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Ice Castle, a Lake Arrowhead figure-skating landmark, shuts its doors

Skaters from around the world had flocked to the Ice Castle International Training Center, which in recent years had struggled financially. Owner Anthony Liu says he is moving the training operation to a Palm Springs-area rink.

August 30, 2013|By David Wharton
  • Michelle Kwan works on her choreography with Elena Tcherkasskaia at Ice Castle International Training Center in Lake Arrowhead, Calif. on March 11, 1996.
Michelle Kwan works on her choreography with Elena Tcherkasskaia at Ice… (Kevork Djansezian / Associated…)

The news traveled quickly, by way of phone calls and text messages, spreading throughout the sport of figure skating.

The Ice Castle was closing down.

The small rink, nestled amid pines beside Lake Arrowhead, had served as an unlikely mecca for skaters from around the world, turning out champions for the better part of three decades.

Michelle Kwan trained there, as did Robin Cousins, Nicole Bobek, Chen Lu and Surya Bonaly. Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, the gold medal pair from the 2010 Winter Olympics, made it their home base.

"It was this gorgeous place in the mountains where all figure skaters dreamed of going," Kwan said. "A facility for us to really focus and go after our goals."

The current owner, former Olympian Anthony Liu, is moving the training operation to a rink in the Palm Springs area. He shut the doors for good on Friday, explaining the business could not make enough money to stay afloat.

"We've been struggling for a couple of years," he said. "I think everybody is kind of sad."

The history of the Ice Castle International Training Center dates back to the 1930s, to an outdoor rink in the nearby town of Blue Jay. Carol Probst skated there as a child and later starred in the Ice Follies.

When Probst and her husband, Walter, returned to the community in the early 1980s, they replaced the then-demolished facility and added a roof. In 1988, they built an indoor rink in Lake Arrowhead and established the training center there while continuing to operate the Blue Jay facility.

Carol wanted a place devoted to serious training. Mirrors ran along one end of the international-sized surface, and there were no hockey boards getting in the way.

Skaters say it felt like stepping onto a pond where they did not have to compete for ice time with public sessions or weekend leagues. They could stretch on the ballet barre and make use of a cross-rink jump harness.

"The ice conditions were impeccable, everything pristine, clean and beautiful," said Frank Carroll, the renowned coach who trained skaters there for many years.

Location was just as important.

The Probsts purchased a nearby compound with bungalows where visiting athletes could stay with their families. They ate meals together in the dining hall and attended lectures at an amphitheater.

The winding roads that led into the San Bernardino Mountains made the bustle of Los Angeles seem very far away.

Kwan recalls visiting with her family as an 11-year-old, awed by the rink's reputation and thinking that she had stepped into "a dream come true."

"No distractions," said the five-time world champion, who fell in love with Lake Arrowhead and later bought a cabin there. "It was a campus where all the figure skaters were doing the same thing, focused on their skating."

Cousins was the facility's first resident star. Word began to spread, and the roster of coaches who brought athletes to Lake Arrowhead soon included not only Carroll but also Irina Rodnina and Peter Oppegard.

"The most magnificent place to skate and the best teachers in the world … everything was provided," Carroll said. "It was the Camelot of training centers."

But it wasn't meant to last.

Walter Probst died in 1994 and, seven years later, the roof at the Blue Jay rink collapsed under heavy snow. No one was hurt, but Carol Probst chose not to rebuild.

A few years later, she got rid of the camp and put the Lake Arrowhead rink up for sale. Liu, who had trained at the Ice Castle before competing in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, stepped in.

"This was a historical place," he said. "It would have been a real loss."

The thing that made the Ice Castle unique — its devotion to figure skating — ultimately doomed it. The finances suffered with limited recreational sessions and no revenue from hockey leagues.

"That's a big thing for most ice rinks," Liu said. "We had none of it."

Liu has been looking for a buyer who might keep the facility open as a public rink. In the meantime, he has met with coaches and a parent representative, advising them to find another training site.

Some will follow him to the new location in Cathedral City. But for many in the skating world, it won't be the same.

"The end of an era," Carroll said. "And it's very sad."

Twitter: @LATimesWharton

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