Weekend Interview: Sheffield’s PJ Hallam skates on past the bullies in his bid for world glory

THE glow of the blast furnaces may have dimmed with the decline of the steel industry but the town of Wincobank in Sheffield remains as blue collar as it gets.

FLYING HIGH: World Figure Skating Championship qualifier PJ Hallam, in practice at Ice Sheffield. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Built on an Iron Age hill fort overlooking the industrial heartland of the Steel City, Wincobank is a working-class area with a tough reputation.

Even its sporting figures represent that image. If you lived in Wincobank, you boxed, and more than likely in the gym of a softly-spoken but no-nonsense Irishman by the name of Brendan Ingle, who harnessed the raw potential on the streets and turned a handful of them into world championship prize-fighters in the ring.

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But another world championship contender has been forged on the mean streets of Wincobank, one that flies in the face of the preconceptions about his home town.

Peter James Hallam (PJ as he is known) is a figure-skater, the second-best in Britain for the last four years, and this week he represents his country at the World Championships in Japan.

If skating may not allude to the heritage of Wincobank, it does at least point to the present and future of an area that is being regenerated as a hotbed for sport, health and wellbeing.

For instead of heading to the boxing gym as a young boy searching for an identity, Hallam ventured a little further through the steel mills and found his calling at iceSheffield in Attercliffe.

“I didn’t really go around bragging about being a figure-skater,” says Hallam, 23, with a smile as he looks back.

Reflecting on his chances: World Figure Skating Championship qualifier PJ Hallam at iceSheffield. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

“My friends were very supportive but I’m not going to lie, it was pretty tough. It’s a girly sport, you get all that kind of stuff being said about it. All the insults, all the bullying, I’ve had it all.

“But I was so focused on what I wanted that the insults didn’t really bother me, even though it did get pretty bad at times.”

The resolve Hallam showed to ignore the bullies has embodied his life in ice-skating.

He first laced up a pair of skates at the age of eight after trying his hand at football, swimming and gymnastics among other sports, none of which felt right.

ON ICE: World Figure Skating Championship qualifier PJ Hallam, pictured at iceSheffield. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Skating came naturally to him and within two years he was winning competitions.

Early success encouraged Hallam to take it more seriously, so much so that he skipped school to allow himself more time with his coaches on the ice.

More ice time cost more money; money his parents were struggling to find.

“There were some dark times regarding meals at night,” he recalls, so he quit college to take a job at iceSheffield to help his parents fund his passion.

“I just wanted to earn some money so I could help my family out. The amount of years they put into me, I wanted to pay something back.”

There was success along the way; British titles at novice and junior level, and four successive runner-up finishes at the British senior championships, on each occasion defeated at the hands of a different skater.

There was also disappointment, overlooked by the British Ice Skating selectors for places on junior world championship and Youth Olympic teams. No hard feelings, but yet more setbacks.

As he entered his 20s, Hallam began thinking what else might be out there. He applied for a role in a television advert and subsequently got the acting bug.

His focus was shifting away from skating when all of a sudden, at a world championship qualifier in Holland in February, Hallam delivered the performance of a lifetime.

“It should have been the current British champion, Graham Newberry, going to the world championships, but he didn’t get the score,” says Hallam.

“Coming up to my last international in Holland there wasn’t really any pressure on me to do well, but I just felt if I stayed focused, then I’d have a chance.That was the first thing I asked when I came off the ice, ‘did Graham get the score?’, because I’d been so focused on what I needed to do that I didn’t want to know how he had done.

“I’d messed up one of my elements which put me on edge. So maybe I had it, maybe not. When I saw my score I couldn’t believe it. I was very emotional.”

So to Saitama, Japan, for his first major world championship. The short program, a two-minute, 40-second routine consisting of three jumps is on Wednesday, after which the field of 30-odd skaters will be whittled down to the top 24, who progress to the long program on Saturday, which involves seven jumps in a four-minute routine.

Just days before flying to the Far East, Hallam was with long-time fitness coach and choreographer Kelly Buddery still fine-tuning the music for his long program.

“That’s the aim, to get into that top 24 and maybe even higher,” says Hallam, who is also indebted to coach Dawn Peckett, who has been with him for 15 years.

“I’ve got to go out there and skate my socks off.”

Despite it being the biggest moment of his career, skating in a world championships still comes at a cost for Hallam and is not something he can share with the parents who helped him for so long.

Skating might not be popular in Wincobank but in Japan, the United States and eastern Europe it is a fashionable sport and prices for tickets reflect that – ranging from £675 to £3,100.

Plus skating is not a well-funded sport in this country. Maybe if Torvill and Dean had held a nation in thrall with their Bolero routine in the era of National Lottery funding, UK Sport would have put millions of pounds into the top of the sport.

But figure skaters from this country rarely trouble the medal rostrum, so get no funding.

The British federation has paid for Hallam’s flights to Japan and his accommodation, but the rest – including his coach and any further sessions with his choreographer – comes out of his own pocket, just as it always has, in some way or another, since the age of eight.

It is why he quit college in his mid-teens to take a job at iceSheffield. It is why he is there from 6am to 8am, and then again from 4pm to 9pm, every day in his role as an ice-skating coach.

In between times, Hallam gets about four hours a day to himself to work on his routines.

“In other countries, skating is fully funded and the athletes skate full-time,” says Hallam.

“It must be nice to have that. So we have to work harder than anyone else. I’ve got a lot going on but I try my best.

“It’s an absolutely huge achievement for me to get to a world championship, given the challenges I’ve had to overcome in my life. Finally I’ve managed to get somewhere, finally I’ve managed to break down that barrier.

“I’m now thinking about the Olympics (Beijing 2022) again, which a year ago was nowhere near my radar.

“It’s massive to get to the world stage, not just for me but for British ice-skating, and it’s also huge for iceSheffield and myself and all my family, everyone that has helped me get here.”

Even, with a wry smile, the bullies and that Wincobank upbringing, which helped toughen up Hallam more than he possibly realised.

The PJ Hallam story...

1995: Born May 7, in Sheffield.

2008: Takes up figure skating at local rink iceSheffield in Attercliffe.

2013: Wins the British junior men’s title.

2014: Makes his international debut.

2015: Finishes runner-up in the British Championships, the first of four successive years in which he would finish second and also that year earns his first podium in international competition.

2019: Qualifies for the World Figure Skating Championships in Japan after finishing fourth at the Challenge Cup in Holland in February with a personal best score of 196.67. Also wins a bronze at the Bavarian Open.