Halifax masters skaters speed up

When the Halifax Regional Municipality announced in March 2011 that the Emera Oval would become a permanent fixture in the Halifax commons, coach Sheila McGinn knew that it would attract adults to the sport of speedskating.

By Emily Rendell-Watson

Masters speed skaters compete in the Skate the Commons event February 22-23. (Emily Rendell-Watson/Peninsula News)

When the Halifax Regional Municipality announced in March 2011 that the Emera Oval would become a permanent fixture in the Halifax Common, coach Sheila McGinn knew that it would attract adults to the sport of speedskating.

Although the oval was originally created for the Canada Winter Games in 2011, which is for athletes from ages 14 to 19, many masters skaters have taken up speed skating in the past three years. Masters skaters are 30 years and older.

McGinn says she was the only long-track speed skater in Halifax when the oval opened. This season, roughly 50 masters speedskaters have registered with the Nova Scotia Masters Speed Skating Club. Several more joined after the Skate the Commons event last weekend.

“[They] are mostly people who have gotten into speedskating recently,” says McGinn of the new masters skaters. She added that many people now see speedskating as the winter sport in Halifax.

McGinn started the club last spring as masters skating grew with the new oval. The club ran a “Get Ready for the Oval” program in the fall at the Centennial Arena before the oval opened for the season.

Sheila McGinn, coach of the Nova Scotia Masters Speed Skating Club. (Emily Rendell-Watson/Peninsula News)

 A missing generation

“I think of Nova Scotia as having a missing generation of speed skaters,” says McGinn.

“If you look at the big [skating] centres in Quebec, Ottawa and even Saskatoon, you see a sport organized and run by people who grew up in the sport.”

There are several competitions in Canada for masters speedskating, and an international series of marathon races. Last weekend, Quebec City hosted the Canadian Open Masters Championships for long-track speedskating. McGinn hopes that more masters will be able to compete at these competitions, and make Nova Scotia a stronger player nationally.

“They are really coming out of the woodwork. Every day I come out and coach I have people asking me for a demonstration and they get pretty excited,” says McGinn.

Many of the aspiring skaters are newcomers to Canada without basic skating skills.

Jennifer Watts, councillor for District 8 in the HRM, has also noticed more immigrants interested in speedskating.

“A couple weeks ago I was skating, and as I was taking off my skates I could recognize five different languages. [The oval] is an opportunity for integration across cultures. It’s offered them a consistent place where they can practice on a large piece of ice,” says Watts.

McGinn enjoys watching newcomers to the sport discover speedskating.

“When they get it, they really get it and they get excited and fall in love with it,” she says.

Valley Speed Skating Club

Steve Raftery is one of the skaters who fell in love with the sport.

Raftery, president and assistant coach of the Valley Speed Skating Club, discovered speedskating in January 2012 when there was an opportunity to try it at the oval. Raftery decided to start his own club in the Valley, after not even trying on a pair of speed skates for the first 50 years of his life.

There were seven members at first.  Now, a year later, there are 12.

“The oval was the spark that got our club started.” says Raftery, adding that the club now has members from Annapolis County to Wolfville. The club plans to use the oval for training and skating in the future.

Raferty says, “The oval has done a lot to boost awareness of masters speedskating in the province.”

Tineke van der Baaren is another newcomer to speedskating, though it was an experience earlier on in life that led her to lace up a pair of speed skates when the oval was introduced in Halifax.

Van der Baaren, a 50-year-old Dutch woman, first tried speedskating in 1988 at the Olympic Oval in Calgary. When van der Baaren returned home to Halifax, there was nowhere to practice long-track speedskating so she gave up on the idea.

Van der Baaren found out that there was a marathon happening on the oval, so she phoned a fellow cross-country skier and asked her to enter the marathon. They entered all three events of Skate the Commons in 2011: the five-kilometer, the ten-kilometer and the 25-kilometer.

A group of Masters speed skaters warm up on the Emera Oval prior to their practice. (Emily Rendell-Watson/Peninsula News)

“I just wanted to speedskate because of my [experience] in 1988,” says van der Baaren.

Van der Baaren learned the technique from watching younger skaters and videos on YouTube.

Buying the skates

After her experience racing on speed skates in the marathon, van der Baaren and her friend made a deal. Van der Baaren would buy her own pair of long-track speed skates if the oval became permanent.

When the oval was announced as staying, van der Baaren started travelling from the Valley to Halifax every Saturday morning to practice. Although she has improved her crossovers, she says there is still a lot to learn.

“The technique is really hard. It’s one of those 10,000-hour sports.”

Van der Baaren says she won’t be stopping anytime soon.

“I bought the skates.”