In 1967 I stood in the middle of an outdoor skating rink in Alpena listening to “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” while watching several kids gliding like rockets across the ice. I wore pure white skates with short blades and couldn’t go very fast; the other kids had black skates with long blades seemed to fly across the ice. I told myself then that one day I’d try speed skating.
It’s over forty years later, the winter Olympics are on, and Mark says he’s heard the story before, that I need to do something about my “speed skating problem.” I get online, find the closest rink is 40 minutes away, email the contact, Shannon Baker, and ask if ancient people and speed skating go together. She responds saying that nobody’s too old to try speed skating.
Still, I’m nervous as I enter the Summit in Dimondale, MI with my mother, Mark and, Holly (a.k.a. step kid #4), all of whom had nothing better to do. The Summit has a speed skating rink and an NHL size rink, and between them I find Shannon sitting at a picnic table covered with used speed skates. She introduces herself and her daughter, Serendipity, six, who is part of the speed skating club. Shannon’s husband, Cory, has speed skates on his feet, a ponytail holding his long hair, and he strides over and hands me a pair of skates. I pull them on and can’t help but smile as I wobble unsteadily to the rink.
The club members are skating together in pairs and threes, and most are teenagers, with perhaps two people in their early twenties. I have little time to do the math separating our ages, because Cory takes me and the other newbie, Nick, to the center of the ice to show us the proper pose for speed skating: knees bent as if squatting over a latrine, back bent 90 degrees and arms behind our backs. Only monkeys spend time in such a bent over position, and I’m wondering how far I have to go in my lineage to make that connection. I push off one unsure leg onto another and it immediately becomes clear that keeping my arms behind my back is forcing me to balance without flailing my arms. My legs begin moaning after the second run. We make several more runs down the middle of the rink before Cory gathers everyone around, introduces me and Nick and sends the fastest half of the group to “the starting line” to do a 500m race. A race?
As the freakishly fast people literally skate circles around us, it occurs to me that I haven’t done a cross-over since those brief figure skating lessons in the 1980s at Jenison Field House with that unfriendly lady in the fake fur coat. I am silently thanking my mom’s parents for those lessons when, much to my horror, Cory lines the rest of us up at the starting line, fastest person on the inside, slowest on the outside. I end up next to Serendipity and tell her I’m hoping she’ll wait for me at the finish line. One of the fast skaters yells “Ready, set, go!” and off we’re off. The two veteran teenage girls take the lead, then Jen, then Nick and his sickeningly perfect hockey crossovers, then me, then Serendipity. I kick my way along, bend my knees more, kick better, make it to the first turn, and start flailing around, arms waving like a person having a seizure. I hope Mark isn’t taking photos.
I survive my first turn by only doing one cross-over and gliding the rest of the way. On the straightaway, I gain speed and am feeling so good, I do two crossovers on the second turn. I’m feeling pumped when the first two girls and then Nick, lap me. I finish the race second to last.
I’ve barely crossed the finish line when Cory points to a green bucket in the middle of the rink and tells me to lean on that to practice crossovers. He demonstrates how and then leaves me to go around in circles. After five laps, I get the feel for the edges, the angle, and the bend, needed for crossovers. I’m pounding on my thighs to loosen them when Jen Jennings comes up and says I’m doing well considering I had just started. I want to hug her for saying so, but she turns quickly to Cory and says she was hoping for more practice for the upcoming meet. Cory sends the speedy skaters to race 1,000 meters. Then it’s my turn again.
I set off a little faster than before and cruise around the first curve with a full set of crossovers. I slide in behind Jen and keep up in spite of the fact that my legs and back no longer want to bend. One lap becomes eight, and I’m on the final lap, right on Jen’s tail, no longer thinking about what my legs are doing, no longer feeling muscles, just feeling a light wind blowing in my face as my black skates with the long blades seem to fly across the ice.
It is the moment I had dreamed of.
And all that separates me from that kid in Alpena is 43 years and the two days it took me to recover.