Are the suburbs an Olympic ice skating hub?
The Northbrook Speed Skating Club doesn't have one or two Olympians among its alumni. It has 19.
Its skaters have competed in all but one of every Winter Olympics since 1952, winning 12 medals and earning Northbrook the nickname "the speed skating capital of the world."
But the suburbs are represented in Sochi's Winter Olympics for ice sports other than speedskating. Besides three local speed skaters, the suburbs have ties to about a dozen other Olympians -- including three curlers, two bobsledders, two hockey players, and three figure skaters (not including 2010 gold medalist Evan Lysacek of Naperville, who bowed out a few weeks ago due to injury).
Is it just a coincidence, or are the suburbs actually an Olympic ice skating hub?
Skating coaches and former Olympians say that the area is a world-class regional skating hub.
The suburbs have an impressive history of producing ice sport champions, from Downers Grove women's hockey legend Cammi Granato to four-time Olympian speed skater David Cruikshank of Northbrook.
With so many suburban-bred athletes in the Winter Olympics this year, people are recognizing what a serious training ground this is, said Laura Kaplan, skating director at Twin Rinks Ice Pavilion in Buffalo Grove.
Figure skater Gracie Gold, for example, could have trained anywhere in the United States, yet spent several months last year training at Twin Rinks, Glacier Ice Arena in Vernon Hills, and Center Ice of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.
"The Chicagoland area has always had very, very strong competitive figure skaters come out of this area. People don't necessarily know that, because sometimes they only make it to regionals and sectionals. But people in the skating world know," Kaplan said. "We've always had strong skaters in the Chicagoland areas and very strong coaches."
Athletes tend to go where the top coaches are, and many of them are here. Some are former Olympians who have returned to the area to live and coach. Long-track skater Brian Hansen of Glenview, for example, who will compete in Sochi, did much of his training here with four-time Olympian Nancy Swider-Peltz, a Maine South and Wheaton College grad who lives in Wheaton.
Olympic figure skater Jason Brown of Highland Park also did much of his training here with the same Northbrook-based coach he's had since age 5, Kori Ade.
Even 83-year-old Chuck Burke, a Northbrook speed skater in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics, still coaches young skaters at the Northbrook Sports Center.
"There are a lot of really good coaches in this area. It's that chemistry between the coach and the kid that has to be really, really good. And you can still keep a grounded and balanced life here. That's important with a lot of kids," said Chris Howarth, the Vernon Hills skating coach and 1980 Olympian who will do figure skating commentary from Sochi on the Olympic Broadcasting Service.
Once athletes reach a certain level, they'll often train in other places -- rinks in West Allis, Wis., or the Olympic training centers in Lake Placid, N.Y., or Colorado Springs, Colo. But Olympic parents like the "normal" life yet sports dedication suburban Chicago offers.
"The commitment from the parents, the way the family and schools approach the sport, is way more intense here. It makes such a difference," Howarth said. "Most (skaters) are unbelievably motivated. They're not all going to be champions, but they're going to at least achieve their potential. And you can't ask for more than that."
Ice time can be hard to come by in the suburbs, since the arenas are public and must be shared with other groups. Even the Northbrook Speed Skating Club only gets ice time for practices twice a week, since the rink is owned by the park district and must be used for other programs.
Little local rinks, where Olympians like Neil Blatchford trained in the 1960s, no longer exist. Blatchford, 68, a Deerfield resident and member of the 1968 and 1972 Olympic speed skating teams, said training wasn't as intense or high-tech then as it is now -- he actually played other sports during his Olympic years. But growing up in the suburbs made it possible to see great skaters, like three-time Olympian and Northbrook native Eddie Rudolph.
Rudolph inspired both Blatchford and his sister, Sally, to become Olympic speed skaters. They're among of a handful of Olympic speed skaters siblings, including Wisconsin natives Eric & Beth Heiden and Wheaton-bred Jeffery and Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr., who are the children of Olympian Nancy Swider-Peltz.
"It's not a big sport ... but it's a huge family sport," Blatchford said. "It really is amazing that there are so many Olympians from here."
That local connection to the winter games makes it extra special for young skaters, many of whom have met or skated with the Olympic team members at their local rinks.
"The skaters here know them on a personal level," Kaplan said, "and everyone's so excited for them."
Skating: Young athletes' parents like the 'normal' but dedicated life in suburbs
Olympians from Northbrook Speed Skating ClubChuck Burke -- 1952, 1956
Beverly Buhr -- 1960
Eddie Rudolph -- 1960, 1964, 1968
Neil Blatchford -- 1968, 1972
Sally Blatchford -- 1968
Gregory Lyman -- 1972
Ann Henning* -- 1972
Dianne Holum* -- 1968, 1972
Leah Poulos* -- 1972, 1976, 1980
Mark Huck -- 1984
Jan Guldman -- 1984, 1985
Lydia Stephans -- 1984
David Cruikshank -- 1988, 1992, 1994, 1998
Andy Gabel* -- 1992, 1994, 1998
Nathaniel Mills -- 1992, 1994, 1998
Margaret Crowley -- 2006
Lana Gehring* -- 2010
Brian Hansen* -- 2010, 2014
Mitch Whitmore -- 2010, 2014
* = medal winner. Henning won one gold and one bronze medal; Holum won one gold, two silver and one bronze medal; Poulos won three silver medals; Gabel won a silver medal; Gehring won a bronze medal; Hansen won a silver medal.
Source: Northbrook Speed Skating Club