Speed Skating and Ice in the USA
Competitive Speed Skating
Racing on skates encompasses a number of different types of competitions, but the most familiar would be long-track and short-track speed skating. In some cities, there are clubs that obtain ice time for short-track speed skating, which is done on a 111 meter track set up on a hockey rink. There are also a few venues for long-track speed skating, which is done a 400 meter oval track.
The amateur ranks are now addressed via US Speedskating. Over the years, US speed skaters have distinguished themselves in international competitions, with legends such as Jack Shea and Eric Heiden. US teams have won 85 medals in the Winter Olympics, making Speedskating the most successful of US sports teams at the Winter games. For the serious skater, short track is the primary outlet. For instance, in Illinois alone there are 8 clubs, most of which are in the Chicago area along with a club in Peoria and in Champaign.
In the photo at left, 4 country teams take part in a 5,000 meter short-track relay heat at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Note the extreme angle of the 4 skaters in the turn, while the team-mates circle inside of the track waiting for their turn with the "virtual" baton. At right, two skaters prepare to start in a long-track race at the 2002 games.
Competitive Skating: Facilities
There are many hockey rinks that can host short-track speed skating throughout North America. For-long track speed skating, there are a few cities that are blessed with great facilities.
Refrigerated 400m ovals in North America:
Lake Placid, NY outdoor 400m oval from the 1932 games
Milwaukee, WI indoor 400m oval at Petit National Ice Center opened in 1990s
Roseville, MN outdoor 400m oval in suburb of Minneapolis
Kearns, UT indoor 400m oval near Salt Lake City opened for the 2002 Olympics
Quebec City, QC outdoor 400m oval
Calgary, AB indoor 400m oval from the 1988 Olympics
Fort St. John, BC indoor 400m oval opened in 2009 - 2010
Richmond, BC* formerly an indoor 400m oval near Vancouver, BC, now not in use for speed skating
* The facility for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver was reconfigured to be an indoor sports facility afterwards with the only ice surface being a hockey rink; the speed skating oval was covered over and the facility is now used for other activities. The refrigeration equipment from the oval for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, USA was shipped to Milwaukee at the conclusion of the games (the oval had been in front of what is now the base lodge at the present Squaw Valley ski resort--most of where the oval had been is now a parking lot). Milwaukee had an outdoor oval for the next three decades, which was replaced by the indoor Petit Center.
There are many other 400m ovals in North America. Butte, MT has an outdoor 400m oval, however, recent reports were that the refrigeration equipment for the oval is in disrepair but it does operate with natural ice. Several clubs find metric skating outlets, for instance, Saratoga Springs, NY will make a natural ice oval next to its indoor hockey rink when conditions are appropriate. Because its cold for long periods of the winter in many parts of Canada, there are several natural ice ovals there that are well maintained througout the winter.
Forty years ago, few people participated in running marathons or bicycling centuries (100 miles in a day). Today there is a marathon or a bicycling century every weekend in the spring and fall. Beyond the relatively limited numbers of participants in organized speed skating, there's probably room for recreational distance skating in the US.
Photo: Skating on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, Canada
Outdoor Skating Options
Besides the ovals and hockey rinks, there is plenty of natural ice in the US. A good guide is to check out www.nordicskater.com for a partial list of the many lakes, ponds, and rivers. This "wild skating" is a contrast from the very structured workouts and competitions of short- and long-track speed skating.
While the topography and geography and history of the Netherlands resulted in a vast network of canals, in the USA canals were constructed for freight navigation in the canal era of the early 19th century. While there is simply nothing that compares to the Netherlands vast network of stillwater canals, North America does have a few interesting skating options. The most notable is the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, Canada, a short section of which is 'groomed' every night during the Winterlude Carnival. In the US, in 1835, there were over 2,500 miles (4,000km) of canals with more planned. With the technological improvements of the railroads, canal construction fell out of favor and many were eventually abandoned. The most famous was of course the Erie Canal, which still exists in a modified form (it was rerouted and the width expanded over the years).
Wheels: Inline Skating
There are miles of paved trails to skate on wheels in the warmer months. Inline skating is done recreationally as well as in competitions. Similar to short-track ice speed skating, roller race competitions are also held on roller-rinks in organized meets. Inline races are also held outdoors over closed courses over a wide variety of distances (including longer marathons), which allows for elite racers and recreational skaters to be in the same race. Skating on inline wheels predates Rollerblades from the 1980s, as the Scandinavian teams had been training on inline skates in the offseason for years prior to the appearance of the Rollerblade brand.
In her 1984 book, The Complete Handbook of Speed Skating, Diane Holum noted that skating on rollers places similar demands on the athlete's physiology as ice speed skating. However, she cautioned elite ice speed skaters that the techniques have subtle differences owing to the difference in the manner that the wheels grip the pavement compared to an ice blade. As long as the skater understands the differences, he can utilize inlines as a means of cross-training for ice speed skating. For the amateur level athelete, inlines are an excellent means to gain fitness and "skating time" and the subtle differences are less critical to be aware of. Since the 1990s, several adult elite inline skaters have successfully crossed over to world-class long-track ice speed skating from the ranks of world-class inline racing. Finally, Apolo Ohno actually started out racing on indoor roller rinks, and took up short-track ice speed skating when he was about 13 while most world-class ice short-track skaters tend to have started competitive skating at a younger age.