History: Ice memories: 50 years since Golden Girls, 70 for NBSSC
Exactly 50 years ago this month, in February 1972, Northbrook was basking in the glow of its newly acquired title as "The Speed Skating Capital of the World."
The sudden global recognition came about because of the startling success of Northbrook speed skaters Anne Henning and Dianne Holum at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. Each won a gold medal -- Henning, 16, a Glenbrook North junior, in the women's 500-meter event and Holum, 20, in the 1500 -- and each also added a second medal (Holum a silver in the 3000, Henning a bronze in the 1000).
Together the "Golden Girls" from Northbrook accounted for half of the eight total medals won by the United States in Sapporo. including two of Team USA's three golds. The entire nation embraced the young speedskating duo. As mentioned in "Northbrook, Illinois: The Fabric of Our History," one newspaper reported: "Northbrook, Ill., put the United States on the world Olympic map ... and lifted the Stars and Stripes out of the Olympic gutter."
On Valentine's Day 1972, one of the biggest celebrations in Village history awaited the two (along with three other Northbrook speed skaters on the '72 team -- Neil Blatchford, Greg Lyman, and Leah Poulos) when they arrived home.
A long flight delay canceled a planned ticker-tape parade in Chicago, but Mayor Richard J. Daley still welcomed the Olympians when they finally arrived at O'Hare Airport. Then a car caravan headed for Northbrook where a delayed but enthusiastic ceremony awaited at Meadowhill Park. It was a magical occasion, and the festivities attracted a crowd that by some estimates reached 7,000.
While 2022 marks 50 years since those thrilling '72 Winter Olympics, this year also marks another milestone anniversary: It has been 70 years since the founding of the Northbrook Speed Skating Club (NBSSC), which has served as the foundation for "The Speed Skating Capital of the World" designation.
Ed Rudolph, who coached the 1972 U.S. Olympic women's speed skaters, founded the club in 1952, and since then it has been described as a "pipeline to the Olympics." That is because the club has had at least one member on all but two of the 19 U.S. Winter Olympics teams going all the way back to 1952.
Rudolph, who served 28 years as a Northbrook Park District commissioner, was instrumental in developing the Meadowhill Park Velodrome that is named for him. (Cycling is a natural summer training activity for speed skaters.)
Longtime Village residents may remember when ice skating was "the" winter activity in Northbrook. By 1950, skating races sponsored by the Deerfield-Northbrook Rotary Club already were popular. Skating received even more of a boost in 1953 when a huge, five-acre rink opened that stretched from the water tower embankment across to Cherry Lane (construction of the underpass did not begin until 1958; the library opened at its current location in 1969). Other outdoor ice rinks included Village Green Park along the river and Meadowhill Park. The indoor Northbrook Sports Center, which began as the Sports Complex, opened in 1968.
Though Holum and Henning put the speedskating spotlight on Northbrook, Holum already had won silver (500) and bronze (1000) medals at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France. That accomplishment began an amazing stretch of nine Olympic medals won by three Northbrook women during four consecutive Winter Olympics. Following the "Golden Girls" in 1972, Poulos captured a silver medal (1000) in 1976 in Innsbruck, Austria, before coming back to win two more silvers (500, 1000) in 1980 while competing as Leah Poulos-Mueller in Lake Placid, NY.
As the Northbrook Speed Skating Club turns 70, it will not have a representative in the current Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. Still, the club has this impressive legacy: Beginning with those 1952 Winter Games, 19 NBSSC club members have been U.S. Olympians -- with many participating in multiple Winter Olympics.
Of those, six were medalists who accounted for 12 medals (two gold, seven silver, three bronze). In addition to the nine medals won by Holum, Henning, and Poulos-Mueller, NBSSC members Andy Gabel (1994, silver, 5000-meter short track relay), Lana Gehring (2010, bronze, 3000-meter relay), and Brian Hansen (2010, silver, team pursuit) also were Olympic medalists.
The Village may no longer be recognized as "The Speed Skating Capital of the World," but as the Northbrook Speed Skating Club heads into its eighth decade, it is continuing to both preserve Olympic memories and encourage future Olympic dreams. As Hansen said in 2014: "Being a speed skater made me unique ... It's a fun sport, and it's been quite the journey."
To help commemorate its history, the NBSSD will host the 2022 NorthBurke Short Track Open on Feb. 19 at the Northbrook Sports Center, 1730 Pfingsten Road. The event title honors Chuck Burke, a longtime NBSSC supporter and Northbrook's first Olympian -- 70 years ago in Oslo, Norway, during the year the club was founded. For more information, email NorthBurkeST@gmail.com.