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Redcard Roberts

What I learned this week: Bonnie Blair I am not.

At the coaxing of several members of the Park City Speed Skating Club, I agree to give speed skating a go.

Upon arriving at the rink, I am greeted by Park City resident and speed-skating enthusiast Ricardo Velarde, who assures me the ice is softer than it looks. "But just in case, here are some knee pads and a helmet," he says as he hands me some gear.

I assess the equipment and think this looks like a relatively non-lethal sport. But then Ricardo hands me a pair of speed skates. Which sort of look like they could be used as a murder weapon. I timidly put them on as one of the skaters comes over to me and asks how many lessons I’ve had. "This is my first time," I tell her. "And you’re wearing actual speed skates? Wow, you’re ummm . brave," she says. I know by how long it took her to settle on the word "brave" that she really means kind of stupid.

It is suggested a number of times that I might begin with figure or hockey skates, given my utter lack of skating experience. But I politely decline each offer. If I’m going to die, I’m going to do it wearing the proper skates for the sport.

It’s now time to actually step onto the ice, and I’m immediately greeted by a number of positively delightful people anxious to share their love of the sport with me. Don Mealing is the first to take a turn giving me a lesson.

"Before you actually skate, you need to know how to fall," he tells me. Something, it turns out, I’m quite advanced at. "You don’t want to be standing up straight; that’s only going to hurt more when you land on the ice. Bend your legs, crouch down and put your elbows on your knees," are his instructions to me. I try mimicking his movement, but while he looks graceful and capable, I feel like I’m doing some absurd interpretive ice dance that involves hatching from an egg.

Nonetheless, Don believes in me and continues to encourage me. We glide down the straightaway of the ice; he looks quite nimble and adept, I look like I’m auditioning for the lead role in "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame."

Before turning me over to my next instructor, Don tells me that he, too, had never really skated before picking up this sport. "I was just really inspired watching the 2002 Olympics. Speed skating was prominently featured and I couldn’t wait to give it a try." So he went to the Oval in Kearns and signed up for a lesson. Now, he competes and thoroughly enjoys sharing his love for the sport with others. "There’s just something about this sport that hooks you. It’s therapeutic, it’s adrenaline filled. Once you get into it, you really just can’t get enough."

With that, he turns me over to Esther Aall, who has been skating only about two years. She shows me that unlike figure skating, speed skating is a side-to-side motion with the blades used to propel yourself. We go around the rink, elbows on knees, pushing out to the side with our skates. "I feel like I’m getting the hang of this," I tell Esther. "If you go about 30 miles an hour faster, you’ll be on the next Olympic team," she replies.

Like Don, the Olympics made an impression on Esther’s decision to try speed skating. "As a child I used to watch the Olympics. And I always thought it was such an elegant, quiet sport and I always wanted to try it. I never had the opportunity until recently. I love this sport. I love the feel of gaining the speed, and being on the edge, going faster and faster," she tells me.

And while I have quite a way to go before I have her confidence or speed, the sport’s appeal is pretty immediate. But according to Don, the most appealing part of this club is the coaching. "The men and women who come and coach us are Olympians and national-team members. They volunteer their time every week. There just aren’t that many sports where that happens the best in the world coming to teach beginners. It’s like signing up to learn basketball and being told, ‘Oh, by the way, Michael Jordan is going to be your coach.’"

If you’d like to learn from the best and give speed skating a try, the Park City Speed Skating Club offers learn-to-speed-skate clinics on Wednesday evenings at 6:45 p.m. at the Park City Ice Arena. For more information, email Don at: drmealing@gmail.com .


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