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Blade Runners

A Conversation With the Co-Founder of the Southern California Children's Speedskating School

March 11, 2001|ELLEN ALPERSTEIN

Thirteen years ago, Sue Perles and fellow speedskating enthusiast Jim Wigney were maneuvering around the figure skaters at a rink in Paramount. The two were struck by how few children participated in what had always been a family sport in their native cities of Boston and St. Louis.

A year later, Perles and Wigney had secured funding from the Amateur Athletic Foundation to subsidize expensive ice time and equipment necessary to open the Southern California Children's Speedskating School with 10 aspiring skaters. Within a year, they had about 100. Today, Perles estimates, 500 kids ages 4 to 18 are coached every year for a nominal fee on ice dedicated to speedskating at the school's two venues, Healthsouth Training Center in El Segundo and Glacial Garden Skating Arena in Lakewood.

Volunteers, mostly parents, help underwrite the school by staging fund-raisers and assisting coach Wilma Boomstra, a former U.S. National Team coach. Wigney moved away several years ago, but Perles--an investment banker off the ice--remains program coordinator and co-president of the Southern California Speedskating Assn., the local governing body for the sport.

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Is the program meeting your goals?

Absolutely. You'd always like to put more youngsters on the ice, but we're expanding. We have two rinks, and maybe a third in about six months. Our mission is simple: Get youngsters from the neighborhood out on the ice to go around in circles as fast as they can. It's a silly sport, and kids love to do it.

Anything about the kids surprise you?

Once a newspaper reporter asked some kids what was their speedskating goal. Virtually every child, whether they were a good athlete or not, said they wanted to be like Bonnie Blair and be on the Olympic team. You expect the Olympics to be a powerful motivator for good athletes, but not really for those who don't excel. Of course, you could run a fine program your whole life and never have an Olympian--that's just a bonus.

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What's the most gratifying part of the program?

Watching youngsters develop both a sense of team and an individual competitive spirit. Speedskaters train as a team, but in a race you compete against your best friends. It's an interesting set of emotions to watch a youngster go through. Also, watching an 8-year-old skating on the same ice, at the same time, as Rusty Smith, who competed in the Nagano Olympics. Four or five years ago, on a hot summer day, I played hooky from the office. I was the only speedskater on the ice when a figure skater about 9 started following me. I asked if she wanted to try speedskating. It was OK with her mother, so I laced her up. Today, Maria Garcia, who is 15, is the U.S. junior short-track champion.

How is speedskating in L.A. different from speedskating in Boston?

A lot of our youngsters are from lower-income families, and at least 50% are non-Caucasian. The diversity I see is part of the wonderfulness that is Southern California. We just open our doors to the neighborhood.

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