for both her parents and herself. "I had to train twice a day before and after school and they drove me each day to Belfast from Coleraine. I was just 10 when I was first picked for a Team GB squad - the youngest ever skater to make the team - and at the age of 14 became the first ever skater from Northern Ireland to compete at the World Junior Championships."

The dedication that Jenna and her family showed in helping her reach the heights of her sport is something that she stresses to the young people who come to the coaching sessions run by her and her husband.

"It is a demanding sport, both physically and mentally, and takes a lot of focus. You have to be determined if you commit yourself to do this to the highest level possible. You have to give it everything and never skip training.

"I have some kids who are at quite a good level but who want to go out with their friends or turn up late for training and you know that the chances of them getting to the top of the sport are very small. You have to make a lot of sacrifices to reach the top in sport, just as in any career."

She points out that for the first time Team GB will have only one entry in the ice dancing section of the Winter Olympics - showing the level of ability that is required to compete in the premier competitions.

Skating not only gave Jenna a glittering sporting career - apart from her national championships she won seven international medals including gold at the Ondrej Nepela Memorial and at the Ice Challenge in Graz, competed at numerous European and World Championships and two Winter Olympics - but also a follow-on career and, of course, a husband.

She and Kevin - like herself a multiple national champion - met in 2002 at Jenna's first Junior World Championships and remained friends throughout the years until getting married in 2008. They now live in his home town in Belgium but Jenna admits they are seldom at home.

"Throughout the summer we are in different countries every week for our coaching duties, although we might get to visit Antwerp or Brussels once or twice a year. We tend to go to Florida or California for holidays at the beginning of summer and then get another break somewhere in September," she says.

Whether she will be able to maintain that schedule with her burgeoning company is still uncertain. But at least it keeps her in touch with her roots. "I come back home frequently either to work on new products or deal with deliveries and staff training. Kevin loves to come to Northern Ireland when the time allows."

When she watches Dancing on Ice does she sometime hanker for the days when she was competing?

"I don't think I miss it. I finished at the right time and was fulfilled."

And she adds: "I have no regrets. I left it all out there on the ice. People had told me that I would know when I was ready to quit and I was at that point in 2014 after the World Championships."

Dancing on Ice, ITV tomorrow, 6pm. See Jenna's clothing range at https://chiquesport.com

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