Needing a brief respite from caring for her homebound husband, Penny Jacobs headed toward Cedar Lake, near her home in Minneapolis. Penny had noticed a tall, thin man, usually wrapped in a bright orange jacket, toiling nightly to create a skating oval there. Penny approached him and asked if she might use the ice for a bit.
That was four years ago. Now, 88-year-old Penny and 54-year-old Erik Wardenaar of Golden Valley meet regularly to share the sport they’ve loved since childhood.
“It’s the closest thing to flying,” said Erik, a champion marathon speed skater who left the Netherlands in 1991 to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota.
“I slow-skate,” joked Penny, who also in-line skates around Lake Harriet in summer.
Erik grew up longing for cold weather. “In the Netherlands, winter doesn’t come very often,” he said. “It’s kind of a special treat. As a child, you always skated through the countryside.”
Since arriving in Minnesota, he scouts out lakes at the first real hint of dipping temps, typically in November. “First, you see that the ice is safe,” said Erik, married and the father of an 18-year-old son. “I don’t want to fall through. Then I start shoveling.”
Heavy snow years require a snowblower. Thirty-five-degrees-below days, and there have been a few, require several layers of clothing. “I’ve had some frostbite,” he confessed.
Creating his 300-meter skating oval takes an hour or two. Now he creates it only on Cedar Lake, “so that Penny will have a place to skate.”
Penny was reared on the old North Side. She got her first pair of hand-me-down skates from her older sister at age 5. They were too big, so she stuffed handkerchiefs into the toes. She taught school in Minneapolis for 37 years, not surprisingly taking her charges to Lake Harriet to skate.
She and Sol, who died three years ago, were married for 65 years and raised four children. Since meeting Erik, Penny has hosted him for tea; he and his wife, Sara, have shared dinners with Penny, too. Every day after work at the university’s Bell Museum, where he oversees the fungal collection, Erik heads to Cedar Lake to fly.
“I’m skating better now than I ever have before,” said Erik, who won the 50K race on Lake Bemidji in 2010. But he doesn’t mind slowing down. On a pleasantly sunny January afternoon, Penny zipped up her own orange jacket (to honor the Dutch national color).
She laced up her hockey skates and grabbed Erik’s arm. “He must think, ‘She’s the oldest skater who ever skated my oval,’ ” Penny said delightedly. “And I think that’s the truth.”