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World-class skaters and young, Olympic hopefuls share the ice at SkateNation as it strives to make Richmond a premiere training center for competitive figure skating.

Ice Dreams

The ice temperature at SkateNation's West End facility is a chilly 22 degrees, but the atmosphere inside the rink is as warm and friendly as a just-baked slice of grandma's apple pie. It's 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and children freshly sprung from school classrooms stream into SkateNation, trailing pink Barbie suitcases-on-wheels stuffed full of skating equipment. Their mothers follow close behind, clutching the hands of younger, non-skating brothers and sisters, and doling out dollar bills to older siblings for an after-school Coke and arcade game.

Families greet each other by name before staking out a small square of floor space around the perimeter of SkateNation's café. Girls plop down their suitcases as their moms tighten up their ponytails and help remove their fleece jackets to reveal the spangly skating dresses underneath. Then the girls drop demurely to the floor to begin, what is for some, a daily ritual: sneakers off, ice skates on. They strain and grimace as they pull the long laces tightly through each eyelet. Fuzzy blade covers come off and are replaced with plastic covers for the 15-step walk to the ice.

But this won't be a casual, recreational spin around the ice on rental skates. This is serious business to these kids, who are skating sometimes five and six days a week to reach their goal of becoming figure skating champions — Olympic champions. Or, at the very least, to make it to the U.S. Figure Skating Nationals.

Proud moms line up at the windows overlooking the rink and watch as their children glide out to greet their coaches, then swoosh and swirl around the ice as they warm up their tiny muscles.

"Look at Sydney — she just landed her jump!" "Courtney is really skating well today." "Wow! Did you just see Jennifer nail that salchow?"

"This is like a big family, it really is," says Rhonda Strabley, whose daughter Sydney, 8, skates five days a week at SkateNation. "People are very supportive, it's a very loving, huggy group — very affectionate."

Elena Bechke, who in 1992 won an Olympic silver medal in the skating pairs competition with her partner, Denis Petrov, concurs. Since the Russian pair came to SkateNation in June 1997 to train and teach at the West End facility, they've observed a genuine warmth among the skating families.

[image-1]Photo by Stephen SalpukasElena Bechke and Denis Petrov have been skating together since 1987. After winning a silver medal in the 1992 Winter Olympics, they went pro and have been skating with the Target Stars on Ice tour for the past seven years."This is a very, very good rink because people socialize here," Bechke says, her near-perfect English seasoned with the slightest Russian accent. "But this is just the beginning; there are not too many good, competitive skaters here yet. Just wait until they start to get better. Then you will see a cat fight — I guarantee."

SkateNation, which opened its first Richmond facility on the South Side in June 1995, is hardly hoping for a Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan clobberfest. But the company is following a carefully orchestrated plan to make Richmond a premiere training center for competitive figure skating.

From the looks of things on a typical afternoon at the rink, its efforts seem to be paying dividends. While SkateNation's coaches guide young figure skaters on one rink, first-time skaters teeter precariously on sharp rental-skate blades over on the dual-rink facility's other icy surface. Just two hours earlier, 1994 Olympic gold medalist Oksana Baiul skated on this very same ice, running through her program with world-class coach Valentin Nikolayev, who moved to Richmond from Ukraine in 1997 to coach at SkateNation. Immediately after working with Baiul, Nikolayev has turned his attention toward a young Richmond skater. Likewise, Bechke, after practicing a routine with Petrov for an upcoming competition, rushes across to SkateNation's second rink to work with a group of young skaters.

That's the whole idea here — to get world-class figure skaters out there on the ice beside beginners. "We brought [Bechke and Petrov] here and look at it as an investment in the figure-skating program in Richmond," says Nate Smith, director of operations for the skating group of the New York-based Family Golf Centers, which now owns SkateNation. "Not only do we get exposure and good PR out of it, but it gives some aspiration to our competitive skaters."

The presence of skaters and coaches such as Bechke, Petrov and Nikolayev has helped the rink to attract other world-class skaters. Baiul has made SkateNation her home base so that she can train with Nikolayev, who helped coach her to the gold in '94. Viktor Petrenko, the 1994 men's Olympic gold medalist, has been known to stop by to visit his former coach, as well. Olympian Nicole Bobek recently spent a few months training on Skate Nation's ice. Five-time Ukrainian national champion and Olympian Viacheslav ("Slava") Zagordniuk skates at SkateNation, where he trained for the '98 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

"All SkateNation has done to bring in these people is provide the coaches and a good facility," Smith says from a conference room overlooking one of the facility's two rinks. "What we were hoping for is what actually has happened here."

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