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This winter, skate on the track of champions

Pettit National Ice Center offers a range of skating events and activities

A skater sprints along a straightaway at the Pettit National Ice Center in West Allis.

A skater sprints along a straightaway at the Pettit National Ice Center in West Allis. Photo By Peter Zuzga

Dec. 22, 2012

West Allis - It's winter and maybe you think you're a blaze on the ice.

So why not see what it feels like to skate as fast as Olympic gold medal speed skaters?

Bonnie Blair and West Allis natives Dan Jansen and Chris Witty trained at the Pettit National Ice Center, 500 S. 84th St., West Allis. Blair went on to win gold medals in the 500 meters in 1988, 1992 and 1994 Olympics and in the 1,000 meters in 1992 and 1994. Jansen also came away from the 1994 Olympic Games with a gold medal in the 1,000 meters. Witty won the 1,000 meters in 2002 Olympic Games.

Blair blazed to a world record in the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, covering 500 meters in 39.1 seconds to win gold.

It's mainly guesswork to estimate how fast she covered the first 100 meters because she would not yet have been up to speed, said Kevin Butler, marketing director for the Pettit Center. But a good guess would be 10.5 seconds from a dead stop for the first 100 meters in that record-setting run.

Jansen probably could flash over the first 100 meters in 9.6 or 10 seconds, Butler said.

Want to see if you can keep up with that pace? Start by taking off from the starting line for the 500 meter races on the Pettit Olympic 400 meter oval. You can skate as fast as you can to the main start-finish line in the middle of the front stretch, Butler said. That is 100 meters. But you have to do it on a light day when there aren't many skaters, because the Pettit frowns on sprinting anywhere near others.

Of course, the Olympic medalists flashed over 100 meters much quicker once they got up to cruising speed, Butler said. A good fast speed skate cruising speed is maybe 37 mph, he said. And they can keep that up for nearly a third of a mile - the equivalent to what the 500 meter race covers.

Bonnie Blair retired from speed skating competition in 1995. The 1994 Olympics was Jansen's last one.

An improved experience

In the years since then, speed skates have improved, enabling skaters to glide over the ice even faster. The skate blades are made to stay on the ice for a time even as the skaters' heels lift up. That longer contact with the ice translates into faster speeds, Butler said.

So skaters are setting records that are even faster than times that won Olympic gold medals years ago.

At the Pettit, the women's record for the 500 meters is 37.83 seconds, set in competition Nov. 27, 2005 by Manli Wang of China. That same day, Jeremy Wotherspoon of Canada set the men's record at the Pettit in the 500 with a time of 34.91 seconds, Butler said.

Members of the United States Speed Skating Team are working out at the Pettit Center right now, getting ready for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Feb. 7 through 23.

You might just meet one of them on the oval, if you've taken the Pettit Center's speed skating class, Butler said. But the Pettit doesn't let the general public on the ice with speed skaters because it's dangerous - not only from the skaters' high speeds, but from their sharp skate blades, he said.

"It would hurt to get hit," he said. "We always preach safety."

Public skating and speed skating hours may be obtained by calling the Pettit Center at (414) 266-0100 or by going online at thepettit.com.

Public speed skating hours in January will generally be 11:15 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. weekdays, 1 to 9 p.m. Saturdays and 1 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. Sundays. General admission is $7; admission for children and seniors is $5. Skate rental is $3.

Beyond public skating

The website also has information about speed skating classes that are held year-round.

If you have visions of flashing to first place finishes, the Pettit offers three competitive speed skating clubs. The West Allis Speed Skating Club for children through adults has been around since 1935. You don't have to live in West Allis to belong. Call the president Maurice Miller at (414) 254-5922 for more information.

The Badger Speed Skating Club, organized in 1975, may be reached by calling Jeff Brand at (414) 343-4413.

The new Academy of Skating Excellence, sponsored by the U.S. Olympic Committee, is considered a main feeder to the U.S. Speed Skating Team, Butler said. The ASE can be reached at (414) 935-4784; ask for Tony Goskowicz, Kreg Greer or Patrick Wentland.

The Pettit website also has more information on the skating clubs.

If you think you're a blaze on the ice already or just want to watch top athletes compete, several speed skating events are coming up at the Pettit and they are generally free to watch.

The first is the Masters International Speed Skating Championships, Jan 5 and 6. The Great Lakes Long Track will be coming up Jan. 12 and 13 will feature top young skaters in the region. The National Speed Skating Marathon will be Jan. 19 and 20, where skaters will choose between a 25K and 50K races.

On Feb. 9 and 10, the National Age Group Long Track Speed Skating Championships will be held, attracting skaters from all over the country.

The Pettit web site has entry information on all these upcoming events.

- Jane Ford-Stewart

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