ICE SKATING is enjoying unprecedented popularity throughout America. Developers in the Baltimore region are responding by erecting an precedented number of new indoor rinks. In an area where ice time was so scare not long ago that hockey leagues routinely scheduled games and practices after midnight and figure skaters were perfecting double toe loops before the sun rose, this building spree is putting smiles on the faces of serious and casual skaters.

Baltimore County's approval this month of a $5.3 million project in the Fullerton area, planned to include two National Hockey League-sized rinks, is the most recent manifestation of this boom. Last winter, in Howard County, the Columbia Association approved construction of a new rink in Harper's Choice. Weeks later, Anne Arundel officials gave a private group the green light to build an indoor rink on county land in Pasadena.

Even skating's most enthusiastic boosters have underestimated demand. Last year, the owners of Ice World, a new indoor facility in Harford County's Abingdon, had booked 1,800 hours with schools, youth hockey leagues and other skating programs months before it even opened the doors.

The televised spectacle of the Winter Olympics, as well as other competitions, has exposed more people to the speed, artistry, athleticism and beauty of skating. Even the dubious episode that involved Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding a few years back lent the sport unprecedented exposure.

The Olympics have also broadened the following for speed skating and hockey, which, of course, is also popular at the professional and semi-professional levels.

The increase in rinks not only means more opportunities for people to skate year-around, but the level of skating is likely to rise as coaches and instructors flock to new facilities.

The most noticeable rush of interest seems to be in female figure-skating. Little girls now aspire to be Michelle Kwan or Tara Lipinski much as girls were enthralled with champion gymnast Mary Lou Retton in the 1980s. Not everyone has the ability or the dedication needed to land an "axel" or execute a "camel." But once skating's fundamentals are mastered, it is a sport that can be enjoyed for a long, long time.

Pub Date: 4/25/97

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