Think Rink

By Paul Williams
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 3, 2006

Climatologists have it all wrong: There's actually a new ice age every four years. It's the Winter Olympic Games, which run from Feb. 10 to 26 in Turin, Italy. Teams will compete in skiing, snowboarding, biathlon, curling, ice hockey, luge, bobsled, skeleton, figure skating and speedskating. Interest in playing winter sports in the Washington area is sure to receive a boost. Although the mid-Atlantic region isn't known for its bobsled runs, and a ski outing requires driving to the mountains, ice skating rinks are plentiful nearby. Whether you're a would-be ice princess or hockey enforcer, here are some ways to live out your Olympic dreams.

Figure Skating 

At Fort Dupont Ice Arena, Speedskating Is Gaining Momentum

About an hour before dawn on a Saturday in January, Coach Nathaniel Mills leads his charges in warm-ups around the rink at the Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Southeast Washington.

Mills skates in a wide circle, smoothly and gracefully, as about 25 young skaters trail him, doing herky-jerky imitations of their speedskating coach. Eventually, the more experienced skaters start building up speed, whipping around the rink, bent low at the waist, fingers laced behind their backs.

Although several area rinks, including those in Laurel and Wheaton, offer speedskating lessons and programs for all ages, Fort Dupont's program has three things going for it: 1) It's free. 2) Helmets and skates are provided at no charge. 3) And, oh, yeah: The coach competed on the 1992, '94 and '98 U.S. Olympic teams.

Mills, 35, expects a major influx of interest in the sport because of the upcoming Winter Olympics. In fact, print, TV and radio journalists are at practice this morning covering the program. He emphasizes that anyone interested in speedskating should learn skating basics first, then come watch a practice.

There are no particular physical traits necessary to excel. "That's one of the beauties of the sport," Mills says. "Even at the elite ranks, there are different body types. The big thing is the ability to focus."

Mills, who helped coach the Canadian national team and U.S. Olympian Shani Davis, says keeping a skater motivated and self-confident is the main challenge with beginners, as it is with Olympic-level skaters. In both cases, he relies on positive reinforcement.

"Once you've built trust with positive reinforcement, you can correct techniques and behaviors and attitudes that are detrimental," he says.

Mills has been leading these early morning sessions since 2002, when parent Gwen Bryant asked him to help start a class. Bryant had been mentoring some girls that winter, and she says one of them asked her why there weren't many African Americans in the Winter Olympics.

The question prompted Bryant to approach the ice arena with a proposal for a speedskating program, but administrators were hesitant -- the rink was already heavily booked, they didn't know how much interest there would be and there was no instructor.

A coach in Maryland put her in touch with Mills, and his interest and Olympic credentials resolved any remaining concerns.

"We brought Nathaniel with us, and then they bought the idea," Bryant says.

Speedskating lessons were folded into the nonprofit Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena's Kids on Ice program, which is open to residents of the District, Maryland and Virginia ages 5 to 18. It also offers lessons for beginning and advanced skaters and instructional ice hockey. Supported by area foundations, corporations and private donors, Kids on Ice provides skates, helmets and other equipment so parents don't have to shell out for expensive gear.

Despite the 7 a.m. practices, Mills says it's a challenge to keep up with the demand. Adults are allowed to skate with the kids, but the instruction is geared toward the children.

Two sets of cones laid in concentric circles allow for different ability levels to share the rink. Bigger, faster skaters -- six of whom have been with Mills since the beginning and now compete in area meets -- stay on the outside of the larger ring. Newer, less stable skaters stay to the inside.

When some of the younger kids fall down (and they fall down quite a bit), there are no tears and no teasing. They pop back up and rejoin the rest.

"The better skaters mentor the younger ones. Even though it's a competitive racing sport, it's the least competitive thing I've ever been involved in," says Kathy Cox, executive director of the Friends of the Fort Dupont Ice Arena. "It doesn't matter how good a skater is, if he sees a young kid come in that wants to learn, the first thing he wants to do is reach down and help him."

Parents sit on the bleachers, sipping coffee, socializing and yelling encouragement as their children skate by the near side of the rink. The far side is lined with windows, offering a beautiful view of the Capitol as the sun comes up.

Felicia Freeman of Upper Marlboro started bringing her son Gregory, 10, for speedskating lessons last June. Gregory learned to skate at age 4 and is an avid in-line skater.

"He likes to do everything fast, so I had to find someone to teach him to do it safely," she says. "It was a mother's fear and her son's fearlessness that brought him here."

