A sport that gained Wisconsin Olympic fame nearly died locally. Now the Central Wisconsin Speedskating Club is rebounding.
Things were bleak when Marty Hannemann went to speedskating practice every week in the fall and winter of 2012-13. The Central Wisconsin Speedskating Club (CWSSC), once bustling with more than 30 members, was going through an existential crisis. Through a combination of factors—the recession, high school graduations, disinterest—the club had just seven members, and four of them were coaches.
This wasn’t just a problem for its members, it was a problem for the future of the sport in the Wausau area. Without CWSSC, how would people interested in this sport, a famed Winter Olympic event, even start? The speed skating club is one of only four in the entire state, the other three in Green Bay, Madison and Milwaukee.
Somehow Hannemann predicted things would rebound. Sure enough, he was right. After adding a new president in Andy Faust, revamping the club’s website, and advertising the club to the general public, CWSSC has regained many members and now boasts more than 20 skaters.
Now, CWSSC wants you to come out and try speedskating. Maybe you’ll stick with it, and even if you don’t, you’ll get to experience a slick, speed-based sport that’s one of the most hardcore competitive winter events you’ll find.
Andy Faust says the club will host the Junior Olympics short track speed skating events in December 2018. “That will be a big deal.”
“I often hear that no one knows we have a speedskating club,” says Faust, who has been president of the 25-year-old club since last year.
It’s somewhat surprising CWSSC isn’t more well-known in the Wausau area. The sport in general has a good reputation, and famous history in Wisconsin. The national team’s training facility is located at the Pettit National Ice Center in West Allis, and the state has produced Olympic gold medalists like Dan Jansen.
The CWSSC track is on the ice of Greenheck Field House, which was designed specifically with speedskating in mind. When the village of Weston and DC Everest School District were in the planning stages for the facility in 1996 (it opened in 1998), then CWSSC head coach Mike Affholter asked that instead of constructing just a regulation-size hockey rink, the field house should contain an Olympic-size rink capable of holding national short track speedskating events.
The club went on to host numerous national events, including the 2005 American Cup-World Team Trials and the 2010 U.S. Nationals and American Cup Finals. Both events drew the biggest names in the sport. Business was going great during those years, and CWSSC had such a budget surplus then that it was even paying its coaches. The club had aspirations of hosting the Olympic Trials.
But by 2012 local speedskating was in a death spiral. What happened?
Who would carry it on?
The club’s gradual decline started when the economic recession hit in 2007-2008. Many people couldn’t justify the membership fee, the cost for skates and other gear, travel expenses for competitions, and the time commitment. Over the next few years, the club shed members, and by 2012 had three members and four coaches.
The club had to drop its Wednesday night practice because it couldn’t afford the ice time, which now costs $140 per hour. Longtime member and coach Patty Barricek says when you give up ice time, there’s a good chance you might never get it back.
Despite the challenges, the club core members carried on. “It was a little tough to remain positive during those dark times but we didn’t want this (club) to go away,” Barricek says. “If our club folded and the pads and skates left, who would’ve started it up again?”
Barricek has a valid point. Faust estimates the pads used to line the walls of Greenheck Fieldhouse’s ice rink cost about $20,000 brand new, and some of them are in need of refurbishing.
Plus, speed skates aren’t cheap; a good pair will run anywhere between $200-$500. The club owns a fleet of skates it rents out to those who come to try the sport. Replacing those wouldn’t have been easy either if CWSSC had folded.
Across the state, the other speedskating clubs in Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay faced similar membership issues after the recession. Nevertheless, the four remaining CWSSC coaches were hopeful things would rebound. “I remained very optimistic during those dark years that we wouldn’t let the club die,” Hannemann says. “I think everyone else felt the same too, at least the four coaches that were left.”
Gradually through better promotions and a few families getting involved—meaning they brought upwards of five kids into the club—speedskating found new life in the Wausau area. “I can’t believe the club didn’t end,” Faust says.
What makes speedskating different?
The speedskating CWSSC does at Greenheck is called short track. It’s not exactly the same sport that made Olympic legends like Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair famous in the early 1990s. Rather, it’s the sport that thrust Apolo Anton Ohno of Seattle into the national limelight when he won an American-record eight Winter Olympic gold medals between 2002-2010.
Being good at figure skating or hockey doesn’t automatically make a person a good speedskater. Ask any of CWSSC’s coaches, and they’ll tell you it takes three to five years to become a good speedskater.
Why? As Barricek describes it, speedskating involves much of the same processes a coach would use to teach someone downhill skiing or snowboarding: You have to slow someone down to teach them how to go fast. Speedskater skills included how to initiate turns or the proper crouch position to be in before they start ramping up the speed.
The biggest difference Barricek found between figure skating and speedskating—she and her sister took up the sport in 1999 at age 39—was in the blades. The blade on a speedskate is unnaturally long, helping skaters attain speeds of 30 mph or more.
“The flat nature of the blade makes so different. Hockey skates are curved,” Barricek says. “Whenever I’m in hockey skates, it feels like I’m skating on sandpaper because it’s so slow. On speedskating skates, you can go fast without really doing much.”
Leah Houtman is exactly the kind of person CWSSC wants to add to the club. Houtman, a 35-year-old Wausau area resident, started skating with the club last year. She grew up watching Blair and Ohno, always dreaming about speedskating someday. Then she discovered CWSSC on social media.
The problem was, she hadn’t put on a pair of skates since high school, and the skating she had done was on in-line skates (think rollerblading). But what helped Houtman is that she’s in good physical shape.
“It’s just fun. You get to go really fast. It’s a good workout too. It really works out your quads,” Houtman says. “The muscles that get worked out the most are in your back. You wouldn’t think it would be that way but it’s more in your back from keeping in the crunched position.”
Like Houtman, both Hannemann and Barricek have interesting backstories with the sport. Barricek discovered the sport from City Pages story on CWSSC in 1999; Hannemann found the sport after watching the North American Short Track Championships at Greenheck in 2001.
CWSSC is hoping more potential skaters can discover the club in this manner, and is taking steps to make sure they can.
The club will host the Junior Olympics short track speed skating events in December 2018. “That will be a big deal,” Faust says.
Since taking over as president in 2016, Faust has tried his best to reorganize the club and balance its checkbook. CWSSC just held a skateathon last season in which it raised $2,000. Those funds, combined with the increases in membership, will allow the club to hold two practices a week this season, on Wednesday 6-7 pm and Sunday 6-7:30 pm.
“It’s a shot in the dark for sure,” Faust says about adding the Wednesday night practices. “There are potential members that can’t do Sundays, and there are also some existing members that can’t do Wednesdays. We’re going to try it this year, but if we don’t get enough skaters, then we’ll take a $2,000 hit on the old budget.”
Speedskating, like any other sport, needs to recruit members to keep the tradition alive and pass on skills. “Some people come and try it out and don’t end up liking it … It’s a different style of skating,” Faust says. “But some people try it and think it’s really fun and cool. I hope we can continue to grow this club.”