Stepping Onto the Ice for the First Time – What to Expect

Stepping Onto the Ice for the First Time – What to Expect

While I’ve been skating off and on for over 40 years, competed in numerous events and am now a coach for adult skaters, I remember the very first time I stepped onto the ice. I was just nine years old and was so excited to experience the ice for the first time. Of course, back then I wasn’t doing it for the physical and psychological benefits of the sport. I didn’t know any of that stuff – I just wanted to glide around and have a great time, the way all those figure skaters seemed to have fun on TV. Little did I know that when I took those first wobbly steps, I was beginning a lifetime love affair with the sport of ice skating!

On that first day, I had no idea what to expect. I had roller skated a lot around my neighborhood, but had a feeling that ice skating would be totally different. Because there are so many unknowns when you pick up a new sport or hobby, I’d like to share with you my initial experiences back then, and how much things have changed today for beginners. More importantly, I’d like to share with you what, as a new skater, you can expect when you venture onto the ice for your first time.

I still remember that day, when my mother took me to the ice rink one summer afternoon. We drove up to this big old building with a sign that read, “Ballard Ice Arena” on it, in big blue letters. The ice rink was located in Seattle, Washington, in an older part of the city, so the building had that old vintage look you’d expect from Rocky movies. As we opened the door, I remember looking into a dingy lobby and being unimpressed. It looked so much older on the inside of the building than it was on the outside. Talk about vintage!

I approached the skate counter with my mother by my side to get my first pair of rental skates, and almost started giggling when I was handed these blue and very unattractive skates. They were nothing like the beautiful and glamorous white skates that I imagined. They looked as though they had been through a war–with many gigantic feet!

As I sat down and began lacing up my skating boots, they felt like they were two foreign objects attached to my feet and not like a comfortable pair of sneakers. They pressed my feet in all the wrong places, and they felt pretty heavy for a 9 year old girl. Then, when I stood up for the first time I remember thinking, “How on earth do people walk in these things, let alone skate in them?!”

Slowly, and ever so cautiously, I proceeded to wobble down the hallway to the ice with my ankles trying to balance over the very thin blade, trying not to look like the beginner that I was. I remember how musty the air smelled too, as I advanced to the ice, but yet it had a clean and crisp quality to it, because of the cold temperature. It is still a smell I love, even today, because of all the beautiful memories I associate with it.

Ahhh, finally! There it was! I could see the glimmer of the ice in front of me as I approached.

As I stepped onto the ice… I immediately grabbed the railing to hang on for dear life! Yes, I knew ice was slippery but, wow, it was really slippery! “Whoa,” I thought to myself, “how is this any better than roller skating?” I just stood there for a minute or so to get the feel of things and see how to balance on the ice surface.

As I started to get a better feel for the blades, I slowly began shuffling my feet forward, in a walking-like motion. I was still hanging on to the railing, but as I moved along, I realized that skating forward was very much like moving forward on roller skates. So, I began to push off with one foot a little as I skated. It got easier and easier as I went until I finally could let go of the railing.

While balancing on skates was initially challenging, what was a surprise to me is how easy it was to maneuver. Much easier than roller skates! I could turn in various directions easily and the gliding felt almost effortless. “This is a feeling I could learn to love,” I thought to myself.

But just like the pavement outside, the ice wasn’t completely flat. Because the rink was old and there was a little dripping coming from the ceiling, the moisture froze, and eventually accumulated into bumps on certain parts of the ice, especially around the edge. I remember going over the bumps and it seemed a bit like the moguls on skis-something to be avoided at all costs! Hey, I just learned to balance myself; anything more than that was too much!

After a while though, I got used to the feeling of the ice, and it seemed to get easier the more I relaxed. While falling was still a distinct possibility, I seemed to be able to balance pretty well. So I continued skating for about 45 minutes or so before I had to sit down for a break next to my mom. She asked how I liked it and I told her, “I love it!” My mom was really happy for me, since she found a new activity for her daughter to keep her out of trouble for the summer!

While I rested on the sidelines, I watched slightly older skaters perform all sorts of cool spins and jumps in the middle of the rink. They were amazing! I laughed at myself as I just struggled to stand and skate forward in these contraptions called “ice skates,” and here these kids were practically dancing on the ice! I remember thinking to myself about how much I would love to learn how to do that!

Well, that first experience may have been a long time ago, but I can still relate to new skaters and the challenges of starting in a new sport. Of course, it was different for me as a kid than it is for my adult students. But I have to say that after looking back, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Skating has been a big part of my life and a huge passion. However, a lot has changed in skating and like all sports it has evolved-thank goodness!

One huge change is that ice rinks today don’t tend to be dingy and old, but are typically either stand alone buildings, or are part of a sports complex, or are smaller venues in shopping malls. They’re often maintained well and are beautiful. Back then, it was a different culture. Rinks were often family owned and there was a certain amount of prestige associated with learning to skate in a dingy place and ending up in some big, glamorous competition. It was mostly about competition, and amenities beyond the basics were thought to make you soft. Hey, if you couldn’t skate in some run-down building with just the bare essentials, how could you stand the pressure of a huge crowd in a competition?

The ice was also different. Today, many rinks have more than one sheet of ice and are open all year! There are even some rinks that are outdoors, like one location in Vail, Colorado. I once skated on an outdoor rink in Canada in a park surrounded by a shopping area that was quite lovely, and had a friend who skated at a rink in New York that she said is in a building high above the city! The rink was suspended on one of the floors of the building with windows all around it. That’s a far cry from the rinks 40 years ago.

Today, the ice is often just as beautiful as the rinks. It’s often cleaned every one and a half to two hours in most rinks now so there should be no bumps on the ice and the temperature is maintained so there are no drips from the ceiling creating the obstacle course that I experienced at the old Ballard Ice Rink. And surprisingly, the temperatures in most rinks are fairly warm.

The one thing though that is still questionable is the skating equipment, specifically the rental ice skates.

Some rinks have great rental skates and maintain them well, while others… well… not so much! As a coach, this bothers me because a lot of people get discouraged if the equipment is worn down, because it causes pain for the new skater and they don’t stick long enough with the sport to give it a chance. Often skaters will quit, thinking that it’s their ankles that are the problem, instead of the poor equipment that is not supporting their foot properly. (A little trick to help with that is to bring to ACE bandages to wrap the ankle for support before putting on the skate for extra support.)

The sport has grown so much and the environment in skating rinks has changed a lot so the experience for beginners is much more fulfilling. A lot of rinks even have games and amenities in the lobbies such as snack bars and skating shops. They are quite pleasant today and do a lot more to make the beginner feel welcomed and appreciated.

Ice skating is a wonderful sport and holds something for everyone and people of all ages. I did the majority of my skating as an adult and it kept me fit and in great shape for years. It’s great exercise! But, it’s also a sport that builds character, teaches grace and makes you strong. And, it’s so much fun! I invite people of all ages to give this sport a try and see the difference it makes in your life; physically and psychologically.

Happy skating!

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