Enough with the 'weak ankles' and other excuses, you can learn to skate

My elementary-school newspaper always listed the career ambitions of the graduating eighth-grade class in its spring edition. In the typically dreamy manner of 13-year-olds, many of my classmates listed their goals as "model," "baseball player," "actress" and "astronaut." Mine was "figure skater." But I had Olympic aspirations of the most casual kind. One or two sessions a week won't take you to that level, and the top competitors — as in most sports — started training early and gave up regular lives long before eight grade.

I learned to skate outdoors as a pre-schooler on those double-bladed skates you strap onto your shoes (do they still make those?). When I got a little older and wanted to take lessons, I trekked across Chicago on a bus to a decrepit old rink, part of a chain owned by '40s Canadian skater Michael Kirby. (To this day, my sisters and I refer to cheesy organ versions of "Winter Wonderland" as "Kirby music.") It was still outdoors and seasonal but it had a regulated, refrigerated surface and a mighty Zamboni that charged out between sessions to turn the ice surface slick and glossy.

Back then, figure skating was an obscure sport for mostly well-heeled amateurs, where Olympic competitors did a few years in a touring ice show before settling down to regular lives.

That was changing by the early '90s, when a weird fluke event suddenly raised public awareness of the sport and propelled an even faster growth of the burgeoning opportunities for professional skaters. That was, of course, the infamous 2004 kneecapping of Olympic favorite Nancy Kerrigan by associates of competitor Tonya Harding. Because of it, Harding was virtually the only top-level skater of the '80s and '90s not to profit from this growth. Talk about karma!

These days it seems like every small town has a skating rink. When I first moved to Cleveland Heights, the city had a single, half-year rink. Now it's got two rinks; one is open almost year-round (Cleveland Heights Community Center, Mayfield and Monticello). Lakewood's Serpentini Arena, a.k.a. Winterhurst, (14740 Lakewood Heights Blvd.), also has two full-sized rinks, and 1960 Olympic gold-medal winner Carol Heiss-Jenkins and 1996 U.S. silver medalist Tonia Kwiatkowski coach there.

Shaker Heights' Thornton Park Rink (20701 Farnsleigh Rd.) and Euclid's Orr Ice Center (22550 Milton Dr.) have been around for decades. But the plethora of recreation centers in seemingly every suburb has added to the inventory of local rinks. Strongsville, Parma, Rocky River, Brooklyn, North Olmsted and Garfield Heights all have rinks. Most are seasonal, fall through spring, although several — like Serpentini and Parma's Lakefront Lines Arena — are open year round. Virtually every rink offers open skating sessions for residents and non-residents, season passes and lessons for a variety of ages and ability levels.

Both Cleveland and Akron offer a chance to re-create that old pond-in-the-park skating experience, without the rugged ice surface and the warm weather. At University Circle's Wade Oval, an artificial surface allows skating regardless of weather. It's open Friday-Sunday through March 21; every day December 20-January 3. It's free; skate rental is $3. (Be advised that the surface dulls blades quickly; better to rent than bring your own.) Go universitycircle.org for info. At Akron's downtown Lock 3, the 10,000 square-foot rink is open daily during daylight hours. It's also free; skate rental on attended days (Thursday through Sunday) is $2. Go to lock3live.com for information.

Most communities with rinks have skating clubs. The Shaker Figure Skating Club (shakerfsc.org), founded in 1971, is one of the region's oldest. Brooklyn (brooklynfsc.com), Cleveland Heights (pavillionfsc.com), Euclid (euclidskating.org) Garfield Heights (ghfsc.org), Lakewood Winterhurst (winterhurstfsc.org), Parma (forestwoodfsc.com) and Stronsgville (strongsvilleskating.com) also have clubs. All generally offer learn-to-skate programs, advice on coaching and lessons, testing for U.S. Figure Skating Association levels, competitions, member ice shows, resources for skaters, parents, coaches and officials, and socializing.

To find a club, go to clevelandskating.com, the website of the Greater Cleveland Council of Skating Clubs. Their site will not only hook you up with the nearest member club but explains the ins and outs of the various skating disciplines, describes the USFSA's Basic Skills program, posts competition results and lists skating events in the area.

If you're going to get serious enough about skating to buy your own figure skates, it's smart to join a club and take guidance from more experienced skaters on what to buy and from where. Finding durable skates with proper fitting boots is an advanced science. You'll pay around $300-$400 apiece for boots and blades, which serious skaters purchase separately. Regular recreational skaters will still probably spend $300-$400 for the combo. Good hockey skates can be had for less. For expert advice, visit Perani's Hockey World (24126 Lorain Rd., North Olmsted, 440.979.9700) or Logos on Lee/Guenther Sports (3101 Mayfield Rd. Cleveland Hts.)

Oh, and remember "weak ankles"? Everyone's probably heard someone say they gave up skating because of them. I thought I had them when I switched from double- to single-blade skates. But they're virtually nonexistent. The impression of weak ankles mostly stems from well-meaning parents who bought skates a few sizes too big for their child to "grow into." When I got boots that supported my ankles properly — slightly smaller than street-shoe size and worn only with thin tights — my "weak ankles" vanished.

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