My Best Friend, My Skates

The following is a journal entry from Clara Hughes.

My Best Friend, My Skates

I remember my first pair of speed skates more vividly than my first bike. Everyone remembers the excitement of getting their first bicycle. I felt like that child with my new skates - except, I was seventeen years old.

I bought them by selling my beat-up old car for $700. They were Viking Speed Skates, the kind the best skaters in the world used. They were second-hand but hadn't lost any luster. The shiny black boots with cream-colored leather trim and seventeen inches of blade separated by mirror-finished cups bound my feet like tight leather gloves. They were torturous because I lacked the bone-spurs and callous typical on the feet of seasoned skaters. Before this I rented a pair from the Winnipeg Speed Skating Club. They were an ancient edition whose support had long collapsed, causing an embarrassing case of ankle-burning. I could hardly wait to use the new pair. It was some time before I managed fluidity on those long blades, yet I still felt like a champion on my prized new skates.

It would be a decade before I made my intended return to the ice. I was lured away from speed skating by cycling. When my schedule allowed, I competed at long track competitions. My results were good enough to receive a $1000 Government Athletic Grant for speed skating. I decided to use the money to replace the second-hand pair of skates with new ones. Little did I know the sport would change dramatically over in the following years, leaving the $800.00 investment obsolete.

Before the 1998 Nagano Games, a new model of skates was introduced. Dutch skaters won European and World titles, smashing records with the 'Clap skate'. It is essentially a hinged version of the old skate, allowing more force to be applied with each stride. Skaters scrambled to adjust to the new technology in time for the Games. I could only laugh when thinking about my naivety in buying the new skates.

A year later I traveled to Calgary to skate 'for fun'. I wanted to try the Clap skate and hoped someone would have a pair for me to use. Because my feet are a common size it was easy to find a pair that fit. Skating was easier than I remembered; even with my rusty technique the Clap skates seemed more forgiving. Before leaving, although with apprehension, I bought a pair of the skates. It was not the $1300.00 causing this unease, I was nervous the technology could again change. I purchased the skates because they were difficult to find and, as luck would have it, the store had a pair that fit. I wanted to be prepared for the following year, when I intended to return to skating full-time.

Those skates carried me through my first Winter Olympics and the following two seasons. Inevitably, they began to fall apart at the seams. I had to get a new pair. During a World Cup in Holland I went to the Viking Factory for replacements.

The modern factory was located along the highway between Amsterdam and Heerenveen. Plastered on the stark-white walls of the waiting room were posters of famous Viking skaters. Gunda Neiman, Gianni Romme, and Bonnie Blair and other legends adorned the walls, decorated in colors of Olympic gold, silver and bronze. A TV in the corner played '100 Years of Dutch Skating', putting some of these images in motion. A wall-sized bulletin board overflowed with an abundance of pictures, calendars, and postcards. Incased in glass was the evolution of speed skating, shown by the different models Viking produced over the years.

I wanted the classic model, like my old skates, not the sleek new ones with the zip-up lace cover. After trying numerous pairs on, I found the perfect fit, seemingly made for my feet. Once again I felt, as I did over a decade earlier, the excitement of having a new pair of skates.

They were a gift from Viking, a sort of reward, I suppose, for remaining loyal in the age of molded, custom boots. As I promised to send a signed photo, a small token of thanks, I felt strange when imagining my picture on the waiting room wall amongst the icons of the sport. Part of me still feels like a kid with that first pair of skates, captivated by the sport for the first time. That I can feel this excitement and be one of the athletes on the wall makes me realize how lucky I am.