Speed Skating With an Olympic Athlete

Putting on a speed skating suit is sort of like squeezing a glove over a foot. It's not an easy task, and it sure doesn't feel natural.

I'm sure it gets simpler with some practice, but when I was handed a suit and told to be careful because they rip easily... well let's just say that didn't make it any less problematic.

Then came the skates. I have never been comfortable -- competent maybe, but not comfortable -- on ice skates. But these skates were long and sharper than anything I had ever worn before.

So why go through all this hassle? I had come to Kearns, Utah, just south of Salt Lake City, to experience what is lovingly called "The Fastest Ice on Earth."

VIDEO: Olympiad Nich Pearson gives a lesson on how to speedskate.
Speedskating 101 on the Olympic Oval

The Utah Olympic Oval was the site of the speed skating events in the 2002 Winter Olympics. Thanks to Utah's high elevation there is less air resistance at this track than any other in the world except Calgary, Canada, home of the 1988 Winter Olympics.

To date, every single world speed skating record was set at Calgary or Salt Lake, with Salt Lake the site of the most records, making it the fastest place to skate on the planet. Vancouver's skating oval is at sea level, so don't expect any new world records to be set at this year's Olympics.

Video: Bobsleding 101 in Park City, Utah.
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To show me the ropes, Olympic speed skater Nick Pearson took some time out of his training schedule to lace up his skates with me.

"Speed skating is a sport that, if you watch it on TV, it's hard to actually see how fast we are going," said Pearson, 30. "For a sprinter, which is a 500-meter and a 1,000-meter skater, the guys get up to 40 miles an hour."

Winter Olympic Cities Through the Years

Of course, even with Pearson's expert tutelage I wouldn't be going that fast.

Learning to Speed Skate with an Olympian

In the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, Pearson finished 6th in the 1,000 meter and the 1,500 meter events. The Vancouver games are his second trip to the Olympics and his last.

"My last meet actually," he said. "I'm retiring after that. Kind of a bittersweet feeling, but exciting and hopefully I can come home on the podium."

Pearson has been skating since he was 5, growing up in Wisconsin. His father skated and encouraged him to try it out.

"They used to flood the baseball fields for him. His friends were part of a speed skating club," Pearson said. "When I was younger, he got me into it, took me to the Wisconsin Olympic rink and I've been skating ever since."

There are two things beginner speed skaters need to know, Pearson said: you want to sit low and push to the side.

"You want to stay back, you want to feel it in your butt, almost like you are sitting in a chair," he advised me.

I just wanted to stay balanced on my skates.

The special suits we were wearing helped cut through the wind… well, they would have, if I was skating a bit faster.

Aerodynamics are taken very seriously in this sport where races are won and lost in thousandths of a second.

The suits, designed by Nike, are tested in a wind tunnel and designed specifically for going fast. A solid, black rubbery material covers most of a skater's body. On parts that move, like arms, a softer, blue material covers the skin. It is dimpled like a golf ball and helps cut down wind resistance.

But there's only so far technology can take you. Training, talent and the ability to stay focused are all key.

"You're going crazy right before the gun goes off. I try to stay calm, but you're tense, you're nervous," Pearson said. "I get nervous just before some of our hard practices so you can imagine, going to a big competition, how nervous I get. But usually nerves, for myself, play with me. I skate well when I'm nervous. When the pressure is on, I do well. It's not always a bad thing but it's hard to handle right away."

A Family-Friendly Winter Sport

Pearson said skating is a family-friendly sport that is not too expensive to start.

While you can't take to the ice and train with an Olympiad yourself -- hey, sometimes being a reporter has its perks -- you can skate almost daily on the oval. The Utah facility even offers "learn to speed skate" classes: short track for children ages 5-12 and long track for those 13 and older.

(The cost is $45 for six lessons, including skate and helmet rental. A more-extensive, $3,250 program with video analysis and weight room training is also offered for those hoping to compete at the World Cup level. For more information visit www.olyparks.com)

"The sport is very kid-friendly. Anyone can come out and learn how to skate. There are programs at almost every rink the country," Pearson said. "Speed skating ovals are harder to come by. There are only four of them in the country, but this one here is open to public."

Speed skating is a relatively small sport and Pearson said that works in beginners' favor.

"Olympiads," he said, "will be right around all the time at rinks like this and there to help you."

So how did I do?

Well, I think I was worse at speed skating than regular ice skating. Luckily, Pearson was nice enough not to laugh. But there is nothing harder on the ego than like gliding around the track at about 4, maybe 5 miles per hour while professional after professional whizzes past you at 40 mph.

But I can gladly report back that after a few laps around the oval -- trust me, no world records were broken that day -- I managed to remain upright. My feet hurt from the skates and I had broken a sweat, but luckily I walked away without any bruised legs… just a bruised ego and a new appreciation for the sport.

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