Speeding to the top


Kids start zipping around the ice early for this extreme sport By Emily Dupuis

Illinois is a great place to be a speed skater. Not only do you skate with the best, but there are great facilities as well.

It's an extreme sport but in this area you can learn speed skating from Olympians.

It's not a sport you normally think of for your 3- or 4 year-old. But serious speed skaters pick up skates as young as 3, with intensive training beginning in their teen years.

"It's like anything else in life," says Peter Block, Park Ridge Speed Skating Club president. "If you learn something at a tender young age, it practically becomes part of your DNA."

Illinois, because of its frosty climate, has long been a center for speed skating, an ideal place to take the first step into what many consider an extreme sport. Park Ridge, Evanston, Glen Ellyn, Franklin Park, Northbrook, Rockford and the Quad Cities all have speed skating clubs, many with free sessions for first-timers.

"[Speed skating] teaches perseverance. You just can't go out there and do it. You have to practice," says Tom Frederick of Park Ridge. His 10-year-old son, Denton, has been speed skating for five years. His daughter Tamara, 14, has been skating for six years.

Train with the best

Jan Ressl, 17, of Western Springs, has been skating for only a year, but already she trains with the best. Her coach is four-time Olympian Nancy Swider-Peltz. Ressl is a member of the Park Ridge Speed Skating Club and while she is not training for the 2006 Olympics, she practices twice a week with two Olympic hopefuls, Margaret Crowley, 17, from Winnetka, and Swider-Peltz' 16-year-old daughter, Nancy, who lives in Wheaton.

"There aren't many sports in the area where kids can skate with Olympic athletes and some aspiring Olympians," says the elder Swider-Peltz. Many of the estimated 150 youths who practice speed skating throughout the Chicago area are able to do just that-skate with the best. And some of them even have bigger hopes, including Crowley and the younger Swider-Peltz, who want to make it to Turin in 2006.

"The chance of making it to the top is much more realistic in this sport," Swider-Peltz says.

About half the skaters in the Park Ridge Speed Skating Club participate recreationally, says Block.

The sport, which is excellent for cross training, accommodates all body types. "You have to use your body correctly . . . you are taught to feel your skating," Swider-Peltz says.

Mastering techniques such as proper balance, weight distribution and leverage requires commitment and coaching.

Swider-Peltz and parents of the young athletes at the Park Ridge Speed Skating Club say the sport builds self-motivation, determination and camaraderie. "Ultimately [the commitment and challenges are] similar to what kids will have to deal with in the world . . . These are life lessons," Swider-Peltz says.

It's fast, not furious

New skaters can reach speeds of 10 to 12 miles an hour, while older, more experienced skaters often reach 25. Crouching low to the floor and keeping the right balance while whipping around the track at the speed of an automobile requires hard work and sincere commitment, Block says.

"At first it's kind of scary, but it's fun to go fast," says Block's daughter, Kelly, who has been skating since she was 6.

"The speeds are high, the skates are sharp, but I have never seen a serious injury," Block says, adding that the rink walls are padded during practices and meets. "It's no more dangerous than hockey."

Speed skating is an individual sport, meaning participants have to look to their parents for encouragement and support, Swider-Peltz says. "Parents don't have to be there, but they should be involved."

Most clubs practice two nights a week-usually Tuesday and Thursday from 6 to 7 p.m. Meets take place every other weekend. Elite skaters practice three nights a week and may compete weekly.

"There is no prerequisite that people compete," Block says. "It's their and their parents' decision."

Participants should wear a helmet, soccer-type shin guards, neck guards, gloves, knee pads, long-sleeved shirt and pants. Beginners may wear hockey or figure skates, but Block advises kids to wear flat-bottomed speed skates, if they feel comfortable in them. An introductory pair of speed skates costs $150 to $200, and a high-end pair costs about $500. Many clubs lend skates to members, and inexpensive equipment can be purchased used, Block says.

Practice sessions for Park Ridge club members cost $550 for one season, $300 for a half-season or $15-$20 for a single session.

Mike Ressl, Jan's father, seems to feel the experience is worth the cost. "It's like having Michael Jordan play a game of pickup basketball and give you pointers."


Emily Dupuis is a graduate student in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She wrote this story for the Medill News Service.


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