The lobby is the last outpost before the indoor Siberia, where breaths come out in frosty white puffs and frost coats the windows like so many department-store Christmas displays.
Out in the real world, the mercury is pushing an almost-liquid 95 degrees.
But in here, the faithful few who skate all summer long are soaking in the cold, oblivious to those the heat holds hostage just a stone's throw away. They'll tell you that they don't hate hot weather -- not at all -- but when it comes to Washington in the summertime, they prefer the bliss of mittens and leg-warmers.
So they skate while their husbands and wives and children and neighbors swim and hike and sail and shake their heads in disbelief. "When you're not an Olympic hopeful, it's sort of hard to explain why you skate every morning," one housewife explains. But like her fellows in the sport, she not only defends but praises their chosen hot-weather activity with undisguised and unrestrained affection. True, they are addicted, but it's not hard to see why.
At noon in the middle of the week, Fairfax Ice Arena is filled with the soft static of an old tape recording of The Nutcracker Suite . The song is replayed every half-hour or so -- otherwise familiar show tunes and disco songs echo through the gigantic dome.
About 15 men and women are whizzing around the rink. In one corner an old man and a girl of 12 practice dance steps. In the center, one middle-aged woman instructs another on a difficult jump. A retired policeman circles and circles, his hands clasped behind his back. A secretary at the Department of Agriculture executes figure 8s with a ballerina's grace. It's peaceful here -- very -- a silent winter in the oven of summer. It's a well-kept secret, whose time has come.
"Naturally, it's logical to skate in the summertime," explains Tom Alexander, co-owner of Skater's Paradise, a supply shop in Alexandria. "It's hot outside and cool inside." The general manager at Fairfax, Henry Weisiger, elaborates on the activity's strategic benefits: "First off, the rink is much, much less crowded in the summer," he begins. "And skating is less expensive than any other entertainment about this time, like going to movies or bowling." He takes a breath before he delivers the final (and, perhaps, most convincing) edict on summer skating. It is, he says, "the ultimate in air conditioning. It's exercise without sweat."
In contrast to the articulate explanations of rink management as to the virtues of hot-weather ice skating, the skaters themselves usually attribute their dedication to a bizarre but inescapable chain of events.
At the Mount Vernon Rink in Alexandria, Bernard Bernstein, two years retired and five years a skater, laughs about his humble beginnings on the ice. When he first started to skate, Bernstein kept falling forward. So he took his skates home, and in an effort to remedy the situation, he ground off the toe picks at the front of the blades.
Bernstein kept falling forward, so he quit skating.
But today, while the heat outside rises from the streets in waves, Bernstein and his partner dance around the rink with fluid ease. The two-term president of the Ice Club of Washington eventually took on the sport again, and rose through the ranks of pre-alpha, alpha, beta (twice) and finally gamma. While he speaks of his life as a skater, Bernstein smiles and waves at other skaters as they whiz by. Like the dozen or so other mid-morning "regulars" at the rink this day, Bernstein feels a sense of camaraderie with his fellow parka-bearers. But he doesn't make too much of it himself. "Many people skate together for years and only know each other's first names," he says as he greets an elderly couple entering the rink.
Sometimes Lana Albright still can't believe that she skates day after day in the middle of the summer -- she never even intended to ice skate in the wintertime. But once while visiting her parents two years ago -- and simply to make them happy -- she joined in on one of their group lessons.
Her life really hasn't been the same since. "Within two months I was skating every day," the 26-year-old Albright says, explaining that at first she drove from Richmond to Fairfax every weekend (a two-hour drive) just to get on the ice. "Eventually a decision had to be made," she says, and so, seven months after she first donned a pair of skates, Albright moved to the area.
Now a pediatric cancer nurse at the National Institutes of Health, Albright wakes up early every morning -- early enough to get to the rink for the morning session from 9:30 to about noon. That gives her a few hours to rest up and get ready for work. "I arranged it so I work nights so I can skate during the day," she says, adding that she usually gets home from the hospital around 1 or 2 a.m.
Albright, wrapped in a skating dress, a sweater, leg-warmers and mittens, claims that she doesn't mind the heat. But she insists that it's necessary to skate all summer long or you risk losing your skills.
Her friend and fellow skater Nelly Skrivseth is a bit more philosophical about why she spends three hours a day skating in the summer. Although she started skating as a child in Czechoslovakia, she took it up again seriously just three years ago. "It's done wonderful things for my confidence," she explains. "I used to think I was never good at anything. All through school I was a B student. But now I feel like I can do something; I know I can skate."
But no matter how exuberant summer skaters are about the sport, almost all of them seem to lament the imminent arrival of skating summer school, an annual event in all three area rinks. The summer school turns the rink over to kids for a large portion of the day, although George Moore, Fairfax office manager, maintains that the two recreational sessions in the day are plenty to accommodate the public. In the winter, Fairfax holds at least a thousand skaters (if no one is jumping around) and in the warm weather around 30 of that thousand show up in a day.
"I don't really mind the summer school," Mary Reinhardt, a year-round skater says. In any event, summer skating is far superior to winter skating: "I always thought it was crazy to skate in the wintertime," she explains, "because that way you come out of the cold to go into the cold."
Albright agrees. As she walks toward the ice to finish up the morning session, she stretches a little and puts on her mittens. "The only problem with summer skating," she says with a laugh, "is that you can't get a tan."