Slip, sliding' away

It's never too late to lace up skates and take to the ice


Learning how to ice skate for the first time ever is not as hard as you think -- not unless you count all the time spent thinking beforehand about how hard it will be learning how to ice skate for the first time ever.

Some learn quickly. Some slowly. Some want blow-by-blow instructions on which leg muscles will be used for each move before they try it. Others just slog through until they get it. Then there are those who can't get over their fear of falling.

It's true, instructors say, children seem to pick up ice skating more easily than adults, but the bigger truth is that it's never too late to learn.

"Most kids are fearless," says pro skater-turned-in-demand skating instructor Jeffrey Nolt, who teaches about 25 to 30 students a week at the Mount Pleasant Ice Arena in Northeast Baltimore. "Adults tend to think, `What if? What if? What if?' But as long as you're receptive to learning and you want to learn, anyone can do it."

That said, I signed up for a half-hour lesson with Nolt just to see how much a novice could accomplish in one class. Backward skating? A triple Salchow? Ha. I'd be deliriously happy just to stand without maiming myself.

Although Mount Pleasant's program director, Ruthie Herman, says group lessons are the best way to learn, I was determined not to let a little 5-year-old overachiever whiz by as I wiped out on ice. I chose the pricier option of private humiliation.

As with all new skaters, Herman then quizzed me about my athleticism (none) and gently suggested I wear a helmet. Scoff if you will, but, according to a 2004 Ohio State University study, most ice skating injuries occur to the face and head because there is great potential to fall not just forward, but also sideways or backward. You're not supposed to use your hands to break the fall so you could do great injury to your noggin.

"It is a risky endeavor," Nolt says.

Rhiannon O'Neill, a skating instructor at the Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro Family Ice Skating Rink in Patterson Park, also warns that beginners should "try not to be scared. You can injure yourself a lot worse if you're really scared because you'll fall a lot harder."

I was nowhere near the ice yet but already alarmed. I had four strikes against me going into this little adventure: Balance is not my strong suit. I trip and fall frequently while walking. I have an irrational fear of falling from ladders, skyscrapers and jagged cliffs and on ice, in no particular order. My people are not ice skaters. We come from a balmy, tropical climate in South Vietnam. And I am a big chicken.

It was clear that Nolt was going to have to work hard for his $35 fee.

Appropriately, an ice storm descended the day of the lesson.

All students are fitted with a pair of boots that should be a half-size smaller than their street shoes. The smaller size helps make for a good, firm fit to secure and support the feet and ankles, Nolt says.

Nolt tells his skaters to remember some key tips while on the ice: Arms spread slightly in front of the body. Hands spread flat. Shoulders over hips. Hips over feet. "Neat" feet. Calm center. No hurricanes.

Remembering the instructions are easy enough, but following all of them at the same time can be a challenge.

For instance, learning how to march on the ice, which basically means lifting the feet and walking, was surprisingly simple. But using my intense laser-beam sense of concentration on the mere act of lifting each foot was enough to make me forget to spread my arms out slightly in front of my body. Or if I managed to spread my arms, I'd forget to keep my hands spread out flat.

Nolt, like any other good instructor, kindly corrected me.

Most skaters will eventually catch on by noticing themselves wobbling. To stop the wobble, I'd quickly pull my shoulders back up instead of hunching down in fear. Or I'd stop flailing my arms to calm my center. Keeping my feet "neat" (or together), however, was nearly impossible. They kept repelling from each other like polarized magnets.

With little grace and great difficulty, I managed to march; scull forward (making soda bottle or fish shapes in the ice with my feet); scull backward (making the same shapes except using your inner thigh muscles and ankles to push back); scull with one leg (leaning your body weight on one leg while the right foot makes its half of soda bottle shapes); and stop (pushing your feet into a v-shape to shave the ice until you come to a complete halt). I also managed to enjoy myself the entire time.

The last lesson I learned came while learning how to stop. In an attempt to plow the ice to come to a standstill, I found my body still moving forward. Nolt put out a hand to help me stop and in perhaps the most graceful move I made purely by accident that day, I kept moving slowly in a small circle until I landed softly on my rear.

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