Saratoga County a hotbed of speedskating

When Trevor Marsicano of Ballston Spa crouches at the starting line in this month’s Winter Games in

When Trevor Marsicano of Ballston Spa crouches at the starting line in this month’s Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, he will follow his Olympic speedskater forebears from Saratoga County: Rich Wurster, John Wurster, Amy Peterson, Erin Porter, Kristen Talbot and Moira D’Andrea.

And Marsicano will hold the dreams of the ones who worked so hard and fell just short of the Olympics: Brigid Farrell, Ian Baranski, Kristen Brophy, Penelope Lang and others.

Since 1968, a Saratoga County speedskater has been in every Winter Games but four: 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1996. The seven other Olympics — this month makes eight — have featured at least one and often several local athletes.

While most Americans tune into speedskating only every four years on TV, in Saratoga Springs diehard skaters sweat for the sport every year.

“Saratoga has been a very big center for a lot of the skating people because they’ve always had big meets here, good meets, and most of the top skaters that have skated over the years have been here,” said Thomas Porter, father of Olympian Erin Porter and former president of the National Speedskating Museum and Hall of Fame.

“The more that people like the Wurster boys and so forth did well, the more it spirited the other people to participate,” Porter said of Rich and John Wurster, brothers from Ballston Spa who were the first in the region to compete in Olympic speedskating in 1968.

Skating competitions

Nowadays, kids have all kinds of activities to keep them busy, from sports to video games to academic competitions. But in the winters in the 1940s, 1950s and even into the ’60s, speedskating was king.

Fort Johnson had a well-known speedskating team in the 1940s.

And in 1948, Amsterdam resident Raymond Knapik became a national champion.

He skated for the Fort Johnson Speed Skating Club and at Hasenfuss Field, the site of the Mohawk Valley Speed Skating Championships.

Just about every town or school had its own speedskating team, which would compete with the others in multiple racing meets around the area. A trophy was passed from school to school each year, said Porter, who grew up in Saratoga Springs.

“Today, kids really have to travel by plane to get to meets but when I was growing up and my children were growing up, there were several speedskating meets right in the immediate area,” Porter said. Pittsfield, Schenectady and Glens Falls all held meets.

“There wasn’t hockey back then, and the big sport on ice was speedskating,” he said.

Rinks popular

The outdoor rink at East Side Recreation Field in Saratoga Springs was a popular winter gathering place for skaters and spectators alike in the 1950s and ’60s, Porter recalled.

“You had some pretty good-sized crowds there,” he said. “There was skating there day and night.”

And better rinks were built over the decades. The city’s first “indoor” rink, a three-sided barn on Excelsior Avenue, was constructed in the 1970s.

In the 1990s, the two indoor rinks on Weibel Avenue were built, said city Recreation Director Linda Terricola. The larger Weibel Avenue rink is Olympic-sized, built for the Saratoga Winter Club.

“Many of the skaters, we’ve turned them into Olympic skaters,” Terricola said.

Even non-skaters couldn’t escape speedskating’s popularity while growing up in Saratoga Springs in the 1960s, said Doug June, clerical worker for the city recreation department.

He watched a few meets but wasn’t into the sport as much as his older siblings, who watched regional meets and the national ones sometimes held at Saratoga.

The fact that Rich and John Wurster came from here only fueled people’s interest.

“There’s always been that drive and desire,” June said.

John Wurster started it by busting regional titles by age 8. He started skating competitively at age 6, and two years later in 1959, “Johnny” was an established local star, earning affectionate write-ups in The Gazette about the “mighty midget.”

His older brother, Rich, started skating at the same time, when he was 13, and took his time getting to the top.

By the mid-60s both brothers were winning national titles, and in 1968 they both made the U.S. Olympic team in Grenoble, France.

“What a terrific experience,” Rich said of the 1968 Olympics, speaking to The Gazette in 1991. “The biggest thrill was the opening ceremony as we marched into the stadium, to see the Olympic flag go up and watch the runner with the torch light the flame.”

