Sixteen years ago, when former Ice Follies performer Carol Probst and her husband, Walter, made plans to build a home in Lake Arrowhead, Walter suggested installing a small ice skating rink in their yard.
The couple was denied permission by the County of San Bernardino, but the alternative they came up with has made it possible for dozens of youngsters to rise through the competitive figure skating ranks, among them 1996 World Champion Michelle Kwan.
The Probsts leased land in neighboring Blue Jay where they built the Ice Castle arena to replace a demolished facility of the same name where Carol had skated as a child. The public rink proved so successful that in 1988 the couple bought property about a mile away in Lake Arrowhead and established the Ice Castle International Training Center exclusively for figure skaters. Complete with gym, dormitory and outdoor amphitheater, the facility is believed to be the only privately owned skating center in the country.
The mountain arena has attracted such prominent coaches as Carlo Fassi, who died at the World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 20. Fassi's former students include Olympic champions Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill. Other stellar coaches at Ice Castle include Frank Carroll, coach of former World Champion Linda Fratianne, and three-time Olympic pair champion Irina Rodnina.
Even skaters with less stellar coaches can run up a yearly expense tab of $50,000 for training. To help them, Walter Probst, who had made his fortune as the head of a copper wire manufacturing company, established a foundation that has raised more than $2 million for Ice Castle students.
The foundation dissolved after Walter Probst's death in 1994, and a new foundation is in the works. Also, Carol Probst provides scholarships to 15 to 20 skaters a year and helps others with free ice time and housing.
"Skating has been such a part of my life--I've loved it so much," says Probst, a native of Manitoba, Canada, whose family moved to Los Angeles when she was 6. She began skating three years later and launched a 10-year Ice Follies career in 1952 as a teenager.
"I'd been through the competitions and the tests," Probst says. "I know the feelings in the kids' hearts."
She also knows how it feels to receive funding to pursue a dream. "When I was a little girl, my mom would sew so that I could skate. This woman I knew gave me two sessions a week. I looked at her in awe."
Among those aided by "Mrs. P.," as the skaters call her, are 1995 U.S. champion and World bronze medalist Nicole Bobek, who placed third in February's national championships. Others are this year's U.S. senior pair bronze medalists Stephanie Stiegler and John Zimmerman IV and newly crowned U.S. junior pair champions Tiffany and Johnnie Stiegler, Stephanie's younger siblings. Another beneficiary, Romanian champion Cornel Gheorge was initially scheduled for two weeks and has trained at Ice Castle for five years.
Probst's biggest success story is Michelle Kwan, who began coming from Torrance on weekends in 1991 to work with Frank Carroll and started training there full time early in 1992. At Carroll's behest, Probst provided the 11-year-old and her older sister, Karen, free ice time, along with food and lodging for the girls and their parents. Last year, Kwan won the U.S. and World championships. (She recently lost both titles to Tara Lipinski.)
"Mrs. P. is an unsung hero in the skating world," Kwan says. "She has made such a contribution. She has given a lot of emotional support, and has sponsored international skaters. I would go so far as to say that if it weren't for Mrs. P., I would not have been able to pursue my skating career."
Ice Castle is a family affair for Probst, whose daughters from her first marriage work there--Cindy Lang as public relations director and Terri Lang in the sports science department as a nutritionist. Probst is actively involved in daily operations, serving as general manager. She also supervises the center's seven annual public shows, which draw some of the sport's biggest names and benefit the skaters.
"As far as I'm concerned, this is the best ice skating facility in the world," Kwan says. "But what sets it apart is the people. We're like one big skating family."
* This occasional column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people of all ages and vocations and avocations, whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better for the people they encounter. Reader suggestions are welcome and may be sent to Local Hero Editor, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.