Veni Vidi Speedskating and Mary Wong

A little background on Mary Wong, and speedskating in the Bay Area:

Northern California Speedskating has been made possible by the many volunteers who find a way to contribute. This article is not about all the many many people who have made speed skating possible in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is just a brief history of our sport from 1976 to now. This club would have folded within the first year if not for the many people who love speed skating and know it takes effort to keep it going.

Northern California Speedskating is a member club of US Speedskating, and is considered a “large club” with a regular registered membership of over 40 skaters each year. Speedskating is a very small sport in the United States, with less than 2,500 regular members registered with US Speedskating each year, including Olympic team and World Team members, local skaters, coaches, and other supporters of the sport.

Mary Wong and her husband Greg Wong founded the local speedskating club in 1988 and have helped it grow from a few local skaters just having fun going fast on a local rink, to an organized group with non-profit corporate status, US Speedskating sanctioned races, a regular skate-school program, and certified coaches and race officials. Greg and Mary are also active within the national organization.

In the 1970s and 80s there weren’t many ice rinks in the Bay Area. Speed skaters were having a hard time finding rinks where they could train, and if a skater tried to go fast at a public sessions, they were generally invited to leave.

For Mary, skating starts in 1975, when she started skating for fun at the Southland Mall ice rink in Hayward with high school friends. Greg Wong was racing in Bay Area cycling races around this time. In 1976 he was inspired by World Champion cyclist Sheila Young winning a Gold Medal in the 500m Long Track event at the Innsbruck Winter Olympics. He and his friends got skates and started going to as many skating sessions as they could find, and he met Mary at the Southland ice rink. Mary thought the guys on the long blades looked silly following each other around and around. But, going really fast looked like fun. Soon Mary had her own cool skating outfit: wool tights, rainbow suspenders and fixed-blade leather Planert speed skates which she purchased for $80 at Berkeley Iceland.

The Bay Area has had speed skating clubs come and go over the years, including one that called themselves the Berkeley Pacers. Some of their skaters competed in the 60’s in St. Louis and lived in Milwaukee to train at the West Allis rink to try for the ’68 Olympics. In 1977 a handful of speed skaters, including Olympic cyclist Jack Disney, tried to keep weekly speed skating practices at the Redwood City rink. Interest waned and the sessions died out. Greg and Mary met speed skaters at the Redwood City sessions and picked up a couple of hints about skating and training. When the sessions ended, Greg and Mary settled for skating at a public session once a week at Berkeley Iceland, where they taught their children to skate.

In 1980 the Lake Placid Olympics featured the Miracle on Ice Hockey game, and the astounding performance of American Eric Heiden, who won gold in each of the five long track events: 500, 1000, 1500, 5000, and 10,000. He set a world record in his last Olympic event: the 10,000.

Greg and Mary were tired of being warned to “slow down” during the public skating sessions. Shortly before the 1988 Calgary Olympics, Mary was visiting family in Los Angeles and discovered a speedskating club in Paramount. When she showed up at a session hosted by the DeMorra club she felt like she had stepped from the stone-age to the space-age. Skaters wore Lycra tights or skin-suits, helmets, and had fiberglass boots with blades that bolted to the bottom and could be moved. The skaters told her to get in touch with a family in Australia that made the skates: Inze and Sara Bont. Once back home, Greg and Mary made a call to Sydney Australia and found out how to order these skates.

Long Track speedskating has been an Olympic event for over 100 years, but Short Track speedskating was a demonstration sport at the Calgary Olympics in 1988. The TV coverage from February 14th to February 27th gave viewers American favorite Bonnie Blair setting a new World Record and taking gold in the 500m. Intense coverage of Bay Area figure skaters Brian Boitano and Debi Thomas, the debut of the Jamaican bobsled team, and ski jumper Eddy the Eagle, meant more TV viewers saw exciting speedskating events, although no Americans medaled in short track.

On March 13, 1988 skaters attended the first regular session of the new Golden Gate Speed Skaters, at Iceland in Belmont, where ice time was $40 per hour. Mary collected $5 from each attendee. The club had no rules, no pads, no helmets, no coach and no track. Blocks were literally red-painted wooden blocks.

That first session lit a fire among a few skaters to make the club into something that would last.

By the fall of 1988 the skaters had to find a new location for regular sessions. The now long-gone Fashion Island Mall in Foster City had an ice rink. Greg and Mary took the manager out for dinner and got an assurance that there was with time available for speed sessions. The manager asked if we had safety pads. We assured him we did. Once we got home, we made 8 or 10 phone calls in a panic and got skaters to donate enough funds to purchase thick high-density foam in 4 foot by 8 foot sections from Bob’s Foam Factory in Fremont, and blue tarp and duct tape from Price Club, now known as Costco. Skaters gathered in the Wong’s garage for a pad-making party, and transported the new safety pads by car and truck to the Fashion Island rink.

