, Thursday, December 06, 2001

Fastest ice on Earth

By Brady Snyder
Deseret News staff writer

On bad days, the ice at Utah Olympic Park might be the world's fastest. On good days, it's greased lightning.

Since its opening in January 1999, records on the bobsled track at Utah Olympic Park have fallen with regularity. Every year, luge, skeleton and bobsled athletes clock faster times on the track, tucked away in a mountain nook outside Park City called Bear Hollow.

Some pin the increasingly quick times on better equipment or stronger athletes, but Tracy Seitz, a native of Calgary, Canada, has his own theory.

It's the ice.

Seitz and Hans Sparber are Utah Olympic Park's two ice meisters, charged with crafting perfect sliding ice for Salt Lake's 2002 Winter Games.

The more they work, the faster the ice can be — under the right climatic circumstances, of course.

"Really, in talking to athletes and officials, as far as smoothness and cleanness, it's pretty much unprecedented," Seitz said of his ice.

Smooth and clean — like a china plate freshly washed — combined with cold, clear temperatures are keys to fast ice.

It's a source of pride for the meisters every time a track record is bested at Bear Hollow.

After all, without their efforts to smooth and sculpt the surface, fast times would be in short supply.

The two can spot tiny bumps in the ice invisible to the untrained eye. With homemade tools, they scrape, dig and mold the ice.

When light snow falls, they sweep with brooms, and when heavier precipitation falls, they scrape away the excess.

Making ice

Making ice and making it fast for world-class athletes is a chore Sparber has been at for nearly 30 years.

Having grown up in northern Italy, Sparber speaks German, a little English and is considered one of the world's great ice meisters.

"He loves his job. He's seen every track in the world," said Seitz, who persuaded the Italian to work at Bear Hollow.

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Luge/bobsled track

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Sparber began his career by helping to carve a natural track in Olang, Italy. Later, he would shape ice in Sarajevo for the 1984 Winter Games.

Seitz, a comparative newcomer to the ice-mastering business, took up the craft after he had trouble finding construction jobs during Calgary's cold winters.

Six days a week, the two supervise a crew of 20 that constantly scrapes, spritzes (coating the track with water and letting it freeze) and sweeps.

They use tools of their own design, often fashioned out of common garden instruments.

"For the most part, we can't buy our tools at Wal-Mart. We have to make our own tools from scratch," Seitz said, pointing to a tool crafted out of a dry-wall knife and a rake handle.

The goal for the meisters and their crew is to keep the track ice in top shape from now until the Games. That way they won't have to start anew when the Olympics roll into town Feb. 8.

At Bear Hollow, one of the world's highest tracks, the biggest fear is heat. The sun is so close and atmosphere so thin that surface temperatures regularly rise much higher than air temperatures, and that melts track ice.

"With the elevation we have, it sometimes feels like we're touching the sun. It's so hot," Seitz said.

To fight the battle, the track is equipped with a specialized refrigeration system that can drop the track temperature below freezing in two hours — even if the temperature outside hits 80 degrees.

The system uses ammonia, which is housed in a plant just north of the track and then pumped uphill to the track.

Such refrigeration isn't cheap, and when it's sunny, it's pricey.

"These $2,000-a-week power bills are killing me," Connie Smith, the park's senior business manager, lamented one temperate day.

But that was mid-November, when temperatures were unseasonably warm.

These days, the ice meisters are dealing with a series of massive snowstorms that have caused ice to accumulate on the track.

The goal now is to return the ice back to its ideal 1 1/2- to 2-inch depth. Such depth is optimal because it can keep an 800-pound bobsled pulling four Gs around a corner from hitting concrete bottom but is also thin enough to keep the top from melting if the sun shines.

The work here is all supervised by another Calgarian, Craig Lehto, who touts not only the park's track but also its five ski jumps.

The jumps, Lehto says, have brought history back to Summit County.

A Summit tradition

Many Utahns might not know it, but the state — Summit County in particular — has a long history of ski jumping, dating back to 1929, when Ecker Hill was a ski-jumping hot bed. While Ecker Hill was closed in 1967, during its prime it wasn't uncommon for some 10,000 fans to make the trek up Parleys Canyon to watch events there.

