New Rink Out Of This World To U.S. Skaters

MILWAUKEE - The biting winds that once slammed into the face of speed skaters as they made their turns at the old Wisconsin Olympic Ice Rink are now but a cold memory.

The aging outdoor oval that was home to U.S. speedskaters since 1966 has been replaced by the state-of-the-art Pettit National Ice Center, a spacious $13.3 million enclosed structure that was built on the same site in less than a year.

"The Pettit National Ice Center is the biggest thing to happen to U.S. speed skating since Eric Heiden won five gold medals in 1980," said Peter Mueller, the U.S. National and Olympic long-track speedskating coach.

"The center has extended the careers of Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair two more years, which will give us time to find new, quality skaters when they retire."

Both Blair, who has won three gold medals, and Jansen are three-time Olympians and will use the new center to prepare for the 1994 Winter Games at Lillehammer, Norway, another of only five world sites that will have an enclosed speedskating oval. The others are in Calgary, Berlin and Heerenveen, The Netherlands.

Not only will the 200,000-square foot Pettit Center, which could hold three 747s nose-to-nose, be an official training site for the Olympic speedskaters, it also will be a regional training center for both hockey and figure skating.

Inside the 400-meter speedskating oval are two 100-by-200 foot rinks for hockey, figure skating and short-track speedskating.

Figure skating was big part of the opening ceremonies New Year's Eve when Jill Trenary and Kitty and Peter Carruthers performed.

The center, where the air temperatures will be kept at 55 degrees, features 2,000 seats for speedskating and 1,000 for hockey and figure skating. The short-track national championships and the Olympic long-track trials already are scheduled for March and next December respectively.

A computer-driven ventilation and compressor system will allow ice maker Lyle LeBombard to regulate and adjust ice temperatures to the speedskater's liking.

"We're looking for a little bit of a homecourt advantage," said Sean Callahan, the center's executive director.

Situated a few miles west of Milwaukee right off Interstate 94, the huge white building is impossible to miss against the gray background of a Midwest winter.

It went up in just 10 1/2 months, and Callahan says a Jan. 1, 1993, deadline imposed by the U.S. Olympic Committee for official training-site designation helped speed up the process. Workers were still applying touches and scurrying to clean up before opening ceremonies.

"The deadline caused some hardships. We had to move so fast. But without that deadline we would not have gotten the job done," said Callahan.

"We moved so fast people didn't have time to say no. Everybody thought it was a great idea and it kept moving along. It could have been stopped 50 times but we kept hitting every deadline."

In addition to the ice rinks, there are eight locker rooms, a training and weight room, pro shop, a jogging track and a lounge overlooking the center.

The center was built with $9.3 million in bonding from the state of Wisconsin, $2 million in capital funding from individuals and corporations and a $2 million donation from Jane and Lloyd Pettit, local philanthropists for whom the center is named.

The Pettits, who also provided the initial operating capital, years ago donated the money to build the $71 million Bradley Center in downtown Milwaukee.

"We've got the mortar and brick done, now we're still raising funds to keep it in operation," said Callahan.

For speed skaters like Jansen, who grew up in West Allis just minutes away, and Blair, who has moved to the Milwaukee suburbs, it will mean training in better conditions and fewer training trips to Europe and Calgary, site of the 1988 Winter Games.

The speedskating oval will have two 4 1/2-meter-wide race lanes and a wider turning radius than in Calgary, where Jansen took two falls in 1988.

"It's hard to say how fast it will be until you skate on it," said Jansen, who has been practicing on the new ice since mid-December. "Because of altitude, it probably won't be as fast as Calgary but that's not to say a world record can't be skated here."

Blair thinks the Pettit Ice Center is out of this world, at least out of this country. As one who has hopped across the world numerous times during her career, it makes her wonder where she has landed.

"The rink seems almost foreign to me," she said. "I feel like I'm somewhere else when I'm here."

But Olympians, past, present and future, aren't the only ones who will be able to skate the new ice. The center will also allow hours for public skating.

"This place is for the whole state, the whole county and the world," said Callahan.