Breaking The Ice

With its camaraderie, exercise benefits and that feeling of flying, it isn't hard to figure why skating is becomeing so cool with the baby boomer crowd


The dream was always the same.

She'd be skating on a pond, gliding gracefully in the moonlight, when she'd suddenly lift off and start flying. As she grew up, the dream got shelved in that place dreams go but never quite die, just sit waiting to be dusted off when the time is right.

That time came decades later for Jean Hinlicky, when her 7-year-old son began taking figure-skating lessons. She watched from the sidelines for about six months, then couldn't stand it anymore. She had to be out there too. At 43, Hinlicky started taking classes with her son. After a few years, her son decided it was a girlie sport. He quit. But she was hooked.

"This is an infinite sport. You can never get bored," says Hinlicky, 50, a Baltimore child psychiatrist. "You can never stop learning. It's never over."

Hinlicky isn't alone in her enthusiasm. Figure skating, a sport typically taken up by children, has become increasingly popular with adults who are doing it for exercise, to compete and, like Hinlicky, to resurrect childhood dreams.

In 1995, 530 competitors turned out for the inaugural U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships, organized by the United States Figure Skating Association. This year's competition drew more than 1,000, the majority of them skaters who got involved in the sport as adults. Membership in the Colorado-based skating association has increased from almost 32,000 in 1982-83 to more than 64,000 last August, with 38 percent of members age 25 and up.

Bob Dunlop, the association's communications coordinator, says that while the bulk of its membership is still children and teens, the percentage of adults is on the rise. Dunlop says the construction of ice rinks in "non-traditional" skating areas -- the southern United States, for example -- has created additional opportunities to get involved in the sport. Dunlop also attributes the growing popularity of figure skating to greater awareness of health and fitness.

"My guess is that with the demographics of the country, you're going to see an increase of sports in general," he says. "I think we're a lot more aware of staying healthy and there are opportunities and organized events out there for adults, whereas in the past maybe there wasn't as much."

`So free, so beautiful'

Today, at the Northwest Family Sports Center Ice Rink in Mount Washington, Hinlicky and about a dozen other adults are working on their jumps, spins and figures, now called "moves in the field." One woman skates side by side with a coach, circling around the ice in a graceful dance. A middle-aged man pushes off in a dramatic pose, arms outstretched and head held high.

Pausing at the boards, Peggy Goldsborough takes in the scene with obvious delight. Goldsborough, who began skating as a child and returned to it about three years ago after her children were grown, says it's not hard to tell when a neophyte skater is past the point of no return. The eyes light up, she says, and the person becomes seduced by what Goldsborough calls "the glide."

"Ultimately, it's the glide," Goldsborough says, demonstrating by moving forward on one foot, a leg outstretched behind her. "It's the glide that counts. It's like sailing before the wind."

The joy of the glide escaped Vivian McCall the first time she laced up skates at age 10. She was invited skating with some school friends, and it was anything but fun. Her ankles wobbled, the skates were too big, and she was so scared she cried.

McCall had no desire to skate -- until she watched the 1988 Olympics and saw Debi Thomas competing against Katarina Witt. McCall had never seen a black professional skater before Thomas, and she was intrigued.

McCall didn't think she could skate -- figure skaters had to be young, she reasoned, and how could anyone stand on those narrow little blades, anyway? She decided to give it a try and to her surprise found she could not only stand but also move around. A library assistant at Johns Hopkins University, McCall worked in the afternoon and began skating in the morning. She met other adult skaters, and her confidence grew.

At first, McCall's only goal was to skate backward. But like Hinlicky, she was soon hooked. She now skates four days a week, spends at least $400 to $500 a month on the sport and says it's worth every penny.

"You're putting out a good amount of money, but it's fun," says McCall, 37, resting on a wooden bench at the Northwest arena. "I would never give it up. The feeling I get out there, it's almost like therapy. You feel so free, so beautiful."

Persevering on the ice

That wasn't quite how Jennifer Knighton felt when she first ventured out on the ice six years ago. Knighton and her husband had been following figure skating for years when he gave her six weeks of group lessons as a Christmas present. At the first class, Knighton skated around once, then sat down for 20 minutes.

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