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OVAL OPENS WITH A WHIRL OF FESTIVITIES

Published: Saturday, Jan. 13 1996 12:00 a.m. MST

Dozens of young skaters and hockey players raced around and around the speed-skating oval at Oquirrh Park on Friday to finally dedicate the state's newest Olympic facility.

They twirled, they leaped, they sped and they slapped pucks on the 400-meter track that state officials had hoped to open more than a month ago but couldn't because unseasonably warm temperatures kept melting the ice.Friday's long-awaited grand opening featured short-track speed-skater and two-time Olympic gold medalist Cathy Turner, who led a group of fellow champions around the track before being joined by the excited young athletes.

Ten-year-old Melissa Kincher, outfitted in her Salt Lake Sharks goalie uniform, stopped skating long enough to get Turner's autograph on her hockey stick. "I'm going to save it. It's special," Kincher said.

Matthew Florence, 12, watched the skaters from the sidelines. He zipped around the track on roller blades last fall after it opened for in-line skating, but he's never tried ice skating.

Matthew's mom, Wendy, said the oldest of her seven children are thrilled that there's a venue for the 2002 Winter Games just a few blocks from their home.

"It opens up the world for them. My oldest kids are planning where they'll be when the Olympics come. They want to be a part of it," she said, with her 10-month-old son Joshua in her arms.

That's the kind of enthusiasm Olympic organizers hoped for when the Oquirrh Park Fitness Center was chosen as the site of the speed-skating oval after the project was rejected by a Salt Lake neighborhood.

With some 200,000 residents under 30 years old living within five minutes of the speed-skating oval, Olympic organizers believe there should be no shortage of skaters to fill the ice and even to train for the 2002 Winter Games.

"I hope you realize what an opportunity this really is," Turner told the hundreds of parents and children who tramped through a muddy field to take in the speeches, skydivers and singers at the grand opening ceremony.

Turner said she had to travel hundreds of miles from her home in Rochester, N.Y., to prepare for Olympic competition. "I would have given anything to have a track like this in my own back yard."

The $4.1 million oval was built with tax dollars, which will be repaid by the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee when it takes over the state's Olympic facilities for $59 million.

The organizing committee will use Olympic revenues to cover the oval and make the other modifications necessary to host speed-skating events there during the 2002 Winter Games.

The facility will be open to the public Monday through Friday from 6 to 9:30 p.m. and Sundays from 3 to 6:30 p.m. Rates are $3.50 for adults, $2.50 for students and $1.50 for senior citizens. Skates can be rented for $1.50.

Free skating will be offered this Saturday from 5 until 9 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. to anyone bringing a can of food to donate to the Utah Food Bank.

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