« The 2002 Winter Olympics

Olympians hit town, Chinese speed skaters heat up local ice sheet

[Reprinted with permission from The Herald Journal.]

NORTH LOGAN — During their first day of practice at the George S. Eccles Ice Center Saturday, the Chinese short-track speed skating team didnt say much, but the few words they did utter meant an awful lot to Chris Ryan.

I got one thumbs up with a good ice, said Ryan, operations manager at the Eccles Ice Center.

That made my last couple of weeks right there.

Having never prepared ice for short-track speed skating, Ryan said he had a few more concerns than normal. Sideboard padding, brought up from Salt Lake City, was installed inside the rink Friday night; the skaters tracks required a little extra attention from the zamboni; and the temperature of the ice was brought down a few degrees to make it faster.

The speed skaters, as opposed to anyone else, like their ice a little colder, Ryan said. They like it about 16 degrees as opposed to 19 or 20 degrees for figure skaters, and about 18 for hockey players.

The 10 Chinese skaters practiced for two hours Saturday beginning at 9 a.m., then returned to the Ice Center at 5 p.m. for two more hours of work. Both sessions were free to the public, but while the morning session drew just a few dozen onlookers, the evening session was sold out.

I think its very fortunate that we have this high a caliber of athletes that are coming to the valley to practice, said Darcy Robinson of Logan, who attended the evening session with her family. I just think its a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come and see what they can do.

And they can apparently do a lot.

Andy Gabel, a four-time U.S. Olympian who won a silver medal in short-track speed skating at Lillehammer in 1994, was on hand Saturday night as a representative of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee. After helping the public-address announcer explain the sport to the crowd, he said the Chinese team was the best.

These guys are every bit as good as anybody, Gabel declared. A lot of these people will win medals in February, no question.

An Yulong won a silver medal in 1998 in the mens 500-meter race at Nagano, Japan, while the mens relay team finished third.

The womens team boasts two superstars with the same name of Yang Yang, who are differentiated by an additional letter in reference to their age. The younger skater, Yang Yang (S), won two silver medals in Nagano, while, the older skater, Yang Yang (A), was on the second-place relay team and has reigned as the World Cup champion the last five years.

Yang Yang (A) is the best girl in the world, by far, Gabel noted.

In order to help his team regain its focus after its trip, the Chinese coach declined to speak to the news media on Saturday, but said he and his athletes would be available for interviews sometime next week. For security reasons, the team would also not say when they arrived or where they were staying.

The Chinese team simply got right to work during each session, dropping down a series of markers for the different tracks following a warmup period, and then impressing the crowd with their speed and agility.

Its neat how they go 30 miles an hour around there, and almost horizontal as they go around, noted Scott Oldham of Providence, who watched the evening session with his wife and three kids.

Were really enjoying it. And its been free, so far, so even better.

The skaters were greeted at the morning session by a couple of people waving Chinese flags, while the Lynard Skynard classic Sweet Home Alabama blared from the loudspeakers as they took the ice in the evening.

Everythings great, Gabel declared. The people here have just done an incredible job to get the facility going to start with, and to be able to attract maybe the best team in the world as well as having all these people here to watch them is fantastic. I know the athletes are enjoying it.

And likely making some new fans in the process.

Because were making a bond with them, in a sense interacting with them, I think well be cheering for them in the Olympics, Robinson said.

Security, as expected, was tight on Saturday. In order to enter the arena, fans had to pass through a metal detector and all bags had to be thoroughly checked. The Cache County Sheriffs Office along with police from Logan, North Park, Utah State University and Preston are all providing officers, and they made for an intimidating presence by brandishing riot shotguns.

Securitys been great, said Janet Borg of the Bridgerland Community Ice Arena. We have security people on site making decisions about how to deal with issues, and I think its worked out really well. Five different agencies have all pitched in to help. Its amazing.

The Chinese mens and womens teams will practice at the ice center every evening through Jan. 19, and will also hold workouts in the morning on Jan. 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17 and 19.

French and Russian figure skaters and the Swiss hockey team will also be practicing at the Eccles Ice Center prior to the Olympics, but those athletes arent scheduled to arrive in Cache Valley until Jan. 28.

Attendance at the practice sessions is free of charge, but tickets, which be made available no more than a week ahead of time, must be obtained at the ice arena.

All-practice passes that allow the bearer to attend any and as many sessions as they care to are available for $25. The proceeds from the passes will be used to help offset the cost of security at the arena. As of Saturday, nearly 300 of the 500 all-practice passes that will be made available had been sold.