Ireland's Conor Stakelum eyes Winter Olympics berth

Son of former All-Ireland winner Richie Stakelum follows a different sporting passion

Conor Stakelum competes in the Men’s Free Skating competition during day three of the ISU Nebelhorn Trophy at Eissportzentrum Oberstdorf in Obersdorf, Germany. Photograph: Dennis Grombkowski/Bongarts/Getty Images

Conor Stakelum competes in the Men’s Free Skating competition during day three of the ISU Nebelhorn Trophy at Eissportzentrum Oberstdorf in Obersdorf, Germany. Photograph: Dennis Grombkowski/Bongarts/Getty Images

 

When Conor Stakelum tells people he’s a figure skater, he’s often greeted with the same puzzled reaction.

“They’re like, ‘Oh really? You do that? I didn’t know we did that here.’”

And with good reason. Ice-skating is still somewhat of a curiosity in Ireland. It only received recognition from Sport Ireland last year and most people don’t engage with it as either a sport or pastime beyond tentatively taking to the ice rink once every few years.

For Stakelum, however, it’s his passion.

The 24-year-old is a four-time Irish figure skating champion who has devoted the last few years to training and competing internationally. This week, he travels to Germany to compete in the Nebelhorn Trophy, an international competition which also serves as a last-ditch qualifying event for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Ireland has never had a figure skater qualify for an Olympics so there’s history to be made if Stakelum proves successful.

Stakelum originally hails from Stillorgan. He’s the eldest of four and just so happens to be descended from hurling royalty. His father Richie Stakelum won an All-Ireland with Tipperary in 1989 and later served as a selector for Dublin under Anthony Daly, in addition to managing their Under-21 side.

His uncle Conor Stakelum is also an All-Ireland winner and is currently a selector with Tipperary.

So how did a scion of a famous hurling dynasty fall into figure skating?

As he recalls it, it all started when he visited a temporary ice rink in Booterstown one winter and decided to have a go. Where most Irish people instantly regret setting foot onto the ice and spend the entire time gripping the rail for dear life, Stakelum enjoyed it and discovered he had a knack for it.

“I just kind of took to it,” he explains. He was 12 at the time – “quite late in the grand scheme of things” – but he hasn’t looked back since.

Stakelum started taking lessons in the now-defunct Dundalk Ice Dome.

“That closed in 2010 but until then it was really good,” he explains. “It was full sized and really modern.”

Following its closure, he was left in a quandary as there were no other permanent ice-skating rinks in the Republic of Ireland, as remains the case. He was forced to travel to Belfast to continue skating, but the long journey prohibited him from training on weekdays.

Microbiology studies

In 2014, he took the decision to relocate to Dundee to train under British coaching duo Simon and Debi Briggs, taking a year out from his microbiology studies in UCD to do so. He finally graduated a few weeks ago – with first class honours, no less – and says he might pursue something “more scientific” when his skating career is over.

As things stand, Stakelum lives and breathes skating, training 30 hours a week in Dundee while maintaining a part-time job on the side. This means 6am starts in the rink, supplemented by strength and conditioning sessions throughout the week. It’s full on, but worth it.

He now has four national titles under his belt and has competed at various international competitions, earning a personal best last September with a top 10 finish at the Lombardia Trophy, an international meet in Italy.

Over the next three days, Stakelum will be among dozens of skaters vying for six precious spots in the Winter Olympics. He will perform to Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars and will be hoping to execute his favoured triple loop-triple loop combination – a series of two jumps with three rotations in the air.

“I used to fall really hard on the ice when I did that,” he laughs. “I worked very hard on that. So I’m very happy when I do it now.”

It’s a highly competitive field and while he doesn’t rule out securing a spot – “You never know what could happen” – his real goal is to qualify for next year’s European Figure Skating Championships in Moscow. Additionally, he has his sights set on qualifying for the 2022 Winter Olympics Games.

This week, he just wants to give a performance he can be happy with.

“If I try to focus on getting a certain placement or getting a spot, then I could skate as well as I can and still not make that. And then I wouldn’t be happy. But if I focus on my performance and that’s good, then I’ll be happy, regardless.”

Thirty years ago, Conor’s father captained Tipperary to a Munster Championship victory and famously declared, “The famine is over.”

Will we be feasting on his son’s ice-skating exploits? Only time will tell.

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