Skaters started to order the new short track skates from Bont. Skaters met at the Wong’s house for sloppy foot-casting parties, using alginate and plaster-of-paris, following instructions the Bonts had mailed to the Wongs.

Mary designed a logo and the club printed shirts to raise funds for awards for a race and for more safety pads. Greg wrote to the national organization and received a letter back, telling in touch with Jerry Search. Greg called Jerry and he helped us to organize the club, become part of the national organization, attend training camps and learn how to train other skaters.

One of our skaters was in medical school at Stanford with Eric Heiden. He convinced Eric to join us for dryland at Angel Field in 1989.

Mary was coached by Dianne Holum at a week-long camp in the summer of 1989 in Northern Michigan. In 1990 Greg and Mary helped to host a week-long camp in Eugene Oregon, where Dianne again coached athletes from Eugene and Springfield, the Bay Area, and the Los Angeles area.

This is where world-class in-line skater Eddy Matzger (in the Golden Gate Speed Skaters shirt) met his mentor, Dianne.

In the early 1990s Greg and Mary and family attended a few 3-day camps in Los Angeles that were coached by Dianne Holum, Guy Daignault, and Pat Maxwell.

Skaters from NorCal started showing up at national racing events and camps in greater numbers. Mary and Greg have raced and medaled at many National Age-Group Competitions.

Jerry Search’s photography hobby took him to events all over the US, shooting high quality pictures and video. He made VHS format tapes of competitions and camps. As soon as a competition or camp concluded, skaters started pestering him for the latest videos, which he sold to try to cover some of his expenses. Greg and Mary had a standing order for the latest videos, and hosted pot-luck viewing parties with the regular skaters. We ran those tapes through the video player, backing them up, and watching them in slow-motion over and over, to analyze technique and perfect our own understanding of skating.

Mary started coaching cross country and track and field through the Catholic Youth Organization in 1991. Suddenly, she found herself managing of team of 40-50 kids from Kindergarten through 8th grade. The person in charge of the CYO group for Alameda County inspired Mary to learn more about coaching and training.

By 1992 Golden Gate Speed Skaters petitioned the national governing body to form a new association, and became the Northern California Speedskating Association. Mary obtained corporate status with the state of California, and 501(c)(3) non-profit status with the IRS. Greg and Mary hosted the first of many local coaching and skating clinics. Jerry Search brought Rusty Smith to conduct a clinic.

Rusty adjusting a skater’s form in the corner

on ice drills at Fashion Island, Foster City

Rusty went on to win a Bronze Medal in the 500m at the 2002 games in Utah, and another Bronze with the US Relay team in 2006 in Turin, Italy.

Mary has been the NorCal representative to the National Congress and she has written for the national speedskating magazine, the Racing Blade.

Before the advent of email and social media, the club published a newsletter written by many different skaters and mailed to club members with race results and entry forms. A skater who was attending Stanford posted the first website in the world devoted to a speedskating club. Why not, in the heart of Silicon Valley? These funny and informational newsletters will one day be scanned and linked to the Northern California Speedskating website.

In 1995, the new Oakland Ice Center opened. Skaters started an Oakland skating club and secured ice time with the rink soon after they broke ground. Initially skating sessions were very early Sunday mornings. Eventually the skating time moved to the Saturday ice time we use today. Skaters at those first sessions will remember that entering the rink was like entering a construction zone, with one area or other never quite completed. The reason was financial. The rink, under a different management company, had a loan secured by the City of Oakland. No payment was due on the loan until the building was “completed.” The rink was operating and collecting fees, but not paying on the loan. As soon as the building was finished, they defaulted on the loan, and the city suddenly found themselves proud but reluctant operators of a baby ice rink.

Bonnie Blair toured the US for JC Penney and had a stop in the Bay Area 6/3/95.

On 1996, there were rumors of a new rink in San Jose. Mary found out the name of the builder and met him where the San Jose rink was marked out with little flags in the dirt. The charter for the rink required them to provide public session ice time for “all” of the ice skating sports, so NorCal was given a pay-at-the-door speed session when the rink opened in 1997, in exchange for a promise of trying to host Nationals in the future.

Around 1997 the club initiated a learn-to-speedskate program at the Oakland rink with help from coaches Ruggy Holloway and Greg Wong which lasted for about two years.

Mary arranged a weight training clinic.

