- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 12, 2002

Notice who's about to pop up on the Wheaties boxes? It's none other than Sarah Hughes, the 16-year-old figure skater who became an overnight phenomenon at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Now, following the U.S. figure skating triumphs there one gold and two bronze medals figure skaters all over the country have fresh reason to tell the world about the many benefits of their favorite pastime including pronounced effects on a person's health.

Nina Stark, 49, a teacher at Cabin John Ice Rink in Maryland who has been skating for 40 years, asserts with passion that "there is something about figure skating that isn't possible doing anything else. My sense of balance is highly refined, as is my sense of agility and strength. Notice who's about to pop up on the Wheaties boxes? It's none other than Sarah Hughes, the 16-year-old figure skater who became an overnight phenomenon at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Now, following the U.S. figure skating triumphs there one gold and two bronze medals figure skaters all over the country have fresh reason to tell the world about the many benefits of their favorite pastime including pronounced effects on a person's health.

Nina Stark, 49, a teacher at Cabin John Ice Rink in Maryland who has been skating for 40 years, asserts with passion that "there is something about figure skating that isn't possible doing anything else. My sense of balance is highly refined, as is my sense of agility and strength. You work out your lungs and heart and legs. The upper body gets into it with ice dancing and freestyle because you have to stand erect. And for kids it can be a real confidence builder,"

Unlike many other physically demanding sports, skating can be enjoyed over a lifetime, Ms. Stark notes. "It's low impact, too. You don't really fall that much. I've seen very few bad accidents."

Learning to do it well, however, "is technically demanding," she warns. "I'm teaching a woman now who was a performing ballet dancer for 40 years and said she was shocked how much more skill it requires than ballet. She has the required balance and body awareness. But it is so much more three-dimensional than standing on a stage."

Heidi Napper of Upper Marlboro, a longtime member of the Washington Skating Club, says rewards go far beyond simple muscle toning and aerobic conditioning.

"I do it because I love it," says the 74-year-old government retiree, a regular at the Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Southeast Washington who looks decades younger than her years. She loves the challenges of the sport as well as the thrills. It is only an added plus that skating helps keep her weight at just over 130 pounds. "On skate days, I eat less," she says.

She and others admit they got into the sport because they love the idea of learning a skill that combines graceful motion with musical accompanimentmost indoor rinks have background tapes on constantly. The physical benefits follow from there.


Many amateur and professional skaters including Olympic competitor Michael Weiss of Fairfax, one of the top male skaters in the worldcombine extensive solid-floor exercises off the rink in the Pilates method, yoga or ballet with a disciplined skating schedule, a regimen that should make them among the fittest people around.

In her younger years, Mrs. Napper was a roller skater living opposite where the Fort Dupont rink is located today. She put on her first pair of rental ice skates at age 50 when she "discovered anything we can do on roller skates we can do better on ice skates. Roller wheels are big and clunky by comparison." She took lessons from professional coaches to learn.

She participates in Fort Dupont's public freestyle period each Friday and sometimes on Saturday and Sunday. In addition she does yoga by herself three days a week and has been to two Pilates classes as well.

Likewise, Scott Myers, 36, a coach who runs the Skating Academy at Skate Quest in Reston, began as a roller skater who became a four-time national champion. But he wanted to perform in the Olympics, which doesn't consider roller skating a sport, so he taught himself to figure skate on ice and in eight months says he was able to compete at national levels.

"My wife thinks I should go to the gym for cardiovascular work,'' he laughs. "But I'm on the ice from 9 to 6 daily and every time I go to the doctor he says I'm in great shape."

A great many people come to skating, he says, who are tired of going to the gym. "They know skating is a good workout. It's one of few sports that fatigues you instantaneously. It's like a sprint. Go twice around the rink and you're exhausted. You [eventually] can get your target rate up to 200 beats a minute and maintain the pace."

