Delaware club churns out ice champions

How large and powerful is the skating club that helped turn Kimmie Meissner into an Olympian?

Too large and powerful to organize a "Kimmie watching" party when the 16-year-old from Bel Air skates tonight and Thursday night in Turin, Italy.

Balloons and pompoms wouldn't feel right at the Ice Skating Science Development Center at the University of Delaware, a dead-serious club with a long name and even longer record of producing world-class skaters.

"As much as we love Kimmie, we're not just about Kimmie's Olympics," said Ron Ludington, the club's founder and director.

Meissner is enormously popular among the approximately 200 skaters who train year-round in the program - "she's an absolute doll," said Jeff DiGregorio, one of the club's 60 full- or part-time coaches - and almost everyone surely will be somewhere watching when she skates.

"I wