At the tip of the Games
February 26, 2010
When Apolo Anton Ohno made his Vancouver debut last weekend in the men’s 1,500-meter short track speedskating event, all eyes were on his tips.
His fingertips, that is. Ohno was sporting a golden-tipped glove on his left hand. Commentators immediately jumped to the conclusion that the new addition to his uniform was meant to be predictive of a gold-medal finish.
At home in Park City, the man behind the golden tips, Ricardo Velarde, was laughing at the speculation.
Velarde, a Park City-based knifemaker with a background in making falconry equipment, is a member of the Park City Short Track Speedskating Club. He has skated with many of the athletes who are competing in the Vancouver Winter Games.
A few years ago, Velarde decided to use his knifemaking skills to make a set of tips for his speedskating gloves. Short-track skaters wear tipped gloves in order to smooth the path of their hand on the ice when they lean over to take sharp turns. The traditional tips, Velarde says, are made of plastic or epoxy and can be especially bulky.
He made his own set out of bronze, but says that the tips don’t really give him an advantage, since he usually only touches the ice if he’s falling. "Usually when I touch my gloves on the ice, I’m ‘heading to the pads,’" he laughs.
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Still, a few of his fellow skaters noticed his flashy tips and asked for sets of their own, including one of his coaches, U.S. national team member (and future Vancouver competitor) Ryan Bedford.
Word of Velarde’s tips spread and it wasn’t long before many of the U.S. team members, including current Olympic contenders Anthony Lobello Jr., Travis Jayner, J.R. Celski, Katherine Reutter, Kimberly Derrick and Allison Baver, were sporting them.
"All I was doing was doing favors," Velarde says.
He had switched from using bronze to silver and then tried beryllium, which seems to be the perfect material for the tips. However, beryllium can be poisonous. "It’s dangerous to work with if you don’t know how," Velarde says. "You just have to take the precautions."
About six weeks before the Olympic athletes left for Vancouver, Velarde went to the Utah Olympic Oval, where Apolo Ohno happened to be training. Ohno saw the tips and asked if he could try them.
A couple weeks later, Ohno gave Velarde the gloves he planned to use in the Olympics and Velarde fitted them with gold beryllium tips. "He went around the rink a couple times and came back and said, ‘These are bitchin’!’" Velarde recalls.
In response to the rumors that Ohno’s tips are meant to signify his Olympic greatness, Velarde laughs and confirms that Ohno did not request golden tips.
He says he knew that some of the U.S. competitors would be wearing his tips during the Games, but he didn’t expect to see them on the most decorated Winter Olympian in U.S. history.
"The last guy that I thought would be using them would be Apolo," he says. "He hadn’t had them for long, and most guys don’t change anything for the big competition."
Since the sighting of the golden tips and a comment from the announcer that they were made by a knifemaker in Salt Lake City, Velarde’s hobby has suddenly became a matter of national interest.
He has received calls from The Washington Post and the company that owns beryllium mines across the U.S., making sure that he knew what he was doing with such a dangerous compound.
"I find it all really funny," he says.
Velarde hasn’t contemplated selling his tips or churning out large quantities, but he says if someone asks, he supposes he’ll have to name a price.
"The thing is, it looks so simple. Making the basic shape doesn’t take very long, but shaping it to fit your finger, and cleaning, polishing, and gluing them is where the time really starts to add up," he says. "But if somebody wanted some if those tips, I could make them," he says.
To contact Velarde, email email@example.com.