Ahead of the 2018 World Figure Skating Championships in Milan, we spoke to three-time British national champion Phillip Harris about his rise to the pinnacle of the sport.
The 28-year-old Blackpool native was stranded in a London airport with an unexpected moment to reflect, eagerly waiting for details on his delayed flight to Milan. Rather than heading to Italy to sight-see in Rome, wander the canals of Venice or sip drinks on the Amalfi Coast, he was leaving to compete in the biggest event on the figure skating calendar. (Barring the Winter Olympics, of course.)
The World Championships are an annual event organized and sanctioned by the International Skating Union (ISU), and run from Wednesday to Sunday, March 21 to 25. Although he would never admit it himself, Harris is not only the top skater in Britain right now but arguably the greatest of all time. He set a new record at the British National Championships in December with an unprecedented score of 210.37.
“It’s hard to compare to skaters of the past because of the difference in time, and the expected standard. I will never be considered as the best ever because people judge those standards from results, but to be put in the conversation with the great names of the past is an honour. All I can ever aim to be is the best version of me.”
The Englishman has won three of the last four British Championships, and is earning the best scores of his entire career. Regardless of battling nagging injuries and being forced to miss the Olympics, he knew he had to adjust both on and off the ice to get to the next level:
“When I tore two ligaments in my ankle leading up to Sochi 2014, it meant I could not jump at all. I spent all my time on the ice working on skating skills, edge quality, performance, and got a much better understanding for that side of my training. Since then I spend a lot of time on edge work and I feel that really propelled me to the skater am now. It is great to see the work paying off.
My training has changed massively over the years and with constant injuries and niggles, I’ve had to adapt. I spend a lot more time working on edges and skating skills rather than jumps when I am on the ice, but overall less time on the ice and more time in the gym.”
He’s coached by Marina Serova, a former Soviet national champion herself. This won’t be his first World Championships either, as he skated in the 2016 version of the event held in Boston and finished 22nd. His most recent event was in January, at the European Championships held in Moscow. His massively impressive performance there earned him a 13th place finish. I asked him what result he’d be satisfied with in Milan:
“My main goal is to once again qualify for the free, and if I can do that and maybe even break the top-20 mark, that will be an incredible result. But really a successful event would be to go out, enjoy my performance, and beat my personal best. I can only control my own performance.”
Phil had a rather unorthodox introduction to what would eventually become his athletic career, however. It all started when he was invited to a friend’s birthday party, one where ice skating was on the itinerary. It wasn’t until about eight years later when he decided to get serious about skating.
“I don’t think I really took it seriously until I won junior nationals in 2008, my first national championship title. It was soon after when I thought to myself I was pretty good at this skating business, and started to cut out a lot of socializing and committed myself to far more training.”
However, growing up as a male figure skater doesn’t come without some unfortunate realities. The sport is known for the grossly negative feminine stereotype given to men who skate.
“I had to go through this a lot, especially through my early years of high school. I already suffered from bullying during primary school, so when I started in 2000 at 11, during the later years of primary school I didn’t tell anyone. I was afraid of peoples reactions and being bullied further, so I almost led a secret life. It was an extremely difficult time. I enjoyed skating so much, but it made me very afraid whenever I wasn’t at the rink. As I started to have little successes in high school people found out and the names and comments started.”
Phil also had some words of encouragement for young male skaters facing the same kind of harassment and ridicule:
“I have a tendency to bottle away issues and just deal with it until it gets too much. If anyone reading is suffering with bullying please don’t hesitate to open up to someone. Just letting it out can be a massive help, there are true friends around you that want the absolute best for you. Most importantly keep being yourself! All bullies want is reaction and a lot of it stems from jealously, stay on your path. I will definitely look into things I can do to help stop this going forward across the sport in this country.”
Phillip Harris is the only one laughing now, and is proving the haters wrong. He’s in the best form of his career heading into one of the biggest events of his life. He prefers not to stress himself out too much about the future, but looked ahead briefly to what could possibly be the ultimate capstone to his long career- the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics:
“A lot can happen in four years. By then I will be 32 years old, but I couldn’t tell you what will happen between then. Like I said earlier I am living in the here and now, and that is keeping me in a great place. All I know is my partner and I are taking a holiday after the World Championships, and staying in Italy for a few more days. The rest is unknown.”
Featured image credit to Phillip Harris.