The Fast and the Frozen
Michael Davis photo
About 10 children teeter around Sunnycrest Ice Rink in Syracuse’s Eastwood neighborhood. Each is a tiny padded puff in a bright-colored ski jacket and bicycle helmet, some holding on to plastic milk crates as they tentatively skate laps around the ice.
Coach Gretchen Byrne Burns blows a whistle and asks them to come back to the center. She crouches to demonstrate the best position for speed—“stand like a monkey, not a shower”—and reminds them to think about pushing the milk crate away from them rather than leaning on it.
The kids are members of the Syracuse Speedskating Club. Speed skating is a competitive sport where skaters race around a rink, seeing who can get the best time. It’s believed to be the fastest human-powered, non-mechanical sport in the world. The club is the only one of its kind in Central New York, with members from Onondaga, Oswego and Tompkins counties, among others.
“Sometimes if you’re pushing yourself hard enough, you can feel your skate dig into the ice and almost try and brake it,” says 16-year-old club member Matthew Crovella. “For me, that’s the best feeling, because you know you’re putting down all this pressure and flying around the corner, and you’re somehow doing it yourself.”
Matthew has been doing speed skating since early elementary school, along with his sisters, Sarah, age 15, and Isabel, 13.
All three belong to the club.
Speed skating originated in Scandinavia, Northern Europe and the Netherlands around the 13th century as a way to deliver messages between villages via frozen canals and rivers. It became a competitive sport in the 1860s and has been an Olympic event since 1924.
The Syracuse club was founded in 1958 by Jack Byrne—Burns’ father—and Harold Harrington. The club has three nationally certified coaches—Burns, Klaus Doelle and Cherise Wilkins—and holds two practice sessions twice a week for about an hour each night. The earlier session is for beginners and skaters under age 12, while the later one is for people with more experience to prepare them for competitive skating.
Burns has skated since she was 5 and went on to join U.S. National Speedskating. She stepped away from the sport in 1980 but got back into it when she had her son and wanted to get him to skate. She began coaching for the club in 1991 and was named U.S. Speedskating Development Coach of the Year in 2002.
“I got a lot out of speed skating, so this is a way to just try to give back,” she says. Now she gets more excited when her students succeed—like when Wilkins, who was one of Burns’ students, went to Nationals for the first time—than when she used to.
“Seeing them do something I taught them makes you say, ‘Wow, I really did make a difference.’”
Her father used to take Burns and her 10 siblings ice skating throughout Syracuse every weekend. During Syracuse’s brutal winters, the ponds at Onondaga and Kirk parks would freeze over and the city would open them for skating. With such a large family, Burns says she was happy to have something they could do as a group.
The Syracuse Speedskating Club tries to emulate that same feeling, putting an emphasis on family and unity.
Sarah Crovella appreciates the togetherness. “We all have done different sports: Matthew’s done crew, I’ve done soccer, Isabel has done running. This is one thing that we can all share,” she says.
The older children from session two will sometimes skate during session one to act as mentors to the younger skaters, and generations of club members regularly come back for special events—like the holiday potluck they had at the end of December.
Burns’ 3-year-old granddaughter is learning to speed skate. In past years the club took road trips together up to Lake Placid to skate on the outdoor Olympic rink.
“The feeling on days like today where the snow is falling and you’re out on the ice, skating as fast as you can, it’s just this incredible feeling of being free,” says Sarah. “You don’t have to worry about anything in that moment. You’re just focused on skating.”
When practice is over, the children head back into the building’s warmup room to meet their parents and get ready to go home. Andrew Knopka, who was out on the ice helping Burns during session one, takes a seat on a bench. His children—Hannah, age 5, Grace, 7, and Ricky, 11—wait for him to help unlace their skates and get their sneakers on.
Knopka makes a 45-minute drive to Syracuse from Rome once a week so his kids can come to practice and participate in the club. Ricky joined the club about three years ago after having tried ice hockey. Ricky has impulsive attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and was born with a condition that caused small bones and a small head. Although he is four years older, he’s the same height as his 7-year-old sister. His condition made contact-heavy ice hockey a challenge.
