KEARNS — They came, they skated — they liked.

Just one month away from the World Single Distance Speed Skating Championships at the Utah Olympic Oval, four members of the U.S. Speed Skating sprint team took their first fluid, gliding laps around the 400-meter track Monday afternoon.

Never mind now that the day was four months overdue. The partial roof collapse and faulty concrete that marred construction of the $29 million oval are Olympic history. The people who know ice finally had their first —pardon the expression — crack at the oval.

Cathy Priestner Allinger, Salt Lake Organizing Committee managing director of sport, knelt to touch the ice for the first time. "It feels good, but it's hard to tell till you get on it," she said. Feeling for smoothness and stickiness, the two-time Olympian and silver medalist (1976) thought the surface might be a bit soft, but she was simply relieved to see athletes using the oval.

"It's been a long time coming. Get 'em on the ice," declared Nick Thometz, three-time Olympian who coached gold-medal winner Bonnie Blair. "That's what it's all about."

The male skaters were loose and said their only goal Monday was to "play around."

And so, with the ethereal music of Sting pouring through loudspeakers hanging high above the bright white ice, Becky Sundstrom, Kip Carpenter, Nick Pearson and Joey Cheek, the American record holder in combined distances, took to the track one week after the World Cup competition in Heerenveen, Netherlands. The remaining members of the eight-strong U.S. speed-skating team remained in Park City, which they've been using as their off-track training base.

"It feels really, really good," said a beaming Sundstrom. "A bit grippy, but grippy is good. I think it's going to be awesome." The member of the 1998 Olympic sprint team predicted the oval's altitude — it is the highest indoor speed-skating track in the world at 4,675 feet above sea level — will have a "huge" effect on competition in March. Altitude could have a positive impact on the density and, consequently, the speed of the ice.

Sundstrom hinted that the oval may reach the world-class caliber of the ice in Calgary, believed to be the world's fastest indoor track — but she had no advice for the people who make the ice. "They know what they're doing."

It's expected the ice will be near-perfect for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

"The skaters have a pretty good idea of what they're looking for," said Thometz. "There's a lot of variables you have to consider."

Ice temperature and density may need adjusting in the coming weeks while the athletes adjust to the altitude.

"They have really been coming along, getting better every week," said coach Mike Crow. Skaters won a bronze and a fourth place in Heerenveen. Crow's team, which includes Elli Ochowicz, Amy Sannes, Chris Witty and Casey FitzRandolph, will train on the home ice in Kearns five times a week — a welcome change from the more improvisational training regimen.

"We had hoped to be on the ice in October," said Crow. "We've gone to Plan B a lot this past year," training in Montana and Calgary, where U.S. speed skaters will be competing in World Cup next month before coming back to Salt Lake City.

Although the delays in construction didn't set their training back, Crow added, "We would have just liked to have been a little more familiar with this location." He credited the U.S. Olympic Committee for coming up with extra funds to accommodate the change in the skaters' schedules.

Informal races are scheduled at the oval for this weekend.


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