- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

Making an indoor ice rink from scratch is a little like baking a layer cake that is 4 inches high, 200 feet long and 85 feet wide the size needed for the 2003 World Figure Skating Championships, taking place this week in Washington for the first time.
The ingredients in this case are thermal foam floorboards, coiled tubing, plastic sheeting, sand and paint, all finished off call it the frosting by two inches of frozen water.
Any similarity ends there because no cooking is needed, but instead a strictly regulated cooling system to maintain temperatures that are different for different sports.
"Every rink is completely different, too," says Michael Clayton, general manager of Ice Rink Events of Brenham, Texas, the firm hired to create a practice rink for competitors in the world contest.
An ice floor already exists for hockey games at MCI Center, official site for the championship rounds. The challenge facing the Washington Figure Skating Club, the event host, was finding a nearby rink for use by contestants when they are not competing at MCI. They decided to build one at the old Washington Convention Center at 900 New York Ave. NW, which is ending its functional life this month, its future still uncertain.
The World Figure Skating Championships began Monday and conclude Sunday at MCI. Practices at the Convention Center opened to the public Friday and conclude tomorrow. The price is $12 per ticket. Other public practices were held at MCI.
Among the top athletes competing at the championships are Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes and Michelle Kwan, reigning national champion and past gold medalist.
Mr. Clayton, 44, arrived in Washington early March 17 with a crew of 15 and four tractor-trailer rigs. They met up at 4 a.m. on Route 50, drove directly to the center and began work on a bare cement floor upstairs in Hall A.
A calm, affable man wearing a blue fleece vest decorated with a crown logo reading "The King of Frozen Water," Mr. Clayton is the first to admit that the process isn't rocket science. The only high-tech feature in view is a digital gauge for measuring temperatures on the rink. Hard physical labor and skills acquired mainly from experience are key to putting down an entirely new surface within 3 days. Official practice time began at 6 a.m. Friday.
In addition to long years of training and practice, the 194 skaters from 40 countries participating in the contest know that a winning performance may depend on some down-to-earth plumbing and equipment, much of which is available in any neighborhood hardware store.
This week they rely, too, on some 1,200 volunteers who have helped put the nonprofit event together. The volunteers include nine ice resurfacers from local rinks who are donating their time to clear the Convention Center practice rink at approximately 40-minute intervals.
(MCI's rink is cleaned by regular salaried resurfacers who work the hockey games. The official National Hockey League rink also measures 200 feet by 85 feet.)
The resurfacing machine is known popularly as a Zamboni, after Frank Zamboni, the man who invented it in the early 1940s, but the machines at both the Convention Center and MCI are really Olympias, after a Canadian firm that started manufacturing the machine after the Zamboni patent expired.
Ice that is best for one sport can be unacceptable for another, and a practice rink is expected to be as good as the competition rink. Done right, the result, a smooth, even surface maintained at the correct temperature, helps make champions. Done incorrectly, the surface is full of imperfections that interrupt a skater's flow and impede his or her athleticism.
"For this level, it's got to be as perfect as possible," says Mr. Clayton, whose last job of similar caliber was for an exhibition by Olympic skaters in Connecticut in the fall. He also did what he calls "a small hockey event" at the Olympics in Salt Lake City and expects to handle the national figure-skating championships scheduled next January in Atlanta.
"A contract of this kind is a minimum $200,000," says Mike Hughes, the event's director of operations, who notes that six firms submitted bids for the job.
Figure skaters normally require a surface kept at a temperature of 26 degrees or 27 degrees Fahrenheit, 5 degrees or 6 degrees below the freezing point for water just cold enough for the ice to provide a toehold. Hockey players want 22 degrees to 24 degrees Fahrenheit for a harder, slicker surface. Speed skaters prefer 28 degrees. Softer ice more easily grips skate edges and is less likely to break under the impact of long jumps.
"Ice that's too warm might cause players to lose their edge during a crucial play, but ice that's too cold may chip too readily," states the Web site www.howstuffworks.com.
"It's all a function of temperature and humidity," says Dave Wescott, director of facility programs for Star, the Colorado firm hired by the U.S. Figure Skating Association to handle resurfacing at the world event. The Convention Center hall has low humidity and is kept at a temperature of around 56 degrees. High indoor humidity can create fog.
"Figure skaters can be rough on our surfaces," Mr. Wescott says. "You have a different type of attack. Few hockey players go three, four or five feet in the air, come down and take out a chunk of ice."
The foundation under the ice is equally crucial. Ice Rink Events' first move was to lay out 17,500 square feet of remarkably lightweight but tough thermal foam boards. This is the insulation layer, which gets covered by an enormous liner sheet of clear plastic. The plastic, Mr. Clayton says, is "what really contains the water overall."
The next step is putting down 32 miles of tubing arranged in coils and connected to a large circulating pipe called a header, located on one side of the rink. The header pipe, which Mr. Clayton calls "the heart and nerves" of the operation, feeds coolant through the tubes from pumps housed in trucks parked outside in the center's loading area. The pink coolant, he notes, "is the same type of nonhazardous antifreeze used in your budget frozen dinners to keep them from icing up."
According to Mr. Clayton, the idea of putting liquid through coils in this manner was invented in the 1960s as a heating device for hot dogs. The tubing material used in rink construction today is a special polymer substance first made by Dupont to cool NASA's lunar landing vehicles.
Only after railings, barrier walls protecting the ice surface, are put up around the rink does the cooling begin. Eventually, the metal railings get covered with a blue cloth that makes a striking contrast with the white ice in the center.
After the tubing freezes and begins to frost, water is sprayed on the rink with fire hoses, first in a mist and then in a larger flow until the tubing is covered. The crew will take lawn sprinklers in some instances to spray an even surface layer, which is built up slowly.
"The tubes shrink up when they cool down, so you have to keep checking," says Scooter Mosher, Ice Rink Events' supervising manager.
Next comes the distribution by hand of 30 tons of regular masonry sand over the tubing and first ice layer by push brooms and old-fashioned wheelbarrows. More water is flooded onto the sand until it freezes to form the equivalent of a layer of concrete.
The rink at this stage resembles a frozen, shiny tan lake. A truck is driven onto it, the first time any considerable weight has been applied to the surface, to smooth out any air pockets. The act produces cracking sounds as the ice re-forms itself in small and subtle ways. Then another layer of water is applied. When that has frozen, the paint job begins.
If surface graphics are needed, the painting is done by hand using the equivalent of tracing paper to create the appropriate pattern. No logos are being used at the world championships. Ice and railings both are purposely left unadorned.
The white color comes from nearly 100 gallons of "paint" hosed onto the rink in two applications. The substance is made by mixing water in two large barrels at rinkside with a special powder Mr. Clayton says is "a formula as secret as Coca-Cola." The company sells the powder in large white bags marked "Lumin'ice," a nontoxic material that it reflects light.
"It's biodegradable, like powdered milk," Mr. Clayton adds.
Finally, the rink begins to resemble the one that skating fans see. It only remains to add more water to build up more ice. Mr. Clayton estimates a total of 17,000 gallons of water are needed throughout.

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