“We were looking for other things to do for him, and we stumbled on this,” Knopka says.
Often children who are drawn to speed skating are the same ones who may have trouble in school because they can’t sit still, Burns says. They like to be moving, to go fast, and they lean toward individual activities rather than having to play with a team. The club is a place for them to learn something by watching and doing without having to worry about getting in trouble.
“I’m just trying to get kids away from computers and give them fresh air and something to do during winter.”
When father and son came to their first practice, Burns asked Andrew Knopka if he knew how to skate. When he said yes, she encouraged him to grab a pair of skates and come out on the ice to help. He’s now on the club’s board of directors. Helping at practices gives him a chance to see the work up close and reinforce the techniques at home or at local open skates.
As Knopka gets his children ready to head home, Burns walks around the room, giving words of encouragement and something to keep in mind for next time—crouching with their hands on their knees to remember to stay low, or holding a water bottle between their legs so they aren’t too far apart on the ice.
“We all get along and help each other every week,” Knopka says. In the background, skaters begin to sing “Happy Birthday” to fellow member Cassie. She brought in doughnuts to celebrate.
There’s a similar feeling in the larger speed skating community. Matthew, Sarah and Isabel skate at the competitive level; each has a spot in their room where they hang their medals and trophies. They placed in last year’s Empire State Winter Games and will be competing at the Children’s National Short-Track competition in Saratoga Springs in March.
Three years ago, Matthew and Sarah got to compete in an international competition in Austria, where they skated alongside other kids from places like Spain and the Netherlands. Sarah took home a silver medal and Matthew earned a bronze.
“That was my most memorable moment: finally seeing all the work pay off, especially in an international competition,” Matthew says.
Despite the competitions, speed skating remains a smaller, niche sport in New York. Young skaters will usually see the same people at local races.
“When you’re on the ice, you’re racing, but as soon as you get off the ice you’re friends again,” says Sarah. “It’s like normal hanging out, getting lunch together. It’s a really open community and really close.” A few times Isabel forgot to pack her uniform and had no trouble borrowing a spare from another skater.
The Syracuse Speedskating Club members wear outfits that fit tightly to reduce drag, and protective gear is worn as well. Each member wears a mouth guard along with knee pads and shin and neck guards to prevent injury after a fall. The uniforms are made of Kevlar and are cut-resistant in case a skater gets clipped by a blade; speed skating blades are much longer and thinner than those used in figure skating and ice hockey.
Before every practice, club members help bring out large pads to line the corners of the rink walls, in case skaters lose control going around the rink.
About eight kids, including the Crovellas, glide around the ice as the second session begins. Unlike the children in session one, the session two kids have already mastered staying low and keeping their legs close. Burns helps the skaters fine tune: keeping their heads up, making sure their weight stays centered, and controlling their muscles to push out from their hips. They’ll need it to improve their personal times.
Matthew’s best time in the 500 meter is 49.19 seconds, Sarah’s is 52.4 seconds, and Isabel’s is 55.3 seconds.
“A lot of kids sometimes are discouraged by their place at bigger races,” Isabel says. “They may think, ‘Oh, I only got seventh overall,’ but that actually could be really good considering the number of good skaters who are there.”
Toward the end of the night, Burns breaks the young skaters off into pairs. They begin at opposite ends of the rink and get into position, legs bent with one skate forward. At the whistle, they take off across the ice, arms moving in time with their strides. Regardless of the outcome, they’ll leave with a sense of accomplishment—
Isabel says they always do.
People should not let the mindset of “I can’t skate” stop them, she says. They’ve all seen many members come in with little to no experience who end up being strong with fast times.
Sarah agrees. For most people, once they put on the skates and get a taste for the speed, it clicks.
“Our club motto is, ‘Feel great, speed skate,’ and I think that pretty much sums it up,” says Sarah.
The other Crovella kids smile and nod.
“That,” Matthew adds, “and, ‘Go hard, turn left.’”
Kira Maddox is a staff writer for Family Times and the Syracuse New Times.