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In Retrospect: Remembering the Butte Long Track Speedskating Oval
Posted by tedwards On Fri 30 Oct, 2015
Ask long track speedskaters of the rising generation to tell you about the speed skating Ovals in North America, and they’ll probably list the Olympic Oval in Salt Lake, the Pettit Center in Milwaukee, and the Olympic Oval in Calgary. But what most younger speed skaters don’t realize is that before the Pettit Center, and before the Speedskating Oval in Salt Lake were even built, there was another Oval that existed in the west—The U.S. High Altitude Sports Center in Butte, Montana. Before indoor speed skating was the norm, World Cups and National Championships were held outdoors at the High Altitude Sports Center, and some of the best athletes in the world trained there. Today, we reminisce with speedskaters Dave Silk and Chris Shelley about the Butte Speedskating Oval, and discuss the efforts currently being made to keep it running today. 

In the Beginning…

If you were a long track speedskater in the late 80’s through the early 2000’s and wanted to go to the Olympics, chances are your training schedule included time in Butte. The Butte Oval hosted several national and international competitions, including World Cups, Pack-Style Nationals, the 1994 World All-Round Speed Skating Championships for Women, and the 1997 Junior World Championships. During her career as a speedskater, Bonnie Blair lived in Butte and attended Montana Tech so she could train regularly at the Oval. And “by the time 1992 rolled around, of all of the medal-winning speed skaters at the Albertville (France) Olympic Winter Games, only three had never trained and/or raced at the [Oval]” (Michael McCoy, “Off the Beaten Path: Montana”). 

With construction for the Oval beginning in 1985 and $2 Million being raised to fund the refrigerated track alone, the High Altitude Sports Center was completed in the fall of 1987. For Dave Silk, a 1988 Olympian and World Championship Medalist, the Butte Oval holds special meaning: “Butte has a long tradition of speedskating. Growing up there, I got involved with speedskating at a young age. So having the Oval there meant a lot to me.” Bruce Sayler, a writer for ButteSports.com, remembers the extra effort Dave put in to help complete the Oval before the first World Cup was held: “Dave Silk…could be found about any time of the day at the track during those frantic times preceding that initial Butte World Cup meet….When he wasn’t practicing, he was grabbing tools and helping workers complete as much as could be done to the brand-new center before the big meet.”

The Early Days

Chris Shelley, a member of the ‘88-‘93 World Cup Teams and the 1992 Olympic Team, remembers what the Oval was like when it first opened: “I was there with the National Team right when it opened, and it wasn’t quite ready. It was still a nice place, but like anything new, it had some little issues. I remember Mike Crowe, [our] head coach at the time, was doing double duty coaching and going around with buckets of slush, trying to fix holes in the ice. And so it took [some] work to get all the bugs worked out.” Once things started running smoothly, however, “the high altitude…made [the ice] really fast. And when the weather cooperated, it was just beautiful. Most of the time, we trained [outdoors] in Milwaukee, and it was brutally cold there….So when we got to go to Butte, it was better, because it was less windy. And when the weather got right in Butte…it was sunny with no wind, and 30 degrees. So for me, being a guy from Boston, being out in Montana was something completely different. I really enjoyed being out there.”

Skating Outdoors

One of Dave Silk’s favorite memories associated with the Oval was skating at the first World Cup. He says, “On a personal level, it was very gratifying to skate in front of the home crowd, especially for the first World Cup in ‘87. The Olympics were coming up, and there was a lot of hype and energy. The team was really looking forward to going to the Olympics. We had massive crowds, because of curiosity. And it was unbelievable to have all those teams flying in for the meet.”

Dave also enjoyed the outdoor element of skating at the Oval. “Being there on pristine weekends really stands out. There were perfect conditions, perfect weather, and perfect ice. With skating outdoors, of course, there’s the weather component and the unpredictability. And sure, there are unfair conditions from one skater to the next. But just the ambiance of skating outdoors…in my opinion, [long track] is an outdoor sport. It’ll probably never happen, but I kind of wish skating would migrate back outdoors. Skating World Cups with snow lanes, when the weather’s crisp—it just has a certain feel to it that you cannot duplicate indoors.”

Acclimatizing to the Cold

Chris Shelley says that training in Butte provided a nice break from the frigid cold of Milwaukee. “When we trained in Milwaukee and it was 22 on the scoreboard, it felt worse than 0 degrees in Butte, because of the humidity and the wind.” He adds, “The last training I did in Butte, probably in ‘92 or ’93, [was] with my friend John. We got up early, and it was 0 degrees on the little read-out in the car going to the rink, every single day, for four weeks. By the end of [our] time there…we hit a day where it was 10 degrees. The sun was out, and we took our jackets off. We were wearing our Lycra skinsuits, and that was it. It was like, ‘It’s warm out!’ [And] someone told me it was only 10 degrees. And I was like, ‘Ten!?’ I was so acclimated to the cold weather. Today, [if] it gets below sixty degrees, I have to put a sweater on!”

The Butte Oval Today

Skaters trained at the High Altitude Sports Center from the late 80’s through the early 2000’s. But after 15 years of continual use, the pipes that kept the ice frozen wore out and have not replaced, due to lack of funding. As a result, the Oval today stays open only during the winter months, when the weather is cold enough for natural ice to form. A small group of volunteers, including Dave and his wife Lori, works to keep the Oval open on weekends for public skating. In addition, Dave runs a Learn-to Speedskate Program during the week. He says, “The Oval [has] become a local thing, so we try to be open for the community. We try to make it available if we can…so that people can come out during the season. I run a Learn-to Speedskate Program on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And then on Friday nights, we have an open public session. We call it our Family Night, and it’s really gotten huge throughout the years.

“We’ve [also] put in a nice skate rental. For years…people would show up to skate, but we really didn’t have anything to offer, as far as skates. So we invested in some skates, and I bought a hockey sharpener and a full skate shop. When people rent a pair of skates and they go try them, having a sharp pair of skates really helps. They might try skating again. [So] I think that’s made the biggest difference—having a really sound skate rental.”

Go Fund Me: The Future of the Oval

As far as future plans for the Oval go, Dave says, “A lot of it is just trying to keep maintenance up on the building and on the grounds. We don’t have a lot of money, so it’s a labor of love. We try our best to make the Oval presentable for the general public, so it doesn’t look like it’s abandoned. And each year, we get a little more done….We want to make it known that we’re open certain hours during the season, so people can come out [and skate]. We want to keep going with that.”

Dave also hopes to raise enough money to buy a new plow truck for the Oval, because the truck they currently use to clear snow off the ice is in bad shape. His wife Lori has started a Go Fund Me Page to help reach this goal. Dave says, “The main goal of the Go Fund Me Page is to raise some money to buy a new plow truck. The plow truck we have now is the original truck from 1987. When it was donated to the rink in 1987, it was worn out then. There’s a guy here in Butte who…donates and kind of keeps [the truck] attached together. But it’s really old. It’s going to break down one of these years. It leaks oil on the ice and it overheats. So that’s the primary goal of the Go Fund Me page—to try and raise some money for a new plow truck, so we have something reliable.”

For more information on donating money to help the Oval purchase a new plow truck, go to https://www.gofundme.com/6y4485f8.

Sources

McCoy, Michael. "Off the Beaten Path, 6th Edition." Globe Pequot Publishers: Guilford, Connecticut, 2006.

Sayler, Bruce. “Remembering a Brush with Greatness.” Buttesports.com. September 24, 2012.
Accessed 10/20/15.

*Thanks to Jerry Search for images.


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