Fun is mandatory. 'Ice' is optional.

'Tis the season for ice skating – but, surprisingly, you don't necessarily need 'ice.'

Ice skating is a favorite sport during winter. But with ice rinks nearby, anyone can skate at any time of the year.

Centuries ago, in the countries where snow lasts many months, people used skates not for sport but just to get around. Early skates were made of animal bones. Later they were made of waxed wood.

More improvements were made when blacksmiths made iron shoes that fit onto the skate runners. Around 1572, an inventor in Scotland made the first pair of all-iron skates. That was the beginning of ice skating as a sport.

Skaters began racing one another down frozen streets and over icy ponds. But the iron skates had two problems: They were heavy, and the blades would not hold sharp edges.

Then, in 1850, an all-steel blade was made and strapped to leather boots. The new blades worked better. They stayed sharp for months, so skaters could go farther and faster. Boots with blades attached felt secure and comfortable.

There are all kinds of skating techniques. Today, for the most part, children and adults just enjoy skating around a rink keeping time to music.

But there are those who prefer to race, to dance, or to make figures on the ice. And for this they need special skates.

For instance, speed skates are different from figure skates.

Speed skates have long blades with sharp points. Longer blades produce more speed. Figure skates have shorter blades and a sawlike pick on the toe end of the blades. These picks (or toe rakes) are used for jumping.

While a figure skater stands straight to spin and leans to turn, a speed skater crouches and bends at the waist, and takes long strides. Speed skaters shift their weight when needed and always keep their weight over the skating foot as they push around the oval.

A figure skater will glide gracefully over the ice – spinning, jumping, and moving to the music.

Have you ever watched an ice hockey game? The players move very fast and can make quick turns with their long blades, much like speed skaters.

Some skaters like to jump barrels. Really good barrel jumpers go as fast as 35 miles per hour and jump over 12 at a time. For this they need strong legs, so they train by bicycling, lifting weights, and – believe it or not – by skating inside their homes.

Yes, it is possible to have a make-believe skating rink in the kitchen or on any waxed surface. Naturally you can't wear steel blades in the house, so socks take the place of skates for easy sliding. By using skating motions and rhythms, skaters can practice indoors and strengthen their legs.

You might want to try this, too. It's fun! And your mom will appreciate that you are dusting the floor at the same time.

Want to learn more?

Check out these interesting websites, which tell about different types of skating:

• 'Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates,' by Mary Mapes Dodge. This story of a young Dutch boy and championship skating was first published in 1865. You can find it at your library or online at www.worldwideschool.org/library/books/youth/classic/HansBrinkerOrtheSilverSkates/toc.html.

• Learn about figure skating from the US Figure Skating Federation at www.us figureskating.org/Programs.asp.

• 'The Science of Hockey' is an online skating resource from San Francisco's Exploratorium. Read interviews with professional hockey players, learn about hockey equipment, and see if you can stop a 100-mile-an-hour slap shot. Visit the site at www.exploratorium.edu/hockey/index.html.

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