For Calgarians, an affinity for winter sports is a badge of pride. As soon as the first snowflake hits the ground, conversations across the city are abuzz with talk of skating parties and fresh slopes.
I’m as Calgarian as they come — born and raised — but I have a confession to make: I can’t skate. Every year I tell myself, ‘This is the winter I will finally learn!’ And every spring, I wonder how all those months just flew by. This year, though, I decided it was time to bite the bullet, strap on some blades and see what all the fuss is about.
My friend Melanie says skating is one of her favourite winter activities, so she’s a natural choice to help me out. We head over to Olympic Oval (oval.ucalgary.ca) and, as I struggle to tie up my rented skates, I ask her why skating holds such appeal. “It feels like flying,” she replies.
I wobble toward the ice and the thin line between my comfortable rubbery floor and the sheer surface of the rink looms ominously.
I look around for a skating aid — you know, those metal stool-shaped things that novice skaters lean on — but they’re all kid-sized, and a skating aid that goes up to my knees doesn’t do this novice much good. Shrugging, I take a deep breath and step onto the ice.
I don’t fall over.
“I’m not falling over!” I announce proudly, just as a young child gracefully soars past. Gulp. “What now?”
“Now we skate!” says Melanie. She gives me a quick rundown of the basics: keep your knees bent and your body loose, push outward with one foot at a time.
That last bit proves to be tricky. As I take my first tentative strokes forward, my body and brain keep insisting that the best way to move forward is to push backward, not sideways. “Push out, not back!” becomes our mantra for the next 20 minutes as I utterly fail to grasp the difference.
Eventually, we come to a breakthrough: A key aspect to ice-skating is shifting your weight from foot to foot. In my nervousness, I’m not doing that; I frantically push one foot out, then instantly bring it back. My movements are jagged and shaky, unlike the rest of the skaters who are moving with fluid ease.
“OK,” I sigh, “Let’s find a grownup skating aid.”
Most of the skating aids are kid-sized, but we manage to spot a couple of taller models helpfully marked with yellow tape. They all say “Do not sit on the skating aid,” which is probably good advice.
With the help of my newfound metal buddy, I practise shifting the weight between my feet, trusting my left foot to hold the fort while my right foot propels us forward. I start to get into a groove, bringing my whole body into play, finding a happy rhythm: left, right, left, right. Eventually, I’m able to ditch the skating aid and do a tentative loop unassisted. I’m actually starting to have fun, except for one thing: My feet feel like hell.
“Do your feet hurt?” I ask.
“Yup,” says Melanie.
“And that doesn’t bother you?”
“You get used to it,” she assures me.
On one of our many bench-breaks, I discover that ice-skating is a great way to meet people. I start chatting with Courtney and Nick, a couple of students, about why they enjoy skating.
“I like going fast,” Nick shrugs.
“It’s very calm, a great way to clear your mind,” adds Courtney. “And it gives us a chance to talk.”
“But don’t your feet hurt?” I ask.
“A little,” Courtney shrugs, “but you can get skates that are moulded to the shape of your foot, and that helps.”
As I start to grow more comfortable with the menacing shards of steel strapped to my feet, it occurs to me that I might actually want to try this again sometime, and I have plenty of options. In addition to the Oval, the City of Calgary operates over a dozen arenas (calgary.ca/arenas/) and a quick trip through the Yellow Pages reveals several dozen more community associations and recreation centres.
Ah, says Melanie, but the real joy is skating outdoors. Olympic Plaza is a hotspot, and CJSW Radio even hosted ice-skating parties with DJs on Friday nights last year. Alas, due to the Grey Cup, the Plaza’s ice will be slow coming this year, but CJSW station manager Chad Saunders still hopes to get the DJ nights rolling in January. Another popular outdoor destination is the lagoon at Bowness Park, which attracts crowds of skaters day and evening, and even has hot chocolate and a firepit to battle the chill. For a game of outdoor pick-up hockey, the best place to head is your neighbourhood rink, if you’re lucky enough to live in a community that still has one (calgaryarea.com/calgary_rinks_arenas.htm).
After an hour-and-a-half on the ice, I’m tired, but I decide to take one last spin. This is a mistake. About halfway through, my feet swoop out from under me and I land hard. Melanie reaches out her hand and I have a horrific vision of dragging her down with me, blades flashing, blood on the ice. But no, she holds her ground and pulls me to my blades.
“Ouch,” I say.
“Everyone falls on their ass,” she says. “It just means you’re not a skating virgin anymore.”
By the time I drag myself home, I’m sore, exhausted and delighted. Once I got past the initial learning curve, skating was actually pretty awesome.
Maybe next winter I’ll learn how to ski.