Ilsa Shobe, 19, crouched, waiting for the starter’s arm to drop. Twenty-one skin-suited speedskaters launched from the line, quickly settling into a single-file line, arms swinging, long blades slicing the ice. Saving energy for the 10 laps ahead, Shobe tucked into the slipstream of skaters in front of her at the Guidant John Rose Oval, just as, in a larger sense, she followed her mom and grandfather in a family tradition of speedskating.
From 1941, when Shobe’s grandfather, Gene Sandvig, first took to the oval at Powderhorn Park, to 1966 when Susan Sandvig (later, Sandvig Shobe) entered a Silver Skates competition at Lake Nokomis, to 2004 when 4-year-old Ilsa tottered after her mom at the oval in Roseville and her brother, Carl, later followed suit, the story of these three generations gives a glimpse of how speedskating in Minnesota has changed.
A history in the Greater Minnesota Skating Association handbook mentioned a Twin City Skating Club in 1907, a Northwest Skating Club in 1909, and a Norwegian-American Skating Club in 1919. In 1929, the association asked the Minneapolis Park Board to clear, by means of horse-drawn ice shaver, an oval for speedskating at Powderhorn Park. Competitions were held there from 1930 to 1960.
Right from the start, the sport was extremely popular with skaters — women in nearly equal numbers as men — and with spectators. The 1934 National Skating Championships at Powderhorn Park drew a reported 30,000 spectators, similar numbers lining the rink the next year for the U.S. Olympic trials. An oval was maintained on Lake Como that also hosted national and international competitions, while nearly every park in the Twin Cities made a track and held races. Universities had speedskating teams in the 1930s and ’40s. Not surprisingly, Minnesotans made up a sizable contingent on Olympic and world championship teams throughout the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Local speedskaters like Kenny Bartholomew, Bobby Fitzgerald, Art Seaman, Mary Dolan, and Ardelle Mead were household names. This was the milieu 10-year-old Gene Sandvig entered in 1941.
Sandvig, now 88 and still living in south Minneapolis, started as a competitor in the Star Journal’s Silver Skates Derby — winners of neighborhood races competed in the championships at Powderhorn Park, the winner receiving a pair of speed skates. Sandvig didn’t win but, undeterred, walked to Powderhorn to try to earn a spot on the Loring Bearcats, one of the many American Legion-sponsored speed skating clubs in the Twin Cities.
“The Bearcat’s coach, Ted Brandt, set me up to race against a girl two years older, Ardelle Mead,” Sandvig recalled. “I beat her, so the coach gave me a club uniform right away and asked me to join. I was a little guy at 10 years old, and Ardelle was hurt that I beat her — she shared this at my 80th birthday party. In my first race as a club skater I almost beat the national champion. Next year as a midget, I won every race. At first, I used my Aunt Thelma’s speed skates. After that I bought a pair at the hardware store for $6.”
Silver Skates was the pipeline that fed speed skating clubs around the Twin Cities. St. Paul clubs skated at Lake Como, Minneapolis clubs at Powderhorn.
“The national championships had 350 competitors in five age divisions,” Sandvig said. “In 1940, there were 40,000 spectators at the national championships; local meets drew 5,000 to 10,000 spectators. People did not have money back then, the meets were free, and there was no TV, so they watched winter sports.”
Pack-style racing, with six skaters on the ice at a time, meant savvy race strategy was just as important as raw speed, and thrilling rivalries were the order of the day.
Sandvig stayed in shape by playing other sports throughout the year, then when ice was consistent, he hit Powderhorn, working mostly on sprinting and cornering. Strategies he used, like staying with the pack in preparation for the final sprint and not leading too much to conserve energy, have not changed. He didn’t lift weights or follow any special diet, other than eating the steak his mom made for him before big competitions. Even as a seasoned skater, Sandvig didn’t skate every day. In fact, while in college at Gustavus Adolphus, his on-ice training consisted of an hour on Friday night, and races Saturday and Sunday. It was the success of Russian speedskaters in the mid-1950s, he said, that convinced the rest of the skating world to adopt year-round training instead of the August-through-February schedule most practiced.
Like other Olympic sports, speedskating was strictly amateur — no prize purses, no individual sponsorships. American Legions sponsored competitions and maintained clubs that provided skaters with a coach and a uniform — wool knit leggings, jersey and hat. If you were an up-and-comer, the American Skating Union (a forebear of U.S. Figure Skating) might provide travel funds, but Sandvig also raised money on his own. No one expected to make money from the sport.
