KEARNS — The sun pouring through an abundance of windows, 6,000 speedskating fans, interior and TV camera lights, the altitude, air temperature and, yes, the ice — it all may translate into world-record times this weekend at the Utah Olympic Oval.

While some are predicting fast times at the oval, many remember how building the arena was about like watching wet cement turn to concrete — progress was slow.

Construction began in June 1999 and was stalled by a partial roof collapse in April, 2000, when just a month earlier builders were saying how strong the cables are that hold up the roof. While the cables held, bolts helping to hold them in place were sheared off under the tension, releasing one cable and causing one-twelfth of the roof to cave in. Three people suffered minor injuries in the collapse.

Workers were held back again late last year when the concrete oval had to be completely replaced due to unexpected movements in the oval's refrigeration tubes.

Skaters were expecting to be training at the oval by October, 2000. They were forced to improvise and train elsewhere. Several events at the oval were canceled as a result of the delays. Friday, Layton Construction is taking part in a press briefing at the oval to usher in the new facility along with Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Mitt Romney.

But when it comes to construction debacles, skaters have short-term memories.

As Utah prepares to host the World Single Distance Speedskating Championships, U.S. speedskaters are giving high praise and a few predictions for a place they're happy to finally call "Home."

"I think it's going to be faster than Calgary," said Bart Schouten, U.S. all-around coach. There are three indoor ovals in North America — the third is a training facility in Milwaukee.

Schouten praised ice-maker Marc Norman, who also worked on the track in Wisconsin, for his expertise in readying Utah's 400-meter oval to near perfection. "I'm glad he's here."

The density of the ice, Schouten added, and the air temperature, which affects the oval's gripping ability, also impact a skater's ability to log personal bests and world-record times. Skaters, though, are noticing the unseen or X-factor — altitude.

"It hurts a lot," said U.S. speedskater Chris Callis, who is finding that skating longer distances in the world's highest indoor oval —it's at 4,675 feet above sea level— is tougher than he thought. "It feels like your air is cut short." Jondon Trevena trained last week at the oval and agrees with his teammate.

"It has hurt this last week," said Trevena. One advantage U.S. skaters may have going into competition here, though, is the "train low, live high" philosophy. Most of the team lives above 7,000 feet in Deer Valley and trains at lower elevations in Salt Lake City and Park City.

"It makes a difference," said Trevena. "I think it's going to be an advantage." As for the new oval, "I think a lot of records will be broken in all distances." Trevena holds the national records in the 3,000 and 5,000 meter events.

The team will continue to train in Kearns this summer long after most foreign skaters have left the country to train at lower elevations, another advantage, Trevena said, going into the 2002 Winter Olympics.

U.S. skaters Joey Cheek, Kip Carpenter, KC Boutiette and Annie Driscoll have all racked up personal best times. Cheek skated a personal best in Heerenveen, Netherlands, last month, but did not hesitate saying the Utah oval is faster. Because of the oval's altitude, the air is thinner and offers less resistance as skaters zip around the track.

One adjustment Cheek will make during competition at the Utah oval is to cut out his 50-minute commute from Deer Valley. Sitting in a car that long can have an effect on a skater's legs, he said. Even the light inside the oval will have an impact on skaters.

"I love how this place is open and bright," Cheek said following an afternoon of training. He and several other U.S. skaters recalled how most indoor facilities are dimly lit and drab. Windows around the top and bottom of the arena let in sunlight throughout the day while artificial light provides even more brightness.

The sun and artificial lights, along with a full house during competition and heat from TV camera lights, may change the arena's air temperature and bring a slightly different grip to the ice, said Carpenter. "No matter what they do to it, it seems to be indestructible," said Carpenter. Constant "tweaking" of the ice in recent weeks hasn't seemed to affect the speed of the oval. Still, Carpenter relented, "Calgary at it's best may be better."

"It needs some color, though," said Driscoll, looking around the oval. Still, she was just excited to finally be skating on home ice. "I think it's great. We've never had anything like this in the states. This is our own Calgary." Despite the slight presence of construction dust and dirt in the air and in the ice during training, Driscoll described the ice as "amazingly fast."

Although most competitors train in their own country, U.S. skaters and coaches are predicting Utah's oval will draw skaters from around the world. Venue operators are hoping the oval will draw more than a few spectators this weekend and during the Olympics.

Following are a few tidbits of oval trivia you can share with friends, family and fans while cheering on skaters this weekend and in 2002.

— The Utah Olympic Oval is located at 5624 S. 4800 West, Kearns.

— Now complete, the building is 275,000 square feet, large enough to enclose four football fields or six acres.

— Two full-size hockey rinks are located inside.

— The ceiling is 55 feet high, and the roof above the 310-foot-wide, 655-foot-long building is held in place by 12 suspension cables.

— The 12 suspension cables and the roof's 108-foot mast weigh more than 20 tons and each cable is about 3 5/8 inches thick. Tension on the cables approaches 650,000 pounds.

— Because of the cables supporting the roof, there are no view-obstructing columns on the inside of the arena.

— Seating capacity is 6,500, and the oval can accommodate more than 2,000 recreational skaters at once.

— There are 33 miles of refrigeration/freeze tubes embedded in the concrete beneath the 400-meter oval, which is 12 meters wide and divided into three lanes. Also beneath the ice is a sand base, a plastic sheet, two inches of rigid foam board and two layers of plastic sheeting with a lubricant between to account for expansion and movement of the concrete.

— The temperature of the concrete is about 18 degrees F.

— Inside the arena, the air is recycled through a two-stage filtering system.

— Total cost of the arena is about $30 million or one-tenth of the cost of the indoor oval in Nagano.

— After the 2002 Olympics, management of the oval will change from the Salt Lake Organizing Committee to the Utah Athletic Foundation and the oval's name will be more commonly called Oquirrh Park Oval.


E-mail: [email protected]