A celebrated coach marks four decades of dedication to an elegant but challenging sport. NATALIE BRITTAN breaks the ice with the long-time local.
It’s a very precise type of person who clarifies the spelling of ice ‘rink’, as opposed to the more common ‘ring’ at the start of a conversation. And Debbie Darvill knows just how on point she needs to be when it comes to the sport she has taught for 40 years.
It’s also evident in other aspects of her life as this writer meets the impeccably dressed ice skating doyenne in her similarly immaculate Pakuranga home.
“I’ve always been an East girl,” Debbie confesses. Growing up in Kohimarama as the youngest of five children, Debbie had her first taste of ice as a teenager.
“A neighbour started skating when there was a little rink in Farmhouse Lane [St Johns] and I started going along with them and their family.” Back then, unconventional pursuits such as ice skating were “frowned upon”, resulting in Debbie taking up other activities deemed more practical such as business studies and piano. But she could not ignore the pull of the ice.
Learning from a teacher trained by the coach of legendary skating duo Torvill and Dean, Debbie cemented the foundation of the art that would become her life’s blood. Hungry for more, and “fiercely independent”, she headed across the Tasman in search of greatness.
She recalls how she set an ultimatum for her “now husband” Keith and was set on going regardless – so he followed. “We’re still together, so what does that say?” Debbie laughs.
As the Darvills approach their 39th anniversary this year, Debbie’s long and illustrious career will reach a ruby milestone – “I started coaching the year before we married.”
While in Australia, Debbie trained under a British gold medal coach and also achieved her own gold, the highest standard in ice skating. After working furiously to achieve her goals, it was time for a break.
“I decided, as you do, to have our first child – with no family, no support – but we were young.” It wasn’t a complete break, of course, Debbie admits. “I was doing handstands on ice when I was pregnant!”
After five years abroad, the young family decided it was time to come home. “Some people bring home one of those stuffed toy koalas but I brought back a baby – that was my souvenir!”
The Avondale ice rink had only just been built when the Darvills returned. Debbie coached there for 22 years but when the Olympic-sized Paradice facility at Botany opened, she says it
made sense to work closer to home.
Juggling family and a demanding schedule was always difficult especially with three daughters, but Keith was “very much a hands-on dad”, says Debbie.
And despite ongoing neck and back issues which would hinder most, the passionate professional still soldiers on. “Every few years, I’ve had to take myself off the ice and coach from the side which can be challenging because you have to be particularly articulate.
” Other challenges include the plethora of regulations that govern qualifications and competitions, a development that, Debbie says, has changed the sport dramatically.
For example, in ice dance, a step has to fall on a specific beat or phrase, and the music has to be within two beats of the required tempo. Being forced to learn the piano turned out to be an advantage as musical knowledge is “paramount”, she adds.
“Working out the timing and cuts in the music and the phrasing is very strict. The general public think, ‘oh it’s very pretty’, but if only they knew!”
It can also be a lonely job with 5am starts. Last year itself, Debbie caught 30 flights, most of which were to Christchurch where she coaches two young couples.
The Darvills are also heavily involved with the New Zealand Ice Figure Skating Association, the national governing body; Keith is the president of the Auckland Ice Figure Skating Club.
A grandmother to seven, and with a special birthday on the horizon, Debbie shows no signs of slowing down.
To celebrate, this highly energetic sportswoman will this month embark on her “big OE” travelling to the likes of Singapore, Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy and China. A year in the works, the trip has been made easier with the blessing of her students.
In fact, it’s something her daughters are accustomed to. “They say, ‘mum can you babysit – actually, are you even in the country?’.”
A balancing act
Gliding on ice may seem effortless, but there are many elements at play in the sport.
The biggest hurdle remains the lack of funding available for competitive skaters, Debbie explains. “There’s a certain tier structure with a small amount of funding available from the national body [NZIFSA] which is a volunteer-based organisation. We don’t have any government funding.”
With skating events often held in far-flung locations such as Estonia, the cost of flights and accommodation for competitors and their coaches can be substantial, she adds.
In light of this, getting to the Junior Grand Prix, a series of international competitions organised by the International Skating Union (ISU) is a rare achievement for Kiwi aspirants.
“That level of skater doesn’t come often due to our population base,” says Debbie. “We just don’t have that huge skating infrastructure and that skating pool.”
Even large countries such as Australia, with more resources, find it difficult to break through to the international stage.
“The senior world championships just finished in Helsinki and Australia had their first skater there ever, Brendan Kerry, who qualified to go to the Olympics. That’s massive,” says Debbie.
“Ideally, it would be fantastic in the future for these sorts of things to happen for New Zealand. If they [skaters] have the potential I would encourage them to go overseas to train knowing we’ve done the foundation work.”
While Debbie herself did skate competitively in New Zealand and reached a middle-tier level, she admits she was somewhat late to the game.
“I began my skating career at 16. Although there wasn’t an age limit, there’s only so much you can make your body do so I turned around and put my effort into coaching.” It’s a decision that has paid off by leaps and bounds.