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Originally published | Page modified August 13, 2009 at 5:44 PM

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You can skate like an Olympian at Richmond, B.C.'s Olympic Oval

The Richmond Olympic Oval, which will host speedskating competition for the 2010 Winter Olympics, is open to the public now, and any visitor can try a few laps.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Vancounver Olympic venue: Richmond Oval

Richmond Olympic Oval

When to visit

The Oval, which will hold speedskating events during the 2010 Winter Olympics next February, is open for public skating daily through November.

Public skating hours

On most days, the Oval hosts one session for drop-in speedskating and one for general public skating. Hours vary, so check www.richmondoval.ca/public-skating.htm or call 778-296-1400.

Admission charges

(Canadian $) $12.50 for adults, $8 for teens, $4.50 for children, $10 for 65+; skate rental $3, helmet rental $2.

Location

6111 River Road, Richmond, B.C. About a half-hour north of the U.S.-Canada border, across the Fraser River from Vancouver International Airport.

Traveler's tip

Lighted signs along Interstate 5 north and south of Bellingham give approximate wait times at up to four border crossings. As of June 1, travelers between the U.S. and Canada have been required to carry passports or other approved identification.

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RICHMOND, B.C. — A warning to the world's top speedskaters:

When you're zipping around the Richmond Olympic Oval next February and you hit a dip in the southeast turn, blame me.

That's the dent my posterior made when I recently slipped on the icy lanes that will host speedskaters from around the world in the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The Games are still more than a half-year away, but the public can skate here now, and gaze in awe at this cavernous but graceful $164 million facility along the Fraser River, the largest new building constructed for these Olympics.

For many visitors from "the states," Richmond is typically a Vancouver suburb to drive through, rather than explore.

But the Oval is just the latest on a list of attractions making Richmond a destination in its own right, complete with hundreds of Asian restaurants and shops, a vibrant weekend night market, a historic fishing village, miles of waterfront trails and a spectacular Buddhist temple.

This summer is an ideal time to see Richmond, before the throngs and high prices that will accompany the Olympics.

A "green" Oval

From now until the end of November, the Oval will offer two kinds of daily public sessions — one for "drop-in" speedskaters, who want to zoom around the quarter-mile track as fast as possible, and one for more casual skaters, including those who don't often find themselves balanced on thin metal blades.

The building is winning acclaim for its design, functionality and environmental ethic. The glass north side provides striking views of British Columbia's Coast Mountains. The arched 6.5-acre roof evokes the wings of a heron, a bird native to the area's wetlands.

The panels of its wooden ceiling are made from 1 million board feet of timber killed by pine beetles, wood that in the past would have been discarded. Rainwater from the roof is collected to help flush the toilets.

All those details, and the dazzling effect of a mega-constellation of ceiling lights reflected on the ice, create an almost surreal experience for the first-time viewer.

I hadn't been on ice in decades, but was intrigued by the chance to check out an Olympic venue in our own backyard. When I showed up promptly at the 5:30 p.m. start of a Sunday skating session that went until 10, I had the ice almost to myself for a while.

Novice-class skating

The building's first open-skating sessions last December drew hundreds. But my visit came after the arena had been closed for a time and many people didn't know it had reopened.

After paying the admission, $12.50 Canadian (about $11.50 U.S.) and $3 for skates, I needed to decide whether to rent a helmet ($2), required for kids but worn by few adults here. Anticipating I might topple at least once, I couldn't see any good reason to skip the helmet — with the possible exception of vanity.

But hey, the sight of me on skates wasn't going to impress anyone anyway, so why not top it off with the bright-red helmet they offered, completing the Tootsie-Roll-Pop-On-Ice look? Fortunately, I didn't see any mirrors around.

As I strode onto the slick, shiny surface, I found it comforting that two other early arrivals were as tentative on skates as I was. By coincidence, they were also from the Puget Sound area, "20-something" Matthew Yip of Bellevue and Lily Chong of Seattle.

"Hopefully, I'll survive," said Yip, lacing up his skates.

Chong, whose parents live in Richmond, had seen this building from the outside several times since construction began in 2005, and was delighted to finally be inside. "It's amazing," she said. "It's so big."

True enough. The building could hold four football fields. Even now, its infield area, which is not ice, is set up with eight basketball hoops and a couple of Ping-Pong tables.

After the Games, the Oval will be operated as a sports and fitness complex for the city of Richmond, which built and owns it. A variety of exercise classes are already held here.

Slow ice

The only thing that seems small about the place is the room for fans. During the Olympics. it will hold 8,000 spectators, a couple thousand fewer than fit into a University of Washington basketball game. A lottery was held for the right to buy tickets.

I had read that by Olympic standards, this ice is considered "sticky," and that world records will be difficult to set here. Virtually all speedskating records are set at thin-air, high-altitude venues, such as Kearns, Utah, which boasts the "fastest ice on Earth."

Slow ice wasn't going to bother me. In fact, I was hoping for soft.

No such luck. After making my way only partway around the track, my skates got too far in front of the rest of me, and gravity took over. Trust me about this: When you're 58, a fall on ice doesn't have the same innocent charm it might have had ages ago.

An Oval staffer — they all wear helmets, easing my self-consciousness — came over to see if I was OK, and I assured him no serious harm was done. In fact, after a couple of more laps I was able to keep moving forward, and stay vertical most of the time.

Yip, too, was getting more comfortable, enjoying it so much he said he might hit the ice arena back home in Bellevue sometime.

Neither of us looked graceful, of course. Not like the young woman who kept passing us, skating backward, apparently on purpose.

During the Olympics, the Oval will hold 12 medal events over 14 days, all long-track speedskating. Meanwhile, short-track speedskating, the specialty of Seattle's Apolo Anton Ohno, will take place at Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum at Hastings Park, which will also host figure skating.

I doubt I'll be back in the Oval during the Olympics. I don't have the money, connections or enthusiasm for crowds it might take to be a true Olympic-goer. But it will be fun to watch on TV, knowing that the skaters are zooming down a lane I, too, have traveled.

I just hope they watch out for that dip.

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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