On a freezing Sunday in Milwaukee, one day after U.S. men took gold and silver speedskating medals in Turino, I saw how easy it was to catch the Olympic fever close to home – without a TV.
The Pettit National Ice Center was a frozen sea for kids and couples, parents who glided while holding toddlers, hockey mites who swerved and rocketed with ease. There was room for both wobbly legs and confident skaters, all circling counterclockwise on the same oval upon which 1,000-meter Olympic medalists Shani Davis and Joey Cheek have trained.
The Pettit is Wisconsin’s only sanctioned Olympic training site, and the covered skating oval is one of only two in the U.S., one of 11 in the world. The facility that has helped Wisconsin Olympians Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen hone their skills also is open to the public all year.
It costs nothing to take a peak at the building, which has an ordinary clubhouse feel, until you pay attention to the signage and a collage of newspaper clippings on walls. You’re on your own, although one-hour guided tours for groups can be arranged at $2 per person.
The upstairs Hall of Fame room is a sparse hodgepodge of photos and autographed posters, arranged almost as an afterthought amid simple groupings of tables and chairs (the room can be rented for parties and meetings). A window wall overlooks the 400-meter skating track, which circles two ice rinks that are used for hockey, figure skating and short track speed skating.
“It would be really cool to have more,” says Rob Multerer, director of marketing, but the nonprofit enterprise has neither the money nor room to become a more sophisticated tourist attraction. Besides, a national museum for speedskating is being pursued in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
The Pettit opened in 1992, as a place for average athletes as well as an outlet for Olympic ltraining. That wide mission, Multerer acknowledges, is not well-known in Wisconsin.
“Yes, we have top-level athletes, but this also is a place for the entire state to experience — whatever your age and skating ability,” he says.
Turino’s Olympic competition causes the phones to ring more often at the Pettit. Inspired athletes (and parents with dreams) want to know how speedskating and figure skating are taught.
The answer is simple: The Pettit has classes, competitions, how-to sessions. “It’s our busy season,” Multerer says, referring to the number of phone calls and public skaters as well as scheduled activities.
Since the 2002 opening of Utah Olympic Park for sanctioned training in many sports, including speedskating, the rhythm of business at the Pettit Center has changed a bit. The U.S. Olympic speedskating team still spends three or four months in Milwaukee, but most of these athletes make Salt Lake City their residence.
That included Casey Fitzrandolph of Verona (near Madison), but he intends to move back to Wisconsin, now that the Turino Olympics have ended.
Although Utah has a more contemporary site, Milwaukee has continued to be an important speedskating facility because its altitude is comparable to that in Turino and Vancouver, site of the 2010 winter Olympics.
The athletes are expected to return in August, and their training sessions are open for public viewing. The team tends to train in the mornings and early afternoons; their schedule will be posted online.
Milwaukee training continues to include residency in altitude rooms, high-tech dorm settings that can simulate altitude up to 15,000 feet. It is a way to “sleep high, train low,” a commonplace mantra for these Olympic athletes. Although a controversial training device, the International Olympic Committee allows it, and altitude rooms exist at other Olympic training sites worldwide.
The Pettit is kept at a crisp 55 degrees, and ice composition will depend upon the type of activity for the day. Ice may be ice to the casual skater, but its creation is about much more than keeping the surface smooth.
Hockey players prefer a softer, wetter surface, Multerer says. Figure skaters want harder ice. Speedskaters prefer an ice thickness of 1.25 inches.
Olympic trials and world championships have been held on the Pettit ice, but it is more typical – especially now – for local residents to use the facility.
Skating rates are $7 for adults, $5 for children and senior citizens. Skate rental is $3. Skating hours vary.
Scout troops can arrange for sleepovers (in the Hall of Fame Room, not the dorms); day skating packages also are available.
The March 17-19 Shamrock Shoot-out is a hockey competition for children. The April 1 Snow Crystal Invitational is a basic skating skills competition for the Pettit’s skating school students.
And this weekend’s Masters’ International Open is the long-track speedskating championships for athletes who are at least 30 years old. The event is for all ability levels.
For more about the Pettit National Ice Center hours, skating times and classes, consult www.thepettit.com and 414-266-0100. The facility is at 500 S. 84th St. and visible from I-94, near State Fair Park.
Around the skating oval is a 450-meter running/walking track that costs $3 to use.