Part Four 

Ice Dreams

Turn on the television virtually any Saturday afternoon these days and you're bound to come across a figure skating competition. Since the back-to-back 1992 winter Olympics in Albertville, France, where American Kristi Yamaguchi brought home a gold medal, and the 1994 games in Lillehammer, Norway, where the Harding-Kerrigan soap opera lent a dramatic edge to this already emotional sport, Americans have been captivated by figure skating.

"Nancy and Tonya did a great thing for figure skating," skating school director Rizer says. "I don't care what anyone says, it was one of the greatest things ever to happen ... Everyone's numbers went up." The Ice Skating Institute, an association dedicated to providing leadership, education and services to the ice-skating industry, estimates the ranks of recreational and figure skaters have risen 20 percent since 1993.

Before SkateNation opened its first ice rink on Richmond's South Side in 1995, the only place Richmonders could skate was at the private Southampton Recreation Association in Stratford Hills, where a $150 family skating pass gets you winter ice time on a small rink.

"It has been a slow process to educate Richmonders about ice skating," Smith says about entering this virgin market. "We have had to create a demand for ice. We were starting from ground zero."

In 1997, SkateNation opened its $7 million state-of-the-art, dual-rink facility at Broad Street and Pouncey Tract Road, instantly tripling Richmond's market for ice skating. Dan Darlin, the facility's general manager, says that 30 to 32 hours of ice-time is used each day between the rink's two surfaces, from free-style skating sessions at 6 a.m. to afternoon public skating sessions to adult ice hockey league games at 10 p.m.

[image-1]Photo by Stephen SalpukasNate Smith, director of operations for the skating group of the New York-based Family Golf Centers, which owns SkateNation, is looking forward to the day when a Richmond-based skater makes it to the U.S. Nationals or Olympics.On a Friday, during SkateNation's 8:30 p.m. to midnight public skating session, Darlin says it's not unusual to have 400 to 500 skaters circling the ice on a good night.

Interest in ice hockey in Richmond has also grown with SkateNation's presence. Smith says more than 600 youth and 300 adult hockey players — including one women's team — are currently enrolled in the facilities hockey programs. "The majority of growth there has come from developing native Richmonders into hockey players," Smith says. "It's not like Motorola brought in a bunch of Northerners to play hockey."

SkateNation's Learn to Skate program has enrolled up to 1,400 novice skaters at one time, Rizer says. "If we can get 5 percent of those people to become figure skaters, that's getting somewhere."

This afternoon alone, there are about 25 kids on the ice working their frozen little hearts out to reach the next level on their skates. One freckled little girl, with her red pigtails swinging, executes a series of jumps and twirls, only to land on her rear at the grand finale. She smiles and looks up at her grandfather who sits intently in front of the window facing the rink. He shakes his head and jabs his thumb upwards. Instantly, she is up off the ice, skating through the same twirls and jumps. This time, she lands it.

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