Freeman says Mills's greatest strength is making sure students are challenged, without pushing them so hard they become frustrated.

"He captures the potential of each and every one of these kids," Freeman says.

The best young skaters at Fort Dupont can reach 20 mph. It's called "speed" skating for a reason. It's the fastest sport powered solely by humans, without a mechanical aid such as a bicycle.

Toward the end of practice, after working on form and relay techniques, the kids play a frozen pond version of the old Darwinian swimming game "sharks and minnows." A handful of "sharks" waits at center ice while the minnows line up, giggling with anticipation, along one end of the rink. They have to skate from one end to the other without getting tagged by the sharks. Those who are tagged become sharks themselves.

"If you're not having fun, you're not going to get up at 7 in the morning and keep coming back, so part of it for me is to keep it fun," Mills says.

"We have a lot of kids in our programs that never would have been able to try skating otherwise," Cox says.

After about an hour on the ice, the skaters take off their helmets and change into sneakers. Some hug the man they call "Coach Nat" on the way out, and about half stay for dry-land training, designed to develop balance and leg strength.

While hockey teams clash on the ice behind him, Mills asks the remaining students to line up on one end of the rink's wide bleachers. He has them climb the steps over and over again in different ways: with high knees, skipping every other step, moving sideways crossing one foot over the other.

"Here's a challenge," he says. "Jump on one leg, all the way up."

His students respond with delight at the idea, as though he had just said, "Here's a challenge: Eat this whole candy bar." One of them claps with glee as Mills leads them bouncing up the bleachers.

Kelsye Little is chosen to help lead the other skaters in their workouts. The 10-year-old girl from Southeast Washington has been speedskating for four years and also takes figure skating lessons. She says she likes the feel of wind across her face when she speedskates.

Amir Price and Alan Price Jr. also have been with the program since it started in 2002. Amir, 9, and Alan, 11, were taking figure skating lessons at the rink when they saw a speedskating practice.

"When they saw speedskating, they said, 'That's what we want to do,' " said their father, Alan Price of Northwest Washington.

Asked what they like best about speedskating, Amir's face breaks into a wide smile.

"Going fast," he says.


Curling: The 'Cult Hit' of the Olympics Finds a Home in Laurel

Michael Campbell, center, of Baltimore watches his stone travel as Dominique Banville of Fairfax, left, and Carol White of Arlington sweep the ice.
Michael Campbell, center, of Baltimore watches his stone travel as Dominique Banville of Fairfax, left, and Carol White of Arlington sweep the ice.(Michael Temchine - For The Washington Post)
When the Potomac Curling Club opened the National Capital Curling Center in Laurel four years ago, it proved to be great timing.

"Curling was kind of the cult hit of the last Winter Olympics," club spokesman Scott Edie says.

The group drew 700 visitors one weekend during the Salt Lake City Games and tripled its membership to 150. It has since grown to 190 members.

"When people watch it, their initial reaction to it is, 'That's something I can do.' " Edie says. "They identify with the people up there. It's not like ski jumping. It looks more accessible."

The curling center is open daily to spectators and holds events for newcomers every Thursday night and on weekends when there is no tournament play. Prospective curlers should wear warm clothing and rubber-soled shoes that have some grip.

Edie says that newcomers can play the game after five or 10 minutes of instruction and that age or athletic ability aren't important, as long as a player can balance on the ice. Although the basics of the sport are easy to learn, it can take a lifetime to refine them.

Teams compete to slide a 42-pound stone across a sheet of ice 126 feet long toward a target, called the "house," at the far end. Two teammates use brooms to sweep the ice in front of the sliding stone, which will change the distance and direction of the throw.

"The trick to curling is that it's a lot harder than it looks, so to be really competitive at it is tough," Edie says. "But it's also an easy game to get started at and to have fun right away."

The Potomac Curling Club has been operating in the Washington area since 1961. Before the center opened, the group had to make do with area hockey rinks, playing on ice with a different texture. A fine mist of water droplets is added to curling ice, which causes the path of a stone to "curl" as the stone slides over the surface.

"It's kind of like the difference between putting on a putting green and putting on your lawn," Edie says.

Politeness plays a major role in curling, club President Dominique Banville says.

"You should never really celebrate a shot, and you should really never be happy about an opponent's missed shots," Banville says. "And it's expected that you congratulate your opponent on a good shot."

The center has space for four games to be played at once, with two teams of four in each match. Games usually last about two hours, and after the game comes an important part of curling etiquette.

"When you're done curling, it is expected that you'll sit down with the seven other people who played with you, and the winner pays the first round," Banville says.

