Champion figure skater Phil Harris on taking risks, falling over and deadlifts
Phil Harris, 25, has been ranked the best figure skater in the UK for three years in a row. A title he’s been working towards since he picked up his skates as a kid in 2000.
Is 25 old or young in the world of figure skating?
It’s about average; but for me it feels young, because getting to that world level, getting on that challenge, I’m not quite there yet. But in age wise I’m about average. There’s people still competing in their 30s and still getting personal bests.
How did you start?
I started skating as a recreational thing when I was 11 back up in Blackpool. I just went with a friend of mine for his birthday, quite liked it, and started having lessons. In 2008 I won Junior Nationals and decided it was time to move on, so moved to Coventry to train with Yuri Bureiko, one of the best trainers in the country.
I started to really push the boundaries. This season I won Nationals in November. I was hoping it would have kicked in the year before – in the Olympic year – but I had two ligament tears, which ruled me out of the Olympics.
I was trying to do a triple axel – 3.5 rotations in the air – when I got the take off a little wrong, I whipped harder in the air and my ankle got stuck in the ice in the blade and my knee popped – I heard it.
It was torn ligaments. I was off the ice for a couple of weeks, tried going back but it was a no go, so I stuck to edge work for about three months, no jumps. Then had an ultrasound in January/February 2014 and would need surgery – but I didn’t have it. I was doing a lot of rehab with my physio and went to a comp in March. Saw the surgeon in April, had an X-ray and another MRI and whatever I’d done in that gap had worked, because the ligaments were intact. My ligaments had fixed themselves.
I’m aiming for the 2018 Winter Olympics. I’m confident I can make it. I’m improving all the time. I’m putting in a lot of hours and training full time, two-to-three hours a day, gym once or twice a day as well.
Lifting, biometrics, core, upper body, cardio, doing a lot of yoga. Got a great team behind me here, my physios, nutritionist, psychologist, got it all in place.
I probably spend just as much time, if not more, in the gym compared to on the ice. It’s important to strengthen the body up, the legs, the core, all to be adapted on ice to give you the ability to skate faster.
There’s a lot of Olympic lifts involved, they work a lot of the areas of the body that figure skaters need: deadlifts, squats, box-jumps (incredible because of the power we need when we take off, a good exercise to use), single leg squats (you’re on one foot 99% of the time when you’re skating on the ice, so there’s a lot of single leg work involved in the gym), plyometrics is mega, lots of one-legged plyo, upper body plyo.
How do you stay motivated through training?
I enjoy the gym, I enjoy making exercises up and making up courses and routines to challenge myself. Mostly it’s just me training, but sometimes I’m with my strength and conditioning coach.
You have to keep making things different to stay motivated. You have to be able to motivate yourself. I like to make things different and change up my routine. It’s all about challenging myself; I’m quite competitive, so when it comes to doing squats and box-jumps, I like to push myself to beyond the limit. And sometimes I can come out of the gym and hit that limit where you’re nearly throwing up and you feel a bit dizzy – and I love it! It really motivates me. It’s fun.
How are you funding your training?
Figure skating is quite a small sport in the UK, so we don’t get funding. I coach in the UK to fund my competitive career. I’ve been coaching for over a year now. I was working in Starbucks before then, but the workload was too high and the pay too low, so it was really affecting training. Now I can work around my training rather than train around my work, and I earn a lot more in a lot less time.
My physios give me a certain amount of free sessions a year, plus discounted sessions; so does the nutritionist. The village gym gives me a membership, then there’s Yuri’s figure skating school.
Competitions are expensive. Every comp we do costs close to £1,000 in total with flights and accommodation and entry fees.
How often do you compete?
In season it can range, but we try and do five or six Internationals before Christmas and five or six after as well. About 12 each season, plus the National competitions running through the year, but we do less of those now than we used to.
What advice would you give someone wanting to take up figure skating?
When you first get on the ice it’s incredibly difficult, because you’re stood on a blade that’s barely a centimeter in width, so it’s incredibly difficult to get going. But it’s one of those things where you’ve got to want to do.
Be prepared to fall. People who want to learn but don’t like falling will get very frustrated. If you want to get anywhere you need to be prepared to fall. Positivity is key, just have fun and if you want to do something that is difficult but gives you great satisfaction, then do it.
To get to a level where you can start competing, and you can start competing at a really low level until you get to a national level, is very satisfying. You can skate with a partner, or alone. I’m a solo skater.
Do you think 11 was a good age to start skating?
Eleven is seen as quite late on the world stage, most people start at three or four to get those skills in really early. They’re really in America, Russia, China, Japan, Canada – it’s a massive sport over there and they’re getting them in early. Skating just isn’t as big here.
It took me longer to get to a higher level than those kids, but I wouldn’t change the past. I don’t wish I would have started sooner, because if I did, the person I would be now would be different.
Do you think you’ll get your kids skating?
I’ll take them when they’re young. I’d love to see how they get on. I would hope they’d take up some sort of sport and I’ll keep them on an active lifestyle like I had as a child, always moving and playing, not like these days with all the electrical things. I’d want to keep them active, and if they don’t enjoy figure skating and want to do something else, I’d be happy with that.
How old are the people you coach?
I’ve got a great range: some people under 10, girls and boys, ranging all the way up to adults in their late 30s and 40s. And that’s not just people who’ve been doing it for years, some of them in their 30s and 40s are just starting. You’re never too old to take up figure skating, there are some coaches here who have skaters in their 60s.
There are Adult Championships, so you can start late and compete at an adult age. It’s open to everyone. Skating is a great way to keep the body healthy, a great alternative to going to the gym or taking a walk, and you get a lot more out of it.
The older you get, the more susceptible you are to pain. You have to learn to fall, this is a skill in itself. If in your mind you’re not prepared to fall, then you won’t progress and move freely. If you fall stiff, it’s going to hurt more. If you fall relaxed, it won’t hurt as much and you can get up. The more speed you have when you fall the better, ‘cause the momentum is taken out of the drop and spread out because you slide. It’s part of the excitement.
Do you still fall over?
I fall over a lot. We’re always pushing boundaries, trying quadruple jumps, four rotations in the air, trying multiple jumps in a row. The slightest movement, throws your axis off. I had a great fall last week where I miss-timed my jump and missed my takeoff completely. I rotated half one way then half the other and I landed on my face, it wasn’t pleasant, but it happens.
Luckily, I don’t bruise very easily; but the idea is never to fall. You want to train your body to recover and adapt to whatever happens, so when you do a jump, if the technique is off, you can still get a score. On the day, it’s rarely ever perfect. There’s all the pressure and the nerves, but if you can strengthen your body to adapt, you’ll do well.
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