Competitive skating set to quicken in Alaska

Sport could expand with introduction of Southcentral track

Posted: Sunday, February 11, 2007

ANCHORAGE - On the near side of Westchester Lagoon on a recent Saturday, children and adults wobbled about on the ice, listening to music and occasionally stopping by the burn barrels to warm up. They were dressed for the weather, in insulated Carhartts, thick snow pants, heavy mittens and woolen caps.

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But just a few hundred yards away, a different scene unfolded.

Athletes wearing shockingly thin but colorful unitards bent into the breeze, gliding along an ice oval prepared just for them. They looked like giant bullets in red, blue and yellow.

And they were fast. Very fast.

Unlike the skaters slipping and sliding, these folks swayed gracefully, seemingly picking up speed with each lap.

No question, the name "speedskating" fit them. And despite the sport's long history - skating is thought to have begun in Scandinavia more than 3,000 years ago, and the Dutch skated long distances between villages on skates as early as the 1500s - it's relatively new to Anchorage.

Speedskating here has typically been limited to the newer version of the sport, called "short-track" for its shorter, sprint course - typically indoors.

The reason, said Alaska Speedskating Club head coach Peter Haeussler, is simple: lack of ice.

No more, say club members.

That Saturday inaugural event at Westchester Lagoon, a duathlon that paired skiers and speedskaters in a team or solo race, could be a glimpse into the future for Southcentral speedskaters who want to boost their sport.

Not only did the Westchester event prove hugely popular, but a planned 400-meter long-track speedskating oval in Midtown is on the verge of being developed. Once completed this summer, it could open up a whole new arena for the sport.

"We've even talked about how neat it would be to do a series of races like this across town," said supporter Jim Renkert, dressed in red and ready to race.

The duathlon culminated years of planning, said Alaska Speedskating Club vice president Tim Kelly, who like Renkert dreams of a day when longer races could routinely be held at such locations as Goose Lake, Westchester Lagoon and the oval at the Cuddy Family Midtown Park, among other possibilities.

The club has been around since 1981, and has typically concentrated on short-track races because of the dependable ice of indoor hockey rinks. When possible, the club tries to maintain an oval at Westchester Lagoon. Before that, it flooded the old track at Wendler Middle School as a makeshift oval and held races. When the Wendler track was replaced several years ago, the club no longer was allowed to use it for fear of damaging the new track.

As for the natural ice of the lagoon: Well, Mother Nature has not cooperated in recent years.

"That's the big part - setting up the track," Kelly said. "You have to have just the right conditions, and then you have to maintain it."

This year's winter has proven ideal. The early freeze thickened the ice on Westchester so that once snow arrived, it was strong enough to be groomed for a long-track oval.

That, paired with the impending arrival of the Cuddy oval, made this winter the perfect time to introduce the duathlon.

The duathlon raised awareness of the club. Recreational skaters stopped what they were doing to watch the race in progress. Two boys playing hockey dropped their sticks, abandoned their puck and began trying to imitate the bent-over, back-and-forth rhythm of the speedskaters.

Kelly was pleased. He began speedskating in Anchorage in junior high school, before any club had started, and he was largely self-taught. Today, anyone interested in speedskating has a committed group of skaters to help them get started.

"When we have the actual oval at the Cuddy Family center there, regardless of what happens with the weather, we can put the ice back and keep on" skating, he said.

Most Saturday mornings, members of the Anchorage Speedskating Club congregate at the Harry J. McDonald Center ice rink in Eagle River, where coach Haeussler teaches the men, women and children who are learning to skate. They wear long-bladed skates made specifically for the sport, and even the smaller, grade-school skaters have learned the leaned-in position that can help them gain so much speed.

Last Saturday, the club held its monthly races, with competitors going round and round the rink until it seemed they'd get dizzy and fall over.

Skaters ranged from what looked like 40-pound peewees to older masters, who skating into the turns carefully. Each lap on a typical short-track oval is 111 meters, and the pace is fast, with skaters jockeying for position on the turns and pulling out in front of each other on the straightaways.

Drafting - riding off the pull of the skater ahead - is common, and because skaters can reach speeds of 25 mph, accidents can happen in the blink of an eye.

That's the challenge to short track, said club president Steve Nelson. Because it is fast, it's not easy to master. Skaters can be intimidated, and it can take awhile before they're comfortable at such speeds.

"The long track is a lot less technical for beginners, so it's going to be nice to have more opportunities," said Nelson, who got into the sport as a hockey player looking for other ways to enjoy the ice. "It's a good sport for older people who don't want to get banged up and for beginners who want to learn to skate."

Nelson said the club tries to hold at least one exhibition per year to attract new members, inviting people to sample the skates, try the positioning, and learn to lean into the corners like an Olympian. Once the Cuddy oval is open, those opportunities could be more frequent.

Joe Fish, one of the club's speedier racers, discovered the sport at an exhibition 10 years ago.

He's still at it - and apparently pretty good. At Saturday's short-track race, Fish's skating appeared effortless as he easily took the lead and kept it during his races. Tall, lean and muscular, he appears a natural.

Still, Fish said, he knows there are few competitors here. The club travels to at least one Outside competition or training a year, where he faces stiffer competition. But he believes there is an Alaska talent pool waiting to be tapped.

"It's fun at those (Outside) events because here there's probably only one person my size and speed," Fish said. "You can learn more and get better when you have that competition."

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