On a Sunday morning in at Body Zone in Reading last month, 14 skaters between the ages of 6 and 60 gathered at a chilly ice rink for practice.
But instead of donning sequined skirts, they slipped into skintight bodysuits, padded their socks with toe warmers and strapped on helmets. Instead of tying the laces on traditional figure skates, they removed guards from skating blades so thin they can cut you during a nasty fall. And instead of twirls and jumps, the athletes spent the next two hours skating terrifyingly fast laps around the rink.
Welcome to speedskating, an Olympic sport every bit as thrilling as its popular counterpart.
If the kickoff of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang tonight inspires you to try speedskating, it's not too difficult to make the transition from other sports like figure skating, in-line skating or hockey (although, you should definitely be comfortable on ice before joining). It's an expensive sport — boots and blades can cost hundreds of dollars, and skaters often pay thousands of dollars a year for ice time. East Penn Skating Club's dues are $550 a quarter. (If you're gravitationally challenged like myself and prefer watching speedskating from the safety of your couch, you can catch it on NBC starting at 6 a.m. Saturday.)
The skaters are members of the East Penn Speed Skating Club, which was founded in 1997 under the guidance of Leslie Corbett Bader, a speedskater who competed at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Today, Kyle Carr, a speedskater who grew up skating with the club and went on to compete at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, coaches the group. The club is one of two speedskating clubs in Pennsylvania; the other is in Pittsburgh.
"I first saw speedskating during the last Olympics and thought to myself, 'I want to do that,' " said Brianna Jenkins, 13, a former figure skater who joined the club when she was 10 and commutes 45 minutes to practice each week (in addition to practicing at Body Zone, East Penn Skating Club also practices in at Power Play in Exton). "I looked up speedskating clubs and just began reading off cities to my parents, and Reading turned out to be the closest."
Bill Romanelli, the current president of the club, put his 14-year-old daughter, Penny, in speedskating when she was 11.
"We started her on figure skates, but all Penny ever wanted to do was go really fast," Romanelli said. "She would ask me to time her after her lessons, but her coach was always telling her to slow down and stand up straight."
Eventually Romanelli found the speedskating club in Reading, about 90 minutes away from their home in Landenberg, Chester County, and brought Penny to her first practice. She fell in love with the sport immediately, and qualified to compete in Nationals for the first time when she was 13. These days, the Romanellis often travel up to eight hours for Penny's competitions.
If figure skating is about showmanship and artistry, speedskating is about having flawless technique. Skaters who don't put enough distance between their feet at the start line can lose the explosiveness they need to pick up the speed they need. They also spend most of their time on the ice hunched over with one arm tucked behind their backs to make themselves as aerodynamic as possible. During turns, the athletes lean over as hard as they can without losing balance in order to tighten their radii and go faster.
According to Carr, a typical practice consists of drills and timed laps that build their endurance and speed. The skaters also work on starts and relay techniques, as well as breathing and strength-building during a dry land session following their ice time.
"Speedskating is a very technically demanding sport," Carr said. "A lot of people think that you have to have really strong quads and glutes to be good at it, but it's really about hip and core strength."
The blades used are another key difference between speedskating and figure skating. Figure-skating blades are typically between .15 and .25 inches wide, while speedskating blades are only .04 inches wide. The blades are so thin that stepping onto the ice in them feels like stepping onto nothing at all, a disconcerting feeling for inexperienced skaters.
But even for the experienced ones, the transition from hockey or figure skating is not easy. By the end of the practice, most of the younger skaters were shivering and itching to get off the ice. Carr said that practices can be tough on their bodies because they're bent down the whole time, leading to stomach issues.
Despite that, the coach was confident that all of his skaters would be back the next Sunday.
"There's nothing like the feeling of speedskating," he said. "I can't even describe it, because it's so unique. It feels like you're flying."
For more information on the East Penn Speed Skating Club, visit eastpennspeedskating.com.