Catching up with Nick Buckland, Kirill Khaliavin

March 22, 2024
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © Reut Golinsky

Seeing the skaters you once interviewed and covered now taking on coaching roles, helping to nurture the next generation, and returning to the sport you both share a passion for feels incredibly rewarding for a sports journalist. Following our talk with Ondřej Hotárek, here are two more interviews - with former European leading ice dancers and now young and promising coaches, Nick Buckland and Kirill Khaliavin.

Last time we spoke with Nick Buckland was at the Europeans in Budapest ten years ago; time flies. This season we had the chance to catch up on what's been happening in his and his partner Penny Coomes' lives and to discuss the promising young British ice dance couple they coach.

Nick, it's great to see you. So, what's been happening in your life? Where are you situated now?

Penny and I decided to settle in New Jersey; in fact, we returned to the area where we used to train with Platov, South New Jersey. We're primarily based in Aston, Pennsylvania, at "Ice Works". We weren't sure where we wanted to go, debating between returning to England or exploring a couple of options in the US.

So it was after the 2018 Olympic Games when you took some time for Penny to heal her knee, and then you participated in the TV biopic about Torvill and Dean.

Yes, it was a very interesting project. We did all the skating stunts, which was really fun. After that, we did a couple of shows and were figuring out what we wanted to do next. Like most retired athletes, we were faced with the question of where to go next and what our next path would be. As athletes, you're so focused on the next competition or goal, so it was nice that we got some help from UK Sport, who helped fund us and provided support. They connected us with life coaches who assisted us in various ways, which was really beneficial. Luckily, having each other made the transition smoother. We started working in the South Jersey area because we weren't sure what to do, and then the work picked up. Eventually, we found ourselves settling down, buying a house, and it just went from there.

So, how does it work for you? Do you have your own school? In the US, it's mainly private lessons, isn't it?

Yes, it is. You're trying to create a "school" in your area to provide your athletes with as much support as possible. So we have a couple of teams, we work with dancers, including a ballet instructor who happened to be someone we worked with when we were coached by Platov; she is a ballet coach and choreographer. We also have Colin McManus and Anastasia Cannuscio, former competitive ice dancers, who serve as technical specialists and are very close to us; we often have them come to help. So it's me and Penny on the day-to-day, and there are many other people involved. We've assembled everything we wanted for ourselves when we were training and tried to make sure the skaters have the same support.

How many couples do you coach now?

We have Phebe and James (Bekker/Hernandez) right now, there is a Brazilian team who recently moved over (Natalia Pallu-Neves / Jayin Panesar), they were in the Lombardia Trophy. And we work with a junior American team as well. It's not the biggest school but we're slowly building.

And you're not only coaching but also choreographing?

Yes, we do all the choreography, that's something we were interested in when we were competing ourselves. We got a chance to work with a lot of different choreographers. And that's one of my favourite parts of our work. There is a lot of pressure on doing it right, during the summer when the work is done it's really important to get that right. And it's not only the choreography, it's also the costumes, music choices, it's the full package.

Let's talk a bit more about Phebe and James.

They did really well last season, they were able to go to the Grand Prix Final, and did well at the junior Worlds (they finished 4th). This season is about seeing how they do under pressure on the new level. They are able to deliver the performances when it counts, which is good, so they've just got to make sure that now, at the next level, they are able to do that, too.

They made history last season, being the first British couple to win the junior Grand Prix, right?

Yes. They are the first British junior Grand Prix medallists and I think first junior Grand Prix finalists.

It's always great when students surpass their teachers.

Oh, yes, absolutely. Penny and I are very sure they will.

And it happened during their second season together!

Yes, they hardly had a junior career. It always was a goal for them, to make a junior Grand Prix Final, when they first started. They had one season to get into things and then last season they really made some impact and they made a bit of a name for themselves as a promising upcoming team. You set those goals and you set them high and they improved throughout the season, sometimes you see teams have a strong start of the season or middle of the season but with them it really was a goal to to make sure that the periodization of their training works so that they get the best performances at junior Worlds. And that's what they did.
I think they have no regrets about their career in juniors which is really nice. Sometimes if you have to move up because of age you think that you could've done more, but they had a really good season they can be proud of and that's helped this year, significantly.

Can you tell me more about their programs this season?

Penny and I choreographed both of them. We wanted something with a strong theme for the rhythm dance especially, a strong vehicle to help push them into seniors rather than trying to be too creative, if that makes sense, so we went with Prince ("1999", "Purple Rain" and "Let's Go Crazy"). And the guys loved this music. With such a strong theme it's going to get the audience and be impactful. We were aware Prince might be a popular music choice, but there are a lot of popular themes this year, for example, we've seen a couple of Michael Jacksons. But they are popular because they are good, because they are such strong musical pieces. So we accepted that and just pushed to try and make the choreography as interesting and as clever as we could.

