Alena Heck-Coleman loves speed skating, which can be a complicated sport at times. But the 9-year old Thunder Hill Elementary School pupil gave a simple answer as to why she wants to keep doing it.
"I like to go fast," Alena said after a practice session last week.
Alena is one of many Howard County residents who are part of the National Capital Short Track Speed Skating Club, based at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel.
The 30-year-old club has skaters of all ages and levels who practice and compete regularly.
Alena and Andrew Pak, 17, a Howard High junior, are two of the club's regulars.
Pak's father was a speed skater, and that's what drew his son to the sport.
Alena's father said his daughter became interested in the sport by watching speed skating on television during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
"She was watching the Olympics and saw that they [went] fast," said Alan Heck. "And she wanted to go fast."
Heck said his daughter soon joined the club and often practiced twice a week.
One of the times to skate was a two-hour session that started at 6 a.m. on Saturdays. That happened regularly, but the elementary school pupil had little trouble getting ready for her early-morning workout.
Alena would wake up at 4:45 a.m. and be at the Gardens Ice House soon after, on the ice and ready to go. "We had no trouble getting her up," her father said.
The club's practice schedule has changed, and Alena practices once a week. She's competing in the pee-wee division (for ages 9 and 10) and will be racing in the 300-, 400- and 700-meter events this winter.
She has won gold, silver and bronze medals in regional competitions.
"I like to try to win races," she said. "I [even] like to slide into the pads [at the side of the track]."
Pak doesn't often slide in to the pads.
He is in his seventh year of speed skating and practices seven days a week. He'll skate five days a week and do off-ice training the other two for about two hours per day.
"I watched my father's old videos, and I got interested," Pak said. "My father used to speed skate in the long-track mode. But I do short-track."
Long-track racing is held on ovals at least 400 meters long but internationally have been more than 1,000 meters long, according to the U.S. Speedskating, the sport's governing federation in the United States. Short-track racing is conducted on ovals of about 100 meters, about the size of a regulation hockey rink.
Pak is climbing the ladder of the short-track work, with a specialty in events totaling more than 1,000 meters. Before Christmas, he went to the U.S. Junior Trials and finished 15th out of 50. His goal is making the 2010 Olympics in Italy.
"I like the racing, the speed, the passing," Pak said. "Basically, it's the fact that you're in the race against five other guys.
"The pressure is a lot, but you just have to use that when you're racing. There's a lot of competition, but it's friendly."
He is mainly working on getting faster, Pak said, which is important in a sport where thousandths of a second often separate winners from the rest.
When Pak skates with the Washington-area club, he's one of about 30 members -ages 5 to about 75 - who go there regularly.
David Kennedy is the club's secretary-treasurer and coach of the beginners.
Kennedy, who lives in Sykesville, didn't start speed skating until age 39, when his children got interested after watching it in the 1992 Olympics. He had played intramural ice hockey when he was younger, but the speed-skating bug bit him, too.
"It's wonderful. It's a lot of fun, and it's a great sport," Kennedy said. "The beginners and the adults can both be out there at the same time. In our club, in most clubs, people of all different skill levels are out there."
The club's season runs from September through March, with competitions usually in November, December, February and March.
They practice every Wednesday night at the Gardens Ice House and work on the short-track mode. The local club doesn't train in long-track competition because there is no track big enough.
Kennedy said Americans have had much success in speed skating, winning more medals in that sport than in all other winter sports combined.
At the Laurel club, there's a mixture of seriousness and fun, something that Kennedy thinks is a positive for everyone. "Everybody is different. Some of the kids are very serious skaters, and they are there to do a workout," he said. "Others are there for fun ... to learn to skate. There are adults who are getting exercise or training."
Kennedy and Pak said that improving in the sport, as in any other, is a matter of setting a goal and sticking to it. That's something Alena and the others seem to understand.
"She really enjoys it," Heck said.