John made the 1972 team as well.

Rich kept skating competitively until he was 42.

Coach Maxwell

Although neither won medals at the Olympics, their presence at the games put the region on the map for speedskating and led to their eventual friendship with national champion Pat Maxwell from Rochester.

Maxwell ended up moving to Ballston Spa and started coaching for the Saratoga Winter Club.

Maxwell’s involvement brought the club to a new level, said Kristen Talbot Peck, 39, a Schuylerville native and three-time Olympian who remembers being 11 or 12 when Maxwell started coaching there.

“When he came around, that was the first time that one person took charge of the club,” she said. “He wrote programs, and he really was a technically-based kind of coach.”

Skaters she knew in other clubs lost interest after awhile when they didn’t have a great coach to push them to a new level, she said. “I think a lot of them just kind of fizzled out because they didn’t have that structure. He was a big influence on my success as a skater.”

Then other up-and-coming champions started coming, drawn by Maxwell’s expertise.

Amy Peterson Peck, now 38, moved here in 1997 from her native Minnesota — from skating-rich St. Paul to little Ballston Spa — to train with Maxwell after she had already been to three Olympic Games and trained with the U.S. speedskating team.

She left the national team after the 1994 Olympics.

“If I was going to continue skating, I wanted to make choices that would make me really happy skating,” she said.

She started training with coach Andy Gabel, an Olympian who had trained with Maxwell too, and Gabel recommended Amy work with Maxwell. She spent five years working under Maxwell and made the Olympics twice more.

Before she came to work with Maxwell, Amy had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, and Maxwell created special workouts for her to deal with her illness.

Tight group

“Pat had a really high-end program that year, and at the time he probably had five or six skaters who were ranked in the top five or six in the U.S.,” she said. “He’s really the best coach I’ve ever had in my 15 years of elite competition.”

Peterson and Peck trained on the ice at the Weibel Avenue ice rink in Saratoga Springs and cross trained in Saratoga Spa State Park and a gym in Ballston Spa.

They spent so much time together in training, the seven or eight elite skaters, that they became good friends and hung out off the rink as well as on it.

“It was just a really good group, a mixture of local girls and girls who uprooted,” Amy said. “I didn’t really know people outside of skating.”

That friendship led to Amy meeting her husband, Willard Peck, the brother of Kristen’s husband, Neil.

“That’s what made Billy’s and my relationship so easy was having that friend so close by,” Amy said. She and Kristen both live in Northumberland with their families.

Amy and Erin Porter, now 31, made the 1998 and 2002 Olympics, coming home to a hero’s welcome in Saratoga Springs.

On the heels of that Olympic run, Tom Porter pushed for the U.S. Speedskating Museum and Hall of Fame to be built in Saratoga Springs. He was president of the museum’s board of directors.

For a few years, the group made plans to build a museum on part of the city compost facility property on Weibel Avenue.

Thomas McTygue, then-commissioner of public works, was on the museum property search committee and the city planned to lease land to the museum. But lack of funding for the $4 million building and $3 million refrigerated outdoor racing oval prevented the project from getting off the ground.

Now the Hall of Fame photos are displayed in Milwaukee. Maxwell, Tom Porter, Talbot, Peterson and both the Wursters are among them.

Moving on

The former Olympians have turned to other pursuits.

Now living in Seattle, Erin Porter is married, had a baby boy in October and is enrolled in physical therapy school.

Her parents, Tom and Betsey Porter, will stay with their daughter when they visit the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver this month.

Amy Peterson Peck, who has two young children, consults with coaches in her native Minnesota, teaching them to become better coaches and bring their best athletes to the next level. She does most of her work by phone or Internet from her family’s Northumberland farm. Her husband, Willard Peck, is chairman of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors this year.

Kristen Talbot Peck is a physical therapist, working at the Lexington Center in Gloversville.

Categories: Schenectady County

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