Double that — 10,000 in bleachers and another 10,000 standing — will watch the Olympic competition.

All that remains of Ecker Hill now is a monument — emblazoned with names of past jumpers — but its influence on Utah Olympic Park is unmistakable.

The park boasts a new museum named after famed Ecker Hill jumper Alf Engen, who set numerous world and national ski-jumping records at the historic hill, about two miles north of Bear Hollow.

Utah's new jumps are much different from what remains of Ecker Hill's antique, wooden-framed jump.

At Bear Hollow, the jumps are carved out of the mountainside to shield jumpers from crosswinds and give jumpers an uplift of air as they take flight. While some ski-jump venues around the world use a toe-rope to pull athletes to the top of the hill, the Utah Olympic Park jumping facility is equipped with a double-chair lift to move athletes quickly. A judges tower has also been built near the hills. During the Games, a massive scoreboard and television screen will allow spectators to keep tabs on the competition and enjoy highlights of top jumps.

There are a total of five jumps. However, only the 120-meter and 90-meter jumps are used for Olympic competition.

The three smaller jumps, of 20, 40 and 65 meters, are used for training and to teach children how they can become the next Alf Engen.

The National Sport Foundation, a ski-jumping club, recruits area youths to use the jumps, which are in use year-round. During the snow-less summers, jumpers land on a synthetic surface that looks a little like shingles of green plastic spaghetti. The in-run is designed with porcelain grooves that allow jumpers to shoot down the track even if the first snowflake is months away.

Prior to the construction of the ski jumps, promising American ski jumpers have had to travel to Europe for summer training. Now they have first-rate, year-round facilities on home soil, negating any training edge European or Far Eastern rivals may have previously enjoyed.

"They're the best facilities in the world," said U.S. nordic combined coach Tom Steitz.

Earning a reputation

The international crowd won't argue. Ski jumping's elite competed on the Utah Olympic Park jumps during last January's World Cup competition. The facility gleaned top reviews.

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Utah Olympic Park

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"The hill is fantastic," said former Olympic medalist Masahiko Harada, who helped his Japanese team win the team competition.

"It's a good hill — very well prepared," added Austrian Stefan Horngacher.

For their part, bobsled and skeleton athletes have been equally complimentary.

"It's a great track," Canadian skeleton athlete Michelle Kelly said earlier this year.

Great Britain's Alexandra Coomber — ranked third so far in this year's World Cup skeleton season — said she could see that "a lot of money, time and effort have been put into developing the facility, and it's obviously going to be one of the top tracks in the world. . . .

"For the Olympics, it's what you need."

Other athletes have said that the Bear Hollow track is exceptionally fast but not tricky. It does not give a huge advantage to a local bobsledder or skeleton slider because people who do not train there can learn it relatively easily.

Maybe the only complaint about the park is the environmental toll taken on the mountainside when the jumps were first carved.

"Everybody has their opinion about what it looks like," Lehto said. "It is what it is."

While unusual, there are benefits to having a ski jump so near a bobsled track. There have been talks about having international competitions in both ski jumping and one of the sliding sports on the same days. That way, Lehto said, it would cut down on television production costs. Broadcasters could send one truck to cover two events, he said.

And that brings us back to the track where 15,000 will be watching the ice during the Games.

The attention is fine for Seitz and Sparber. The pair is used to scrutiny, since race officials from all three sliding sports will walk the track daily searching for flaws during the Winter Games.

One of the biggest Olympic challenges for the ice crew will be resurfacing the track — through spritzing and scraping — when bobsled and luge or skeleton events are held on the same days. The problem is the huge bobsleds tear up the smooth ice for the other two sports.

"We will handle it," assures Claire del Negro, the park's senior manager of sliding sports.

But that's more than 60 days away. The meisters have a more immediate problem — accumulating snow and ice.

Sparber is busy scraping ice off the track while Seitz shovels massive chunks that his partner has scraped free.

Sparber checks the depth by scraping a crack into the ice until he hits bottom. It's about 3 inches deep.

He looks up at Seitz.

"Still too deep?" the Canadian asks.

Sparber shrugs his shoulders, sighs and starts scraping again.

It's everyday life at Utah Olympic Park.

Contributing: Jason Swensen and Joe Bauman


© 2001 Deseret News Publishing Company