As for the "Muse", Phebe mentioned to me at junior Worlds that she always wanted to do a "Muse" program. And then it sat in the background a bit, they were looking for other ideas. The drawback with "Muse" is that a lot of their strong pieces have been used a lot, so we tried to choose two pieces that haven't been used quite as much ("Ruled by Secrecy" and "I Belong to You (+ Mon Coeur S'Ouvre a Ta Voix)") but still feel strong. "The Four Seasons" last year was in a way very light, uplifting, and you get that in a different way this season, it's a bit more moody, but I think it really suits them. I'm really happy with them and feel they got two strong programs this season. And the goal is to figure them out technically and to have their best performances.

It was always exciting to follow Sara Hurtado and Kirill Khaliavin's journey, first as competitors and now as coaches at their very own SK International Ice Dance School. We caught up with Kirill to learn more about how things are going there and to discuss their students' goals for the season.

So you finished the 2021/22 season and then immediately decided to transition to coaching? Or were there doubts about whether to continue?

We had some doubts and were considering our options, especially with proposals from the Spanish federation. After weighing everything, we thought it would be interesting to do something in Madrid, given our positive relationship with the rink and the club we represented. The proposition from them and the federation was to start developing ice dance in Spain, with assistance in securing ice time. Sofía (Val) decided to return from France, as her previous partnership didn't work out, so she joined us for a while. And then we found her a new partner, Asaf Kazimov. Then, more couples, including Paulina Ramanauskaite and Deividas Kizala from Lithuania, joined us.

Sounds like a lot of work. Do you also work with younger kids? As you mentioned your plans of being involved in the development of Spanish ice dance.

Not yet, but we're getting there. We're facing some logistical issues with the ice time not being ideal for kids. Also, sometimes with the smaller ones it requires the families to move to Madrid and they are not ready to do that. And for the older kids, 15-16 years old, school has the highest priority in Spain. However, we do have a few promising youngsters, and we're considering forming new couples and starting to work with them.

Of course, the couples at the European and World levels require a lot of time and attention. It's getting easier now that our kid has started kindergarten, and my wife, Ksenia Monko, has joined us as a coach. With her coaching experience from when she worked in Svetlana Lyapina's group, we now have three coaches for four pairs

Do you have any infrastructure for off-ice training?

Yes, we do. Our students have ballet lessons and off-ice training. Sara took the initiative to scout a few places around, and she found a great dance school. For physiotherapy, we turned to a specialist we've worked with before. Tania and Carlos, who were soloists in Antonio Najarro's company and our good friends, and who worked with us on our programs when we competed, have opened their own studio not far from our ice rink. They have an excellent ballet teacher, Carolina, whom we also collaborate with. Having competed ourselves, we understand the importance of having skilled specialists around, particularly a good ballet teacher. Additionally, in the same building, there's an off-ice training facility where coaches work with footballers, and we've been pleased with their work with our students too. Within a month, we noticed significant improvements.

That's really impressive; it's only your second year, and you already have everything organised so well.

I should credit Sara for that; she is very active and talks to a lot of people. I also try to help with the management part of things. Drawing from our own vast experience, since we know how it works in good skating schools, we try to implement it with our students.

I know that last summer in Turin you also had some kind of summer camp, right? What was it exactly?

We didn't organise it ourselves; we were invited by Maurizio Margaglio, and Luca Lanotte was there with his students too. We were all for it because it's always beneficial to skate with other top couples. So we were delighted to go to Turin, and we were very pleased with how it went-it was a really good camp. Skating at the Olympic venue, Palavela, is always extra special and gave our skaters a good boost.
We had stroking sessions or warm-up sessions all together, with a different coach leading each day. Then, each coach worked with their skaters individually, but we also asked each other for advice and helped one another out. Both Maurizio and Luca have really great couples, so overall, it was a wonderful experience that we thoroughly enjoyed.

What were the main goals you set for both of your couples competing at the international level this season?

The main aim is improvement from one competition to the next. Sofía and Asaf have been skating together for just over a year, and we're seeing steady progress, though there's still plenty of challenging work ahead. We're happy with how they're developing. Paulina and Deividas joined us during the off-season, and they also have areas to focus on. Right now, they're focused on showing what they can do and improving their skating quality, expression, and confidence. We've tweaked their style a bit, their approach to skating, and they're putting in a lot of effort. Specific placements aren't our main focus, although it's important for them to meet technical minimums for participation in big competitions. Ultimately, their main goal is to be the best version of themselves at every competition, focusing on personal growth and getting better with each event, and the same goes for Sofía and Asaf.

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