Podium potential

THE European, Olympic and World Championships are crammed into the next two months, but ice dance siblings John and Sinead Kerr don't feel the pressure, discovers Richard Bath

AS THE PERCUSSIVE bassline of the Linkin Park anthem Krwling blasts out of the speakers at Murrayfield rink, two black-clad skaters glide backwards around the rink, covering every inch of the ice at breakneck pace. One minute they're suggestively intertwined, the next she is upside down, balancing her head on his knee before he flings her round his neck so that she is draped around him like a human scarf.

It's such a mesmerising performance that the seasoned scrappers of the Edinburgh Capitals ice-hockey team, who line the rink patiently waiting to start their practice, start whooping and banging their sticks in appreciation. The tousle-haired John Kerr smiles widely and raises a fist in mock salute, while his sister Sinead just laughs with joy at the joy of a job well done. Most important of all, though, is the reaction of their coach Evgeney Platov. The Russian won gold when Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean came out of retirement for the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, so he knows a little bit about excellence, and even more about winning medals. He doesn't smile, instead bellowing "good strength, good speed" as they exit the ice.

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The Kerrs' coach has made it his mission to bring Britain its first Olympic medal since he denied Torvill and Dean their dream swansong, and as the brother and sister from Livingston begin the most important month of his life the hard taskmaster is in uncharacteristically buoyant mood. Last year they won their first major medal, a bronze at the European Championships; this year they are strong contenders to finish on the podium in Vancouver.

The Kerrs aren't daunted by a forbidding schedule that sees them concertina the European, Olympic and World Championships into just two months. They head out to Talinn today, competing on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, then head straight to Vancouver via a blazer-fitting session at Heathrow and a pitstop at their home outside Philadelphia, finally arriving back in Turin for the World Championships in March. It is a pressure-cooker schedule, but one the brother and sister ice-dancing combo from West Lothian relish.

"I don't feel any pressure from external sources," says Sinead. "All the pressure comes from me, within me, because you want to skate your best. We've made a lot of improvements this season since we won bronze at the Europeans. We feel really strong, so you just want to go out and perform your best for the audience, for the judges, for the people watching – but I don't feel that pressure from anyone else. We put that pressure on ourselves, it's a good pressure."

Without pause for breath, John breaks in. The Kerrs have spent so much time in each other's company since they started skating as a pair back in 2001 that they are constantly finishing each other's sentences. "At the last Olympics in Turin our goal was top ten, and we achieved that, but this time there's more of an expectation because people think we're good, but pressure helps you perform at your best," he says. "The most pressure we've ever been under was the Europeans last year because it was the first time at an ISU event that we've been in with a medal chance, and we performed our best. You might feel terrible but adrenaline is a funny thing; it helps you raise your game."

Platov clearly has the same effect upon the Kerrs. Since they received funding after their tenth-place finish in Turin and moved to his rink in Philadelphia, the upturn in their fortunes has been remarkable. But living in rural New Jersey was a wrench. The Kerrs come from a tight family unit where dad Alistair is the GB team doctor, mum Maeve their biggest supporter (and the one who suggested they skate together), while younger brother David suffers from severe autism. But with the benefit of hindsight, says John, a change in the rules meant that had they not moved they wouldn't be in with any shout of an Olympic medal when the Games kick off on 12 February. Not that it's been easy: working with the Russian has meant root and branch change to their technique, a process akin to Tiger Woods completely remodelling his swing.

"We didn't realise how much and how fundamentally we'd have to change our technique," he says "Evgeny was 'you've got to change this and this and this' and we were resistant to going backwards to go forwards, but he got past our egos and he was right. We got to Turin on good ideas, loads of energy, being likeable and having some watchability, but when people looked at our skating technique there were weaknesses which meant we'd struggle to stay where we were, let alone improve.

"There's also a new marking system and the way it works means that if you make a mistake you're stuffed. You used to be able to make a mistake and just lose a little, but if you do anything wrong on an element you now lose the whole element. So all of a sudden we had to change everything because everything we did was perfect for the old system, where you really could go for it, get a standing ovation and still get high marks despite a couple of technical mistakes. Now, if you haven't held your lift for quite long enough, haven't done a difficult enough spin there, you've no chance. You still need to skate with a joie de vivre and you still need to go for it, but it's just far less predictable, far more exciting for the audience."

The way they have refined their technique – they no longer move forwards, but propel themselves by sideways propulsion, like speed skaters, only more poised – takes far greater physical effort, requiring 31-year-old Sinead and her 29-year-old brother to hit the gym hard. Not that they are less flamboyant in their approach: they still go out to entertain and retain a reputation as quirky, maverick crowd-pleasers. "Every sport is entertainment but that particularly goes for ice dancing, so you want to go out there and give the judges and audience something memorable," reasons Sinead. "If you do that then there's every chance a medal will follow."

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Whether or not that flamboyance will translate itself into medals remains to be seen. At the Europeans they will face two Russian pairs, an Italian duo and two French rivals. At the Olympics and Worlds that roster will be swollen by the addition of two American pairs and a Canadian duo. Realistically, eight pairs in Vancouver will be competing for three medals. If the Kerrs have a benchmark for their performance, it is the French. "We have a really tight rivalry with Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat," laughs John. "If we're ahead of them we've had a good tournament, if we're behind we haven't. We don't dislike them, although we did make them cry when we beat them at the Europeans – I just cried when I got the medal."

The siblings fall about laughing at this. Despite the fact that they look so different (him dark, her blonde) and are so different temperamentally (he's emotional, she's laid-back), they share the same sense of humour and music taste. They also share a love of glamour (he was Ally McCoist's body double in Robert Duval's film A Shot At Glory, she has ambled down the catwalk for Alexander McQueen) that makes them stick out from the crowd and will stand them in good stead.

The other thing they share is an appreciation of just what a huge effect impact at this Winter Olympics – in all probability their last – would have. That much became clear after Turin where they were recognised in the street in a way that only normally happens to them in ice dance hotspots like Japan, Korea and Russia.

"After Turin I remember getting recognised in the car park at Gretna," laughs John. "I even got accosted by a group of, let's call them young lads, in the Asda car park in Livingston. They shouted out: 'Oi, Kerr, show us your twizzles!'"

For a minute he might have thought that he hadn't come so far since his days as a West Lothian schoolboy "when getting slagged and called a poof cos I danced with my sister" was standard practise. But with the sort of immortality that Torvill and Dean earned uppermost in the Kerrs' mind, success in Vancouver would give them the last laugh.