Mild weather leaves speed skating championship on thin ice

Mild temperatures and freezing rain have forced the closure of Brewer Park's outdoor skating oval, just days before speed skaters from across the province are set to compete there this weekend.

Warm temperatures force closure of Brewer Park oval, just days before championship

Julie Colbourne-Milne, president of the Ottawa Pacers Speed Skating Club, says she's confident her crew can get the Brewer Parker oval ready for this weekend's provincial championship. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

Mild temperatures have forced the closure of Brewer Park's outdoor skating oval, just days before speed skaters from across the province are set to compete there this weekend.

For weeks, the Ottawa Pacers speed skating club has been gearing up to host the provincial long track speed skating championships, but milder temperatures have melted the ice covering the 400-metre oval.

"It's puddles out there," club president Julie Colbourne-Milne said. "We do have a good base, so we're really hopeful that we can build it back up."

Maintenance crews will work around the clock to get the ice just right for the 112 athletes set to hit the ice this weekend, assuming the weather co-operates, Colbourne-Milne said.

"It has to be completely smooth. The blades are long and thin. They can't be sinking through the ice," she said. "We're at the mercy of the weather."

Stressful for competitors

This weekend's meet is a qualifying event for Team Ontario, providing skaters the opportunity to earn a spot to compete nationally.

Claire Mallard, 16, says she's been training all year for the provincial speed skating championship in Ottawa. She says the warm weather has meant fewer opportunities to train on the oval. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

Claire Mallard, 16, has been skating for seven years with the Pacers. The weather conditions make it that much more stressful to prepare for her race, she said.

"I really want to perform at my best, but I don't really know how to prepare when I can't train out here," she said. "I'm hoping for the best and I'm going to try to prepare as I would for any other competition."

Warmer weather, shorter seasons

It's not the first time warmer temperatures have caused problems for the Brewer Park rink — Ontario's only sanctioned 400-metre outdoor oval.

Three years ago, mild conditions meant there was no snow on the ground when it came time for the club to host the championship, forcing organizers to start building the ice directly on the grassy field. A year later, warm temperatures left the club no choice but to cancel that year's event.

"Natural ice, it's a challenge. It's really getting harder. [There have been] fewer days throughout the years of open ice," Colbourne-Milne said. "I don't know if we can do it anymore."

The number of skating days on the oval shrank by more than half in the span of four years — down from 66 days in 2014 to just 29 days last year, Colbourne-Milne said.

As a result, some skaters have started training in other cities that have ovals, including Quebec City and Lake Placid, N.Y.

Colbourne-Milne says it's unfortunate that recreational and competitive skaters alike don't have as much of an opportunity to skate on the oval, pointing to the success of three Ottawa athletes who trained on the oval.

Ivanie Blondin trained on the Brewer Park outdoor oval before eventually landing a spot on Canada's team to this year's Winter Olympic Games. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Ivanie Blondin, Isabelle Weidemann and Vincent De Haître — all from Ottawa — will compete in next month's Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

"They skated on this oval where our little skaters are training," Colbourne-Milne said, adding it's unfortunate that younger skaters in Ottawa aren't getting the same opportunity. "It's proving a little bit difficult and it's frustrating."

Ice crews will be working around the clock to prepare the oval for the weekend's provincial championship. (Tony Choueiri/CBC)

Environment Canada is expecting colder temperatures to return this weekend. Colbourne-Milne said skaters and organizers will be ready to hit the ice.

With files from Jessa Runciman