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Ice rinks across the Bay Area are anticipating the post-Olympic crush of newcomers enthralled with the glittering spins and jumps of figure skating, the rough and tumble of hockey, the curiosity of curling.
There’s just one problem: There’s not much space left to put them.
“We’re scratching our heads wondering, ‘How are we going to accommodate more people?’ ” said Paige Scott, general manager at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Skating and Bowling Center, the only year-round rink in the city of 864,000. Over the past year, the number of people signing up for “learn to skate” classes at the San Francisco rink jumped from 600 to more than 900 skaters.
With two Bay Area skaters making their Olympic debuts in Pyeongchang — Karen Chen from Fremont and Vincent Zhou from Palo Alto, whose quadruple lutz last week was an Olympic first — the region is once again in the limelight as the place that bore greats Peggy Fleming in the 1960s, Brian Boitano and Debi Thomas in the ‘80s and Kristi Yamaguchi in the ‘90s.
But just as Chen and Zhou ultimately moved to Southern California to train, some skating enthusiasts and advocates fear that without more rinks to nurture the next generation of skaters, the Bay Area will lose its competitive edge.
“If you walk into a rink today as opposed to a couple of years ago, there’s just so many people there. It’s just so dense,” said Sarah Feldman, a competitive skater and coach in the 1990s and early 2000s who founded Silicon Valley Ice Skating Association to support the development of new rinks after Belmont Iceland closed in 2016. “When I was learning, there were plenty of places to skate and coaches to go around. Now you can barely find a coach, much less land a jump or an axel or throw a spin on the ice.”
A week ago, she said, “another skater and I collided.”
Demand for skating rinks has increased over the decades along with the population of the tech-centered Bay Area, where many Midwest and East Coast transplants expect to find ice time. But ice rinks have become yet another victim of the Bay Area’s red-hot real estate market as developers scout the region for places to build new housing.
For parents of passionate skaters — especially those who live on the Peninsula and lost Belmont Iceland — their daily routines have become nightmarish commutes to rinks on both sides of the bay to find predawn and after-school ice time reserved for competitive figure skaters.
“Where don’t they skate? I chase ice everywhere,” said Nancy O’Neal, mother of 15- and 12-year-old competitive skaters. “Unfortunately, right now they skate in Dublin and I live in Los Altos Hills. You know what kind of commute that is after school? They also skate at Redwood City, San Jose and San Francisco.”
To consistently land a double jump, a skater needs to practice about 15 hours a week for a full year, O’Neal said. If rinks are too crowded and skaters can’t land jumps and end up “skating off” to avoid hitting someone, their amount of ice time will need to increase — and likely overflow into public skating sessions where jumps on crowded ice are even more perilous and often banned.
“People don’t really watch out,” said Kelly O’Neal, 12, who was lacing up her skates at Nazareth Ice Oasis in Redwood City at 6 a.m. last week. “You either bump into them or they bump into you. A couple of times I haven’t even skated because it’s so crowded.”
Parents often have just a 10-minute window online to reserve a high-level “freestyle” spot before or after school — when the number of skaters is usually limited to two dozen — before they sell out.
Even Kristi Yamaguchi, who grew up in Fremont and won Olympic gold in 1992, is now driving her 12-year-old daughter around the Bay Area for ice time, O’Neal said.
For the second year, Yamaguchi plans to donate a “Skate with a Legend” session to the highest bidder at a planned fundraising gala in April to support the Silicon Valley Ice Skating Association’s push for more rinks.
As much as Feldman and harried parents are wringing their hands, not everyone sees a crisis in the Bay Area skating world.
“I don’t know if we had better rinks that would make a difference,” said Charlie Tickner, who won bronze during the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid and now coaches aspiring figure skaters around the Bay Area. He grew up in the East Bay in the 1950s and ‘60s, learning to skate at rinks in Berkeley, Concord and Walnut Creek before each closed. He ended up moving in order to train in Colorado Springs, home of the U.S. Olympic training center, which continues to be a magnet for elite skaters. “I think they can get it done with what we have here.”
Just as skaters consider “getting up” after falling a life lesson, skating on crowded rinks and chewed up ice can give skaters certain performance advantages, he said. Then, like now, though, requires intense commitment from skaters and families. Some of the best skaters are home-schooled, so they can skate when everyone else is in school.
Too many rinks could dilute profits and tempt some of them to sell in the red-hot real estate market, he said. Demand also peaks in Olympic years, then gradually declines.
Feldman, who is spearheading the effort to build new rinks, said the Peninsula in particular has the population to support six rinks. It is down to two year-round rinks– the Redwood City rink and the Nazareth Iceland in San Mateo, which closed for five years before reopening a year ago.
The increasing popularity of ice sports is certainly good for business, says Jon Gustafson, vice president of Sharks Sports Entertainment, whose subsidiary Sharks Ice runs the Solar4America rinks in San Jose and Fremont and the Oakland Ice Center. The San Jose facility is owned by the city of San Jose and considered the crown jewel of the Bay Area with four rinks of ice. Oakland has two.
All three facilities welcomed about 1.5 million skaters last year, including more than 4,400 adult hockey players, who play once a week, as well as numerous youth travel and recreational teams, he said. The San Jose rink is open from from 5 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.
“We’re not in this to make Olympic champions. We’re in this to introduce the game of hockey or skating to as many people as you can,” Gustafson said. With a bigger pool of skaters, he added, “the cream will also rise to the top.”
Still, he said, “Would we always want more customers? Yes. Are we at capacity? Yes. Do we have to have more facilities? Absolutely.”
Chen, who will compete in Pyeongchang on Friday, spent time training on the Fremont rink before moving to Riverside. Zhou, from Palo Alto, is a member of the San Francisco club, but he, too, moved to Riverside to train. Polina Edmunds, an Archbishop Mitty graduate who competed in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, trained at the San Jose rink. She has been coached by former world champion Rudy Galindo, who grew up in San Jose, skated in pairs competitions with Yamaguchi and now trains Yamaguchi’s daughter at the San Jose rink.
O’Neal’s two daughters say the intense schedule is worth the early mornings and long drives, when they often eat breakfast and dinner and do their homework. When Kate was a high school freshman, she used a flat iron plugged into the cigarette lighter to straighten her hair before school. O’Neal was able to quit her job and bought a diesel-powered vehicle to shuttle her daughters around.
The girls say they are grateful.
“Skating,” Kate said, “is my favorite thing to do in the world.”