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British champion roller skater forced to practise in Willington Street park and ride car park while figure skater with Olympics hope hits out at government

Additional reporting by Chloe Rose

He's competed in Barcelona and was destined for Paraguay but now champion artistic roller skater Oliver Martin is having to dodge stones and bemused passersby in a Maidstone car park.

The British number one is preparing for the world championships but he's facing a peculiar set back - the government's social distancing regulations.

Oliver Martin keeping his skills sharp in a Maidstone car park

Roller skating has been defined as 'leisure', with skating rinks lumped in the same category as bowling alleys and casinos, and while other group sports such as cricket and tennis have been given the go-ahead, frustrated skating clubs have been waiting more than four months to meet again.

The Team GB member and brother and fellow British champion Zac, 16, belong to Maidstone Roller Dance Club have taken to practising their moves and routines at a car park in Willington Street park and ride.

Oliver says competitive British skaters are now falling behind their international rivals.

The 22-year-old, who won the junior men's British championship in 2017, and the senior championships in 2018 and 2019, said: "It isn't the most safe environment. If you fall, it will hurt. Everyone is skating at their own risk.

British champion Oliver Martin has no choice but to practise in a car park
British champion Oliver Martin has no choice but to practise in a car park

"The surface we usually skate on is very specialist, it makes quite a lot of difference.

"Those of us on Team GB have to keep training otherwise we will get behind, every other country has gone back to their regular sports facilities.

"We find it insane we are in the same category as something like a casino."

He pointed out as well that social distancing would be easier with skating than sports like football.

Barred from visiting their rink, competitive roller skaters across the country are seeking out alternative locations in their local towns, Oliver, who will take up a computer science teaching post in September, says.

Brothers Oliver and Zac Martin have competed internationally and are part of the Maidstone Roller Dance Club
Brothers Oliver and Zac Martin have competed internationally and are part of the Maidstone Roller Dance Club

However, it is not just the heavyweights who are suffering. The Maidstone Roller Dance Club, which has been going for more than 50 years, has 50 members, some as young as five.

They might not be confident enough to skate on tarmac.

"It's going to effect a whole generation," Oliver warned.

The club does not even practise at a rink, but rather at the YMCA sports centre in Tovil. Despite this, they have been advised by the sport's governing body that because of skating's categorisation, returning is not possible at the moment.

Skating rinks were expected to open from August 1 as part of lockdown relaxation restrictions but that date was then put back to at least Saturday, August 15, due to a rise in infections.

Competative skaters and brothers Zack and Oliver Martin have been forced to practise in a car park because of Government regulations
Competative skaters and brothers Zack and Oliver Martin have been forced to practise in a car park because of Government regulations

Oliver is worried the date could be pushed back again and is considering starting to run small classes from the car park.

"It kept changing, most sports haven't had to wait this long," he said.

Competitive figure skaters and hockey players across Kent have also been left devastated by the delay.

Kayla Fry, a junior level figure skater from Gravesend, is one of thousands campaigning against the government’s decision.

Like Oliver she has now spent more than four months out of training and fears that anymore time away from the ice will be a major setback in her preparation to compete at the Olympics.

She said: “I have trained every day of my life, for endless hours, since the age of five and I’m now 17 years old.

“At the age of 17, I’m reaching my peak ability. So, these up and coming training years are vital and crucial for me to ensure that I am able to reach my goals and achieve my dreams of competing at The World Championship Events and the Olympic Games.”

Kayla has criticised the government’s decision to label ice skating as a leisure activity, arguing that "it’s her whole life".

She added: “Losing five months of training is a major setback for every athlete.

“My years of hard work are now seen as a waste of time as my sport is now overlooked. We are the future generation of successful Olympic athletes and the government is tarnishing that – wiping out childhood dreams that we have put blood, sweat and tears into.

“Figure skating is an Olympic sport, not a leisure activity. It’s my whole life, my future and my career.”

Ice hockey players have also felt the loss of training as they try to prepare off the ice for the start of the competitive season in September.

Tyler Michael, 23, plays hockey at Gillingham’s Planet Ice.

He said: “It feels like hockey and figure skating have been forgotten about when classing ice rinks as leisure centres.

“I think it will have a big effect on our performance as hockey is high intensity in full kit and is hard to replicate off the ice.”

While Boris Johnson set a provisional date of August 15 for ice rinks to reopen, skaters like Tyler are trying to not get their hopes up too much.

Tyler added: “Hopefully we can get going again but at the moment I don’t hold much hope. Sadly, hockey and figure skating are not getting the attention they need.

“For an already struggling sport this has had a huge impact, with one of the founding rinks of British ice hockey being forced to close its doors for good.”

Bracknell ice rink announced last month that it would not be reopening due to financial difficulty during the pandemic.

Skaters have since taken to social media and started the #sportnotleisure and #overlookedolympicsport campaigns.

Through these campaigns, skaters hope to convince the Prime Minister and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, that ice skating is not just a leisure activity and that athletes should be allowed to get back to training now that gyms have reopened.

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