Around this time, one of our skaters, Kimon Papahadjopoulis was able to arrange for former National Coach Wilma Boomstra to coach private lessons once a month at Berkeley Iceland, and Mary got to play hooky from work to meet Wil and get the latest on short-track technique. Wil’s skaters included Olympians JR Celski and Eddy Alvarez.

In 1999 NorCal hosted the US Nationals at the San Jose Ice Center with Mary, and Bob Payne as co-meet directors. The safety pads used now at the sessions in Oakland and San Jose were purchased in 1998 through the fund-raising efforts of skaters and parents.

In 2002 short track speed skating popularity exploded overnight when people saw Apolo Ohno at the Salt Lake Olympics. NorCal wasn’t quite prepared for over 50 skaters showing up at a speed sessions fighting over the small pool of rental skates. Again our skaters went into problem-solving mode. Funds were raised, in part through a donation secured from an inline skate company, and additional club skates were purchased.

One of the skaters who joined the club after this Olympic cycle, Yasmen Mehta, arranged yearly camps for NorCal with another former national coach, Sue Ellis.

With each Olympic cycle the media contacts our group for commentary on our favorite sport. Mary frequently gets to be the spokesperson for TV, radio or print.

In 2004, before the Athens Summer games, Sprint was shooting an ad to announce the release of their new phone: the PM8920 in July of 2004. It was the first phone in the U.S. to feature a 1.3-megapixel camera capable of capturing 1280 x 960 pixel resolution shots. Not only could you share these pictures wirelessly, they were good enough to print as well. The ad, featuring Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin, was filmed at the San Francisco Ice rink. The ad shows Natalie watching a speedskating workout and posting pictures to her friends. The skaters in the ad were Jade Wheeler, Lezleigh Jaworski and Alice Kim of Los Angeles, and Mary Wongm with Jerry Search and Mary providing technical advise to the production crew.

In 2005, Greg wrote the race management program we use today to set up all aspects of running a race, from entering the participants, creating divisions, printing heat cards, making lane assignments, entering in the results and creating the results, and printing the Personal Best certificates. The race manager allows NorCal to produce race results in almost real time because skaters can log into the website and view results as soon as they are posted.

Mary took over planning the speed sessions in late 2006 after she and Greg attended a skating clinic in Saratoga Springs with Pat Maxwell. It’s important to attend clinics to stay informed about changes in skating technology and be aware of new training techniques.

Greg and Gene Thurston started the Oakland Skate School Learn-to-Speedskate program in September of 2009 when the number of regular speed skaters dipped too low to ensure our club would have funds to continue to pay for ice time. The volunteer skate school coaches have included Gene, Greg and Mary as well as Sean Olson, Bob Katsma and Anna Carloni who coached two of the Wong grandchildren. Additional help in coaching skate school has come from former skate school students Elbert Xie, Dylan Gould, Jason Wong and Yuki Yasue.

Around 2010 Greg was appointed to the US Speedskating Coaching Committee after nomination by Jerry Search. Greg assisted in updating the Coaching Training Program manuals. First the manuals were scanned, then Greg put them through optical character recognition, then Greg and Mary were part of the group to edit and realign the pages and prepare them for updated images and URL links.

With input from Greg, US Speedskating created the Fundamental Coach program around 2012 for coaches under 18 years old. To date, all of the USS Fundamental Coaches are with NorCal, certified by Mary.

In 2013, US Speedskating went through a restructuring and the Coaching Committee was pared down to become the Coaching Task Force. Greg is currently head of the task force. He and Marion Wolhrab of US Speedskating look at issues regarding coaching problems or coaching certification in the US. He also reviews and votes on the Coach of the Year Awards, and reviews and rates scholarship applications for the Amateur Skating Union scholarship fund. Mary’s coaching work includes writing recommendations for students applying to attend private high schools and colleges and universities. In 2015 Greg hosted a referee clinic so that California competitions would have meet officials with the required certifications.

Mary and Greg are both Level II Coaches. Mary is currently a Level III “Coach-in-progress” and expects to complete her requirements by summer 2017. Greg and Mary skate every week, and do some form of “dryland” at least four days a week, which can include slideboard, running, stairs, cycling, or traditional skate imitations and jump drills.

Greg and Mary continue to attend the yearly USS congress to meet officials and attend seminars. Each year the Wongs attend a long track Masters’ camp at the Kearns oval and catch up with Masters skaters from all over the US and Canada. The camp includes a meet and greet with US Speedskating officers and staff, where everyone gets to share ongoing developments and concerns.

Long-lasting friendships have come through skating.

The Wongs and Bonts have maintained close friendships.

Many of our younger skaters also travel to camps and competitions and find friends where ever they go.