Emera Oval speed limits holding back elite athletes

Track needs $150,000 worth of padding

The primary goal of competitive speed skaters is to be fast. Faster than their competitors, faster than their previous personal bests, and faster than the records they try to break. The sport is simple.

That said, the sport is not the most accessible: facilities are harder to come by than in most sports, and there are far fewer speed skating clubs than there are hockey teams and figure skating programs.But it’s getting better, with kids flocking to rinks after every major winter sporting event, inspired by strong Canadian performances.

The Emera Oval in the Halifax Commons would seem to be a solution. It’s the only long track speed skating rink not only in Nova Scotia, but in all of the Atlantic provinces.

The Oval was created for the 2011 Canada Winter Games, and remains as a legacy project that benefits the community. In the winter, it hosts a free introductory speed skating program. The classes are run by Speed Skate Nova Scotia, and have been very popular in previous years.

Speed Skate Nova Scotia president, Brent Thompson, says the program gets about 45 to 60 participants, with the majority being university students.

“I’d like to see the skates being used all week long, not just on one day,” says Thompson. Gear is free to rent throughout the week in addition to the lessons on Saturdays.

For recreational skaters, the Oval provides an easy opportunity to try out a niche sport.

In contrast, it is the elite skaters who are running into red tape. What was seen as a shining beacon of hope for the development of high performance athletes is now causing problems: some of the top skaters are too fast for the rink.

“We’re the only oval east of Quebec City, and – short of an extraordinary effort – we can’t get full use of it,” says Merrell Moorhead, president of the Halifax Regional Speed Skating Club (HRSSC).

The issue lies in the safety protection standards mandated by Speed Skating Canada. The sport’s governing body in Canada calculates the amount of necessary padding by multiplying athletes’ top speeds and their weight. For lighter skaters or those who aren’t hitting lightning fast laps, this isn’t a problem. But for heavier, speedier elite male athletes, the Oval’s current level of padding isn’t good enough.

“Our officials have made the decision this year that there are certain skaters who aren’t going to be able to skate certain distances on their home oval because there’s not adequate crash protection,” says Todd Landon, high performance coach with Speed Skating Canada. Landon is also the Regional Development Mentor for the organization, and is working with the city to ensure that the facility gets up to speed.

“If we’re starting to tell skaters that they’re too fast in competition, that means they’re also too fast for training,“ he says. With the nearest long track rink a ten hour drive away, he hopes that the adequate crash padding will be put in place to allow the local elite skaters to continue their development.

“With the right padding, we can host national events that bring in people, that bring in attention, that showcase Halifax,” says Moorhead. “In order to maybe justify the cost, you’d want a good crop of high performance kids, but at the same time, you’re not going to get the high performance kids without the facilities, and so I think it’s a smart investment for the sport.”

It’s a chicken and egg problem. The Oval is “in every way regulation” in terms of its capacity to serve as a long track rink for high level competitions, according to Thompson, who is also a speed skating coach and official in addition to his position at Speed Skate Nova Scotia. He says the national federation is keen to see the Oval host a major event, and the city of Halifax has expressed interest in supporting that, but the issue of safety infrastructure is still a question that needs to be answered.

“There needs to be a stronger push to develop long track athletes, high end athletes. They have to travel to Quebec for competitions. And if we had safety and we could have our own sanctioned meets here, that could turn the sport around,” says Kevin Goswell, HRSSC’s vice president.

In terms of acquiring crash protection, the main obstacle is funding. The Oval is city property, which limits the ability to attract sponsors to help fund the padding. Emera would be an obvious choice, along with Canadian Tire. Other than that, there aren’t many options that would fit the city’s strict guidelines. Thompson estimates the cost of padding for a rink like the Oval to be in the realm of $150,000 – not a small sum to fundraise.

At the moment, the president of Speed Skate Nova Scotia says the Oval is holding back four to six local skaters from competing. The limitations of the rink may not seem to affect too many skaters now, but as younger athletes grow and get faster, the number of individuals hampered by the Oval’s so-called speed limit will grow. Thompson has had to scratch some of the faster male athletes from shorter sprint events, because the liability is too high should someone crash while going top speed.

While not having the facility would be worse, he – and everyone else involved in the sport in Nova Scotia – hopes a solution will be found that permits top skaters to fulfill their need for speed.

Moorhead is also eager to see the Oval used to its full potential, both in training and in competition.

“I mean you wouldn’t build a football stadium and never play football in it – I would hope! We’d like to see it used.”

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Diana Foxall

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