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Prime Time: Speed skater took up the sport at age 60

Friday, February 8, 2013
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Bill Sheldon takes a few laps around Saratoga Springs Ice Rink on Weibel Avenue.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
Bill Sheldon takes a few laps around Saratoga Springs Ice Rink on Weibel Avenue.

— Bill Sheldon started speed skating when he turned 60, and now, almost five years later, is skating three times a week and entering competitions across the Northeast.

“I played recreational hockey for 20 years,” Sheldon said.

The 64-year-old town of Malta resident is a retired metallurgical engineer who worked in the Benet Laboratories at the Watervliet Arsenal for many years.

“I kind of got tired of hockey,” Sheldon said. He played in Over-30 hockey leagues in Glens Falls for many years.

The transition from hockey to speed skating was difficult at first for Sheldon. The speed skating blade is much longer than the blade on a hockey or figure skate.

“They are completely different. I thought I would get it [speed skating] sooner than I did,” he said.

“The skates are different and it’s a totally different skating form. You have to get it down pat until you can get some speed,” he said.

Sheldon joined the legendary Saratoga Winter Club, which holds its speed skating training sessions and competitions at the indoor Saratoga Springs Ice Rink on Weibel Avenue.

The Saratoga Winter Club features former North American champion skater and Olympic caliber coach Pat Maxwell and Paul Marchese, a long-time coach and technical specialist for the U.S. Team preparing for the 2014 Olympics.

Sheldon said it is thrilling to have coaches of this caliber help him improve his skating technique.

Photo by Peter R. Barber

Bill Sheldon chats with a fellow skater.

Sheldon said short track speed skating includes a “controlled fall” around the curves. He said this controlled fall gives the skater the momentum to accelerate.

As a member of the Saratoga Winter Club, Sheldon skates two hours each on Tuesdays and Thursdays and 1 1/2 hours on Wednesdays.

He also travels to U.S. Speedskating-sanctioned short track races in other parts of New York and in nearby states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut. He usually skates in the 50-plus category but also skates in more open competition.

Sheldon is the oldest competitive skater at the Saratoga Winter Club but he said he has skated with skaters in their 70s and even 80 at U.S. Speedskating Association-sanctioned competitions.

“One meet in Rochester, a guy 80 was skating. He was a little slower than me but God bless, he went around,” Sheldon said.

Usually Sheldon places in the middle of the pack during races. “That gives me the incentive to do better,” he said.

The races range from 500 meters to 1,000 meters, sometimes extending to 1,500 meters (13 laps around the ice).

Helpful advice

He said it’s inspiring to have a coach the caliber of Pat Maxwell running a workout session as he did one recent night at the Weibel Avenue Ice Rink.

“The coaches say just skate your race,” Sheldon said. But this advice comes after lots of training and technical advice.

Sheldon’s wife said her husband keeps in excellent shape through skating.

“He’s in very good shape. He’s a very disciplined person,” said Christine Sheldon.

“I just like to walk. He’s the adventurous one,” she added.

Christine said she is impressed with the coaching her husband receives.

“He’s with a wonderful group of people; it’s a nice time for him,” she said.

“I keep the home fires burning,” she joked.

In the off season, the skating club runs sessions in the Saratoga Spa State Park.

“We have dry-land training, drills that are specific to speed skating on land,” Bill Sheldon said.

He said the training sessions are two-hours long and held at least once a week. There is running and jogging as well as a “low walk” that has the skater exercising in a crouch like when they are skating on the ice.

Sheldon said he has had very few injuries in his sport. “Once in a while I fall on my side but nothing too serious,” he said.

But speed skating can be dangerous when a group falls together as they are going into a turn. “The skates are really sharp, you don’t want to get cut by a skate,” he said.

The Saratoga Winter Club charges about $800 per year, including ice time fees, coaching, and club dues.

Robert Sanson of Saratoga Springs, who skates with the club and manages its website (www.saratogawinterclub.com), said Sheldon skates and drills with skaters in their 30s and 40s. He said Sheldon is the oldest member of the club.

Sanson said Saratoga Springs is considered a “horse town” with the Saratoga Race Course and Saratoga Casino and Raceway. He said many people don’t realize that the Saratoga Winter Club, which dates back to the late 1880s, has such a long list of Olympic skaters, including Amy Peterson Peck, now a club coach, who was a five-time short track Olympian and winner of three Olympic medals, including a silver in the 500 meter race in 1992.

 
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