Susan Mead's daughter, Tiffany, was in high school in September 1996 when The Gardens Ice House opened in West Laurel. At the time, Tiffany was an aspiring figure skater from Oakland Mills High training at a rink in Virginia, but she switched to The Gardens once her mother began to work there.

"I got pulled into figure skating," said Susan Mead, of Columbia, with a laugh. "I had to pay for ice time. I began working at the front desk and moved up."

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Nearly 20 years later, Mead is administrating the Learn To Skate program at The Gardens and is one of several front office employees and instructors who have remained at the 150,000-square-foot facility for its existence.

Those who have stayed have seen a rise in popularity in ice hockey, thanks in part to the success of the first-place Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League. Also, more girls and young women are playing ice hockey at The Gardens, which has one Olympic-sized figure skating rink and two NHL-sized rinks.

Kathy Gates grew up in upstate New York and was a skating instructor in Fairfax, Va., when The Gardens opened. She made the switch to Laurel and has worked there ever since.

"What has kept me there is the kids; I love teaching the beginners," said Gates, an Ellicott City resident. "They are wonderful kids."

Amy Lanier, who lives in Sykesville, was teaching at several rinks in the Baltimore area when The Gardens opened. A few weeks after the opening she began teaching in Laurel and is still there, now four days a week.

"I felt The Gardens was more welcoming to a new coach," said Lanier, whose classes includes Learn To Skate sessions.

While Mead and her instructors are accustomed to losing skaters to a youth hockey team, some of those very players got their start on the ice in the beginners' class that runs year-round. There are Learn to Skate programs on Monday nights and Saturday, and currently there are about 200 students involved, from age 3 to adults, according to Mead.

"We do get more boys in the program now and some go to hockey. And more girls are playing hockey," said Mead, noting January is National Skating Month. "Our numbers absolutely go down in the summer. We lose out in the spring to baseball, soccer, lacrosse and all of those things."

But it also works the other way.

Natasha Ferus' daughter, Viktoria, 6, a first-grader at St. Mary of the Mills in Laurel, used to take gymnastics and swimming classes before she began skating classes about two years ago.

"She loves it," said Ferus, a Laurel resident born in Russia. "It seems they find an approach with every child. It is a fun thing."

Ferus said a class consists of six sessions of 30 minutes each and costs $108.

South Laurel resident Shona Pascarello's daughter, Lilly, 8, has also been taking lessons at The Gardens for about two years. Lily is a second-grader at Heather Hills Elementary in Bowie and has not shown interest in other sports.

"As soon as she gets on the ice she is at peace. She is just happy there," Pascarello said. "That is all I care about."

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Soojin Im's daughter, Grace, a third-grader at Bollman Bridge Elementary, began with the Learn To Skate program and has passed several levels after a slow start.

"Garden's ice skating summer camp was also wonderful," Im, of Laurel, wrote in an e-mail. "They offered a full-time one week camp with before and after care. This was very good for full-time working moms like me. The price was reasonable and the program was very balanced with skating and other activities."

One of the challenges – and perhaps drawbacks – to skating is the rising cost of ice time that makes figure skating and ice hockey out of reach for many families.

"People are little more frugal, if you will, with disposable income," said Greg Maddalone, who has coached at The Gardens for about nine years.

It is much easier for a young athlete to go outside and shoot a basketball and kick a soccer ball than to afford the equipment and ice time to be part of a hockey team or take figure skating lessons.

"The change is in the growth of youth hockey for girls. Now you are starting to lose [girls] to hockey," Maddalone said. As a coach "you try to stress fundamentals, so no matter what their destination is long term they have a basic foundation."

Maddalone is a former U.S. national and international team member, a three-time U.S. national medalist and has been a member of the U.S. Figure Skating's Dance Committee.

The Essex resident was in St. Paul, Minn., the weekend of Jan. 16-17 for the United States Figure Skating nationals as the coach for the dance team of Edward Jahoda, of Hyattsville, and Molly Cesanek, of Warrenton, Va., who train with him in Laurel.

While The Gardens attracts skaters so young they can hardly walk, there have been national level performers who have trained there for the past 20 years. And the West Laurel site gets a taste of the big time each September when former U.S. Olympic competitor Michael Weiss holds his annual charity event at The Gardens that aids up-and-coming skaters.

Weiss grew up in Northern Virginia, attended Prince George's Community College and once trained in Laurel under the late Hall of Famer Don Laws. Some of the notable skaters who have attended Weiss' event in the past, according to Mead, include former U.S. Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano.

Tiffany Vaira, the daughter of Susan Mead, never reached that plateau but eventually graduated from the University of Maryland and is now a lawyer who lives in Sykesville.

Nearly 20 years after taking her daughter to lessons at The Gardens, Susan Mead has remained at the Laurel facility and seen a few trends along the way.

"Definitely kids are starting younger," Mead said. "Some love it and some don't. Whether it is an Olympic year or not, our numbers have stayed pretty consistent. This is our peak time of year."

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