Canada's top speed skaters dazzle onlookers with practice on wild ice

The long-track speed skating team is heading to Alberta's frozen mountain lakes to train, and a recent session at Gap Lake near Canmore awed fellow skaters and social media users alike.

Team forced to practise away from Olympic Oval after ice-making malfunction

Lack of ice sends Team Canada speedskaters out into the Great Outdoors to train

9 months ago
Tyson Langelaar posted this video of Team Canada's training session out at Alberta's picturesque Gap Lake in late November after maintenance and COVID restrictions put a stop to ice time in Calgary. 0:24

An ongoing hunt for practice ice has led Canada's top speed skaters to venture into the wild.

The Olympic Oval in Calgary was home base for Canada's long-track speed skating team before a malfunction on Sept. 5. The breakdown affected the facility's ability to freeze and chill ice, and left the athletes in limbo.

They have since been searching for places to practise, using inline skates at WinSport facility in Calgary and travelling to Fort St. John, B.C., which has an indoor long-track oval.

More recently, they have ventured out to Alberta's frozen lakes to train on wild ice — with recent sessions at Gap Lake in Bow Valley Provincial Park and Ghost Lake west of Cochrane awing fellow skaters and social media users alike.

"We're all wearing our track suits … and we will get some looks, like, 'Who are those guys?'" veteran team member Gilmore Junio said Monday on the Calgary Eyeopener

"And then, we bring out the speed skates."

A really cool thing to see

When those speed skates come out and the team starts to train — skating together in graceful, powerful circles — they begin to attract attention, and even a few new teammates.

Some skaters will stop to watch, while others will attempt to join in, Junio said.

"We'll get a couple of kids that want to try to skate as fast as we do or get involved and, you know, take part in a little bit of our practice. And that's been really neat," Junio said.

"People have been really receptive to it, and I think it's been a really cool thing to see on the lake."

It's a different environment than they're used to, but since the ice failed at the oval, they have been forced to find alternatives to become — and to stay — competition-ready.

"As a long-track speed skater trying to prepare for competitions, [no ice] is a bit of a problem," Junio told the CBC in October.

"We've been kind of making do with different modes of training, but with the potential competition returning in 2021 and — big picture — preparing for the Olympics for 2022, we felt that we needed to try to get on some ice."

The risks of wild ice

At Gap Lake east of Canmore, Junio said the mornings are cold — the mountains block out the sun. But the ice is good, and those same mountains make for an unforgettable backdrop.

"It was a great view, and something that we're definitely not used to," Junio said. "Being outside, and getting on a lake, and having the mountains … it definitely makes it a bit better."

However, training on wild ice does come with some risk.

The team members skate with backs to the wind to keep from getting blown around, and watch for bumps that might trip them up.

A high-pressure system hovering over Western Canada has also made the weather across Alberta warmer than usual in recent weeks, and so the skaters also have to watch out for cracks in the ice. 

The Red Cross recommends a minimum ice thickness of 15 centimetres for walking and skating, and the team's coaches bring an auger to measure it, Junio said.

And the real or imagined danger of skating in circles — sometimes over the same lines — is not lost on the team.

"We definitely had the idea of, like, in the cartoons, when it's a perfect circle and we all fall through the ice," Junio said.

"We're definitely wary of just some of the conditions when it gets a little warmer. Just this morning, we're heading out to Ghost Lake for another skate today, and yeah, we'll definitely be cognizant of the ice conditions, as it was pretty warm all through the weekend."

Some ice to skate on

Junio isn't sure when the team will return to the oval.

The ice-making issues persist, Junio said, though the staff is hard at work trying to fix it. 

"You know, it's a 30-year-old building with a lot of moving parts of just how the refrigeration … works. So, you know, we're still crossing our fingers," Junio said.

On Oct. 14, a statement on the Olympic Oval's website said the issue is being investigated and equipment would be sourced so the facility could resume operations — in late January at the earliest.

"The oval recognizes that this has a significant impact to high-performance athletes and the public," the statement read in part. "Please know that we are working extremely hard to repair the issue."

In the meantime, the team is making do with natural ice — and according to Junio, it's been a wonderful substitute.

"We're loving getting out there and … just having some ice to skate on," Junio said.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener and CBC Edmonton.

Have you been out skating on Alberta's frozen lakes this winter? We want to see! Share your photos and tell us where you are, who's in them and who took them at, or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


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