A liquid train of spandex zips around the rink, slicing the ice with wiper-blade skates as I watch from the wall, mouth agape.
|Outfitted, blades and all|
Last night, when I arranged a practice session with Carole Moore, the president of the Flushing Meadows Speed Skating Club in Queens, N.Y., she assured me I'd have no problem getting the hang of the sport. It's like rollerblading, she said, except you push sideways, not behind you.
But once on the ice, I am skeptical. I can see the tree-trunk thighs of Olympic medalists Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair, and I look down at my own skinny legs, wobbling on the supersized blades of the worn-but-sturdy skates the club has lent me.
I push out into the rink and take a few tentative strokes. Imitating the other skaters, I crouch and stick out my rear. Carole tells me to push from my heels, not my toes.
Shhhhhhh. The blade skids under my foot.
"Skate on the edges," Carole says. "If you're making noise it's because you're skating on the flat part of the blade and you're not cutting any ice."
I focus on my blades, sinking my consciousness down into my feet. I shift to one side, balancing on the outer edge of the skate, and push the inner edge of the other skate out across the ice. Imitating Tai Chi's fluid balance shifts, I shift to the other side. Stroke. Glide. Stroke. Glide. My thigh and butt muscles burn.
|Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair
"Speed skating demands a lot of power coming out of hip and knee extensors," says Dr. Carl Foster, a professor of exercise and sports science at University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse and chair of the drug testing committee for U.S. Speed Skating. "It's like being a runner who also lifts a lot of weight with their legs."
The crouched position of speed skating (which is to counteract wind resistance) and the steep leans into turns also require skaters to have strong lower back and hip muscles, Foster says.
These are some of the same muscle groups that cycling works. Indeed, a number of the people in the speed skating club tell me they bike race in the warmer months, and Moore is a three-time World Masters cycling champion.
Right Over Left
The tricky part of speed skating is crossing over. I must lift up my right leg and step over my left as if I am climbing upstairs sideways. At the same time, the left foot pushes out to the side and behind me, digging into the ice with the side of the skate.
|I (try not to) tumble for you: The trick to balance lies in keeping weight distributed properly|
I try it, with Carole to catch me, and I fall into her. Even though I am wearing a helmet, there's no way I can try this on the ice. I see myself careening headfirst into the wall of the rink, legs and blades in a tangled mess.
But the fear only makes me more determined. I find a corner with a wide swathe of smooth, open ice and I lift one wobbly leg over the other. I do not fall, but I do lose speed and feel totally awkward.
Fred Prilop, a white-haired member of the fast pack who watched my attempt, gives me another lesson.
"Skating is a controlled loss of balance," he says, as he demonstrates his polished technique.
I lean. I cross. I do not fall. I practice this move over and over around a bleeding pink circle in the ice until I get it.
And like a child who has just learned to swim and won't get out of the pool, I start speeding around the rink, cross-cutting my way through the turns. Never mind my skinny legs, my lack of spandex and my aching back. I am airborne!
When the club's coach calls for practice races, I line up with others in the beginner group. From watching the advanced group, I know that I am supposed to sprint into the race, making a herringbone pattern of run-skate leaps until I build up enough speed to glide. I race forward, but I'm still a little scared to go full-tilt into the turn.
|No fear rather, ready to fly|
Short Track, Quick Turns
We're practicing on a short track, which is a regulation 111-meter hockey rink, so even at my beginning scaredy-cat pace, a lap goes by pretty quickly.
Traditional speed skating, an Olympic event since 1924, is on the long track an outdoor 400-meter oval. Short-track speed skating has only been an official Olympic event since 1992. The main difference between the two is that short-track skaters race in packs against each other, while long track skaters race in lanes against the clock.
Foster tells me this pack element makes short-track skating more dangerous. If one skater goes down, other skaters may get pulled down or nicked with skate blades. There is also the possibility that a skater will lose control and go crashing into the wall. "If you run into a wall at 30 miles an hour with blades on your feet, [you] get hurt."
Because of these risks, short-track speed skaters are required to wear helmets and shin guards, and clubs put up padding along the corners of the rink. Some also wear neck guards to prevent blade cuts near the jugular vein. Speed skaters generally wear gloves to protect them from falls.
Like other endurance athletes, speed skaters can also suffer overuse injuries, such as knee, ankle and back problems. But speed skating feels gentler than some of these other sports.
|Stop the rink, I wanna get off!|
"We're pretty lucky because it is a relatively injury-free sport," said Bonnie Blair, the three-time Olympic long track gold medalist, in a recent interview with The Physician and Sports Medicine. "It's very smooth and fluid on your muscles. There's not a lot of pounding and that kind of thing."
The biggest problems, she said, come from not warming up and cooling down properly.
The cool-down was definitely a problem for me. I kept practicing until they were putting the padding away and packing up. The only thing that got me off the ice was the assurance that I could do this again as long as I invest the $500 or so for a pair of speed skates.
Of course, there's nothing like the first time. But diehards tell me that speed skating, like other sports, gets even better with practice.