Sandvig made three Olympic teams — 1952, 1956 and 1960 — won numerous national championships, a couple of North American championships, and a 10,000 Lakes Championship before turning his attention to coaching and refereeing.
At the tender age of 5, Susan Sandvig first participated in the Silver Skates Derby, though by 1966, the Minneapolis oval had shifted from Powderhorn to Lake Nokomis.
“We went to buy skates,” Sandvig Shobe, now 57, remembered. “My dad was looking at figure skates, but I said, no, I wanted speed skates.”
She was asked to join the Bearcats, the same club of her father. Indoor rinks at Parade Stadium, Bloomington, and Minnetonka meant twice weekly practices in the fall and spring, and four days per week in the winter at Nokomis, with races on the weekend. “I usually went every night because my dad was running the practice,” Sandvig Shobe said.
All that ice time paid off — in 1976, at 15, Sandvig Shobe was named to the national team. “A group of us would go down to Nokomis after school, do our homework when we went in to warm up, and be there til 9 or 10 at night,” she said.
While technique didn’t change much from her father’s time, technology did. In 1967, a refrigerated outdoor 400-meter rink was built in West Allis, Wis. The refrigeration not only extended the outdoor season, but it produced smoother, faster ice than natural lake ice. World championship and Olympic trials moved from Minnesota to the oval in West Allis, and gradually, so did the country’s top speedskaters. Hooded, nylon skin-suits were introduced in 1976, providing a second per lap advantage over wool uniforms.
After Title IX passed in 1972, high schools offered many more sports for girls, but speedskating was not one of them (it was offered briefly in the 1990s), so the sport suffered from lack of exposure. Sandvig Shobe pursued speedskating in college, choosing the University of Wisconsin-Madison for its proximity to the West Allis facility. She raced nationally and internationally until a career-ending patellar tendon injury in 1981. After that, she channeled her love of the sport into coaching and refereeing.
“Even in the early 1970s, participation was 10 times less than in my dad’s time,” Sandvig Shobe said. “There were a lot of factors — speedskating is demanding. People would rather watch it on TV than do it. It’s an individual sport, and kids like the camaraderie of a team sport like hockey. The [Minneapolis] Park Board stopped maintaining the 400-meter track at Nokomis, and fewer neighborhood parks made rinks, so kids didn’t have easy access.”
Starting in the 1970s, American Legions, like other civic groups, faced declining membership and could no longer support meets and clubs. The Silver Skates program disappeared.
Speedskating stars — even Olympic gold medalist Eric Heiden — could not earn enough money to live on. Most skaters quit by age 22 or 23.
A changed world
Coming full-circle, Ilsa Shobe, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, lives with her grandfather. They no doubt share the same thrill of flying over the ice, but much about the world of speedskating has changed.
Shobe made her first strokes in Roseville, not a neighborhood lake, because her mom and aunt were coaching there. The oval, the largest outdoor refrigerated sheet of ice in North America, opened in 1993 and is the only 400-meter track in Minnesota. There are only two speedskating clubs in the metro area — Twin Cities and Midway. Shobe estimated there are about 50 skaters in all age divisions between the two clubs. Sandvig noted that the national championship, in Milwaukee in 2019, draws about 125 skaters, down from 350 when he was competing at Lake Como.
Parents and other skaters were the only spectators for Shobe’s race. The three-day meet drew about 150 skaters from the two Twin Cities clubs, Rochester, Illinois and Manitoba. Twin Cities Speedskating provides Shobe a coach but not much else — she has to buy her own clothing and skates (speed skates start at about $350), enter meets ($95 for big meets; $20 for local ones), and pay her own way to competitions in Milwaukee, Calgary, Salt Lake City, Lake Placid. She works out six days a week, year-round — on ice, running, biking, inline skating, and lifting weights.
The Greater Minnesota Speedskating Association has a plan to increase participation.
“We’re trying to reach out to kids who maybe aren’t getting much ice time [in hockey] or who like to skate but don’t like the stick handling or the physical contact,” said Dorothy Bialke, secretary of the association. “In speed skating, no one sits on the bench, and you get to go fast. You don’t even have to enter races — you can do it recreationally. And it’s a lifelong family activity.”
Shobe does not lack for examples of speedskating’s lifelong appeal — her grandfather attended 14 Winter Olympics, either as an athlete, a coach, or an official, and last year was a special guest in Pyeongchang of the Korea Skating Union. Her mother worked as an official at those Olympics.That is something that hasn’t changed about the sport — it’s still powered by Olympic dreams.
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer from St. Paul.