Some skaters aspire to be the next Dorothy Hamill or Scott Hamilton, and others simply want the thrill of speeding around the slippery surface.
Whatever the reasons, aspiring skaters have come in droves this winter to the Cabin John Ice Rink in north Bethesda, where 2,000 students have filled to capacity a six-week series of classes. Assistant manager John Clark said it is the largest teaching program on the East Coast. Clark said it is not unusual for interest in skating to soar after an Olympics year.
In addition, Montgomery County runs the largest ice-skating instruction program in the country for handicapped children, said Walter Chapman, a teacher at the rink.
At the county's other ice rink in Wheaton Regional Park, 600 students have enrolled for lessons this session.
And in Prince George's County, the Herbert W. Wells rink in College Park and the Tucker Road rink in Oxon Hill have drawn about 800 registrants.
All of the rinks, operated by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, are open October through March and run three six-week instructional sessions in addition to general skating.
"Usually after an Olympic year there's an increase in enrollment," Clark said. "People don't necessarily expect to reach stardom, but the rink takes on an added appeal."
For Amy Azadi, standing on the ice is a great accomplishment. Azadi, 15, is retarded. A student at the Longview School in Potomac, she joins hundreds of retarded, blind and autistic youngsters on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays at the Cabin John and Wheaton rinks. Together they work their way around the ice, clinging to the wall. Several venture toward the center, marveling at their freedom.
"We have about 15 volunteers who work out with about 100 handicapped kids a week," Chapman said.
"To me this is the most enjoyable aspect of my work."
Among the adults preparing for their first lesson is Steven Garland, who said, "It's been about 12 years since I've been on the ice," as he steadied himself, eyeing the slick surface at Cabin John.
"It just feels very natural," joked John Helm, as he slipped on his first pair of ice skates, a size 13. "I figured if my son could do it, I could," he laughed.
Then he stood up, cautiously making his way toward the ice, wondering aloud if his insurance premium had been paid.
The children, clad in sweaters, turtlenecks and gloves, and with runny noses, raced toward the shiny surface, seemingly oblivious to possible broken bones or dislocations. Once reaching it, however, they grabbed the wall.
"The little boys want to go 40 miles an hour their first time out on the ice," said Sheila Eckhart.
Eckhart is one of five full-time instructors at Cabin John employed on a contract by the county. Seven part-time instructors work at the rink.
"We pretty much have it covered," Chapman said. "But we're swamped with lessons. You would think that with all this interest we would be able to enclose the rink."
Chapman was referring to efforts he and other instructors have made to persuade the county to enclose the rink for year-round skating.
But the county, having just spent about $300,000 remodeling Wheaton and Cabin John, is not convinced that the expenditure, estimated at $100,000, would be feasible, according to Carl Falcone, division chief for county parks and planning.
"Im not even convinced that we'd be doing the right thing," said Rob Clarke, manager at Cabin John.
"From a revenue standpoint, it's just not worth it. What you've got is a handful of parents who want their children to really excel in the sport of ice skating. My fear is that we wouldn't be serving the general public."
Ellen Bigio, whose two daughters receive lessons at Cabin John, said they would use the rink if it were open year-round, but that "it's really not worth joining a private club."
Heather Bigio, 10, has had skating lessons for five years and would not mind being the next Dorothy Hamill.
"That would be great," she said, watching her younger sister, Meagan, 8, receiving instruction. "I don't know, though," she smiled. "I kind of just like feeling free on the ice."