POTOMAC CURLING CLUB 13810 Old Gunpowder Rd., Laurel. 301-362-1116.

Go Figure . . . How to Skate Great

Ice dancing instructor Christine Fowler-Binder, left, of Baltimore works with Samantha Tomarchio, 15, of Ellicott City at Laurel's Gardens Ice House.
Ice dancing instructor Christine Fowler-Binder, left, of Baltimore works with Samantha Tomarchio, 15, of Ellicott City at Laurel's Gardens Ice House.(Michael Temchine - For The Washington Post)
Michelle Kwan, Sasha Co- hen, Evgeni Plushenko. Legions of children soon will see these top figure skaters on TV and beg for lessons for themselves in hopes of following in their new idol's grooves.

A former champion ice dancer at the junior national level, Christine Fowler-Binder, 34, teaches individual and ice-dancing lessons at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel. As a coach for both newcomers and elite-level skaters, Fowler-Binder offers some tips for skaters, young and old, who are just starting out and for those looking to rise to the next level.

If you've never skated before, start with a "learn to skate" program at your local rink that will help you get comfortable on the ice and teach you to lace your skates properly and other basics.

Build on those lessons by going to public skating sessions. Fowler-Binder suggests skating during the day if possible, as "evening public skating is always going to be more crowded with teenagers. It's more of a party atmosphere."

Once you're comfortable on the ice, consider further group lessons. Prices vary by rink, but sessions usually last about 30 minutes, with 10 or fewer students per lesson. Group lessons introduce more advanced skills to novice skaters. "They'll learn how to do backwards skating, little hops, jumps, one-foot skating, that kind of thing," Fowler-Binder says. "They shouldn't expect to do a triple axel in the first week."

Skaters who show aptitude and dedication during group lessons might want to consider private lessons, which can cost $45 to $100 an hour. Fowler-Binder says parents and young skaters need to understand the time commitment and expense required to practice several times a week. Skaters' parents pay lesson fees to the coach and rink usage (called "ice time") fees to the rink. "Parents have to have the time to dedicate to drive them to the rink," she says. "That's the biggest thing. It's not like you can just pick up a ball and run outside."

During private lessons, skaters will learn to put together a program, skate to music and take part in competitions. Fowler-Binder says it's important that parents, skaters and coaches all share the same goals. "They have to get along with the primary coach that they pick, because that person is in charge of the development of the skater," she says. "You have to say, 'We're going to trust you with our kid.' " Skaters with only casual ambitions shouldn't be matched with coaches who want to drive them too hard.

Fowler-Binder says that even if they don't harbor Olympic dreams, dedicated skaters will benefit physically from skating, learn about focus and commitment, and gain a new social circle.

"It teaches them a great deal about athleticism and performance," she says.

For Area Hockey Leagues, the Goal Is to Have Fun

For John Dagley, the best part about playing hockey comes after the game. "It's a good time to get together with buddies that you play with. The hockey is important, of course," Dagley says. "But hanging out after the games, [talking] with the guys is a good time."

Dagley, a 29-year-old skating instructor at the Fairfax Ice Arena, has been playing in the arena's hockey leagues for 13 years.

Fairfax has six skill divisions, including one for novices, as well as both adult and youth hockey clinics. It also offers drop-in adult hockey on Friday mornings.

"We get guys that are really good, and we get guys who come in and they're like, 'What do we do? We've never played before,' " Dagley says. "And that's okay. We try to help the new guys along." The only prerequisite to play in a league or attend a camp is to know how to skate.

Dagley says league members are white-collar and blue-collar guys: lawyers, bank executives, plumbers. He credits road trips to tournaments in Canada, Las Vegas and Florida for helping to bring the team together.

The social appeal of hockey isn't just a guy thing. Melissa Hunt has been playing in the women's league at Skatequest in Reston for more than three years. Hunt, 25, of Leesburg, says her teammates regularly get together for parties and throw each other baby showers.

"During the summer, when the weather is nice, we like to tailgate afterward."

She said many women in the league had no hockey experience and took up the sport because their children or husband played. For Hunt, it was a hockey-crazed boyfriend. But Hunt often hears her teammates say that hockey has become "their thing," an escape from the pressures of work and family.

"This is the one thing they do that's for them. They like coming out with a group of women," Hunt says. "They don't have to worry about the kids, they don't have to worry about their husbands, this is just for them."

Paul Williams is a freelance writer from Arlington who contributes to The Post's Sunday Source and Weekend sections.

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