Landscape designer Elaine Evans of Arlington has been skating off and on for several decadeslong enough to become competitive at amateur levels in ice dancing. She began at a period in her life when she was a single parent with two young children and wanted an escape from a demanding schedule. These days she skates and takes lessons regularly at both the Reston and Cabin John rinks.

"As a young mother, I needed a place where my children could not follow me the way they could if I went alone into a room. Certainly the ice rink is that," she says, musing on past times when her stress level was even higher than it is now. "When I go out on that ice and hear the music, I forget everything. The world drops away."

So hooked did she became that, she says, "if I go for five days without skating I become irritable." Her physical ability has developed to the point where a year and a half ago, at age 60, she signed up for a trek in the Himalayas and had no problems in spite of never having hiked before.

"Skating is about focus," she notes. "Anything that allows you a sense of freedom within a discipline is good for you. And once you learn, it's like bicyclingyou never forget it.

"The reason a lot of people start is because you want activity that is all-consuming and demanding and aesthetic at the same time," she says. "And I'm convinced that because skating is a smooth-muscle activity that people can keep doing it well into their middle and older years. I find aerobics alone is stupid, yoga too slow and running too damaging to your knees and feet."

Ms. Evans came to ice dancing from ballet classes. "I got hooked on speed," she admits, adding that, like any steady fitness regimen, "good instruction from day one is critical. To skate well, you have to be able to lean counter-intuitively. It may feel like the least comfortable place to be but once you understand the physics of it, you will be able to skate well." One of the seeming contradictions, too, is knowing control while staying relaxed on the ice.

"Using your body wellunderstanding carriagehelps give you new confidence," she says. "In aerobics class you don't get incremental knowledge about your body the way you do in skating."


Mr. Weiss, 25, returned from the grueling competition in Salt Lake City's Winter Olympic Games he won no medals to spend some extended time with his children, 3 1/2 year-old Annie Mae and 2 1/2 year-old Christopher: "Everybody can learn to skate," he maintains. "Of course, there are different degrees and levels. You can just go out and enjoy yourself and work up your heart rate. It helps your stamina and leg muscles. You notice that figure skaters have strong quad muscles if nothing else."

Not surprisingly, both of his children have taken to the ice although he claims he "always said I wouldn't be the one to put skates on them, that I would wait and oblige them if they were interested." His daughter was the first to do so and got her first pair of skates when she was 3. She takes group lessons. When he goes out on the ice with his son, young Christopher doesn't want to leave.

"The good thing about figure skating is that it is great for teaching balance and coordinationthings kids can use forever. It also teaches kids to multi-task, because it takes so many things to be a good skater. You need good posture and flexibility. You need to know how to move to music and to have good expression. You have all these things going on in your headand that is not just when you are hitting the quadruple jump. On the luge you don't necessarily have to look good."

Annie Mae initially was clumsy, he says, "but within two weeks she got the hang of it and didn't want me to hold her at all. I think anything you start at a younger age is good, and the earlier the better. Because you will learn to do things instinctually; your body will learn to be more efficient. Skating teaches determination and discipline and even toughness. You want your kids to learn a certain toughness."

Born into a family of champion gymnasts, Mr. Weiss grew up as a diver from the age of 4 and began skating at age 8. His parents convinced him early on about how physically grueling gymnastics could be. Injuries in skating by contrast, he believes, are "not life-threatening. Of course, there are certain risks once you start throwing flipping into it."

The worst injury he has had, he says, is "a stress fracture in my ankle."

His coach Audrey Weisiger, who owns the Fairfax Ice Arena with her husband Henry Weisiger, echoes her star pupil's words.

"There is no reason to introduce children to the sport until they are ready. Kids develop differently," she says. "The most important thing is to come prepared. We put helmets on beginners. Gloves are necessary. But skating is great exercise for any age since it is particularly good in developing legs and backs. People say they can't do it because they have weak ankles. It's not about ankles but about having core body strengthto be able to hold your torsos straight. Like dance it goes beyond just physical activity. You are activating different parts of the brain."


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