In this post, keeping with our Olympic theme as we enjoy the XXI Winter Olympics from Vancouver, will be a brief history of how Milwaukee served as home to some of our country's top speed skaters. Some came from out of state and others were native citizens of Wisconsin who gained their experience from the renowned West Allis Speed Skating Club. The skaters once trained on lagoons, then on the outdoor oval, and finally on the first indoor oval in the United States, the Pettit National Ice Center.
A turning point occurred in US Speed Skating history in December 1966 as speed skaters took the ice at the first refrigerated 400-meter outdoor Olympic oval on the grounds of State Fair Park. Now, instead of waiting for lagoons and lakes to freeze, the oval provided a longer season for the skaters as it was usually opened by October and lasted through March, providing them with a much longer season to train. The rink was used for the 1968 Winter Olympic trials and every trial since then until the Pettit National Ice Center opened. Also, the Olympic oval became home to some of the top speed skaters, including the legend, Eric Heiden from Madison, Dan Jansen from West Allis, and Bonnie Blair from Champagne, IL.
Even though the rink provided many advantages for the speed skaters, it did, however, provide some disadvantages as well. The location of the rink was close to two infrastructures that periodically affected rink conditions. One was a cement factory and with a certain wind it blew particles of cement dust onto the rink, causing the skaters' ice skates to dull frequently. The other was the freeway, I-94, that contained many vehicles blowing exhaust, sometimes making it difficult for skaters to breath especially during competition. That changed when Milwaukee philanthropists Jane and Lloyd Pettit donated $2 million towards the construction of a World class Olympic Training Facility on the grounds of State Fair Park, the first of its kind in the United States.
The Pettit Center opened on December 31, 1992 with raving reviews by the Olympic speed skaters at the time, particularly Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen who were still active in the sport. Some of the former speed skaters, including Eric Heiden, wish they had trained in this magnificence training facility after years of battling the outdoor elements. Some of the high-profile events since its inception included the 1995 World Sprint Speed Skating Championships, the 2005 World Cup Speed Skating on the long track and also that same year, the National Short Track Championships featuring Apolo Anton Ohno.
Today, the Pettit National Ice Center still serves as a training facility for speed skaters and currently seven are in Vancouver competing in various meets. In Gary D'Amato's Journal Sentinel article previewing the Winter Games on Feb. 9, quoted Brad Goskowicz, President of US Speed Skating, on the legacy of the Pettit Center and what it means to the speed skaters. "Without the Olympic rink, there would be no Pettit Center. I think it's fair to say that the Pettit Center is really the biggest pipeline for U.S. Speed Skating in developing skaters." Randy Dean, who is the director of the Center, describes the importance of the Center by saying "to have seven people who train here go on to Vancouver, it's just terrific" including Shani Davis who just won the gold medal in the men's 1,000 meter race (Wed., Feb. 17, 2010).
Milwaukee can be proud by serving as home for more than forty years for Olympic speed skaters who lived and trained for their events. Without the Olympic Oval at State Fair Park, there would be no Pettit Center as Goskowicz rightfully says. Also, the Center helps bring the Olympic spirit to the city and each time the Olympics take center stage, Milwaukee tends to have one of the highest viewership ratings in the country. Finally, it is important to support the Pettit National Ice Center for years to come as it trains future Olympians and continue the overall success of USA Speed Skating. Enjoy the Games, everybody, and remember when you watch the speed skating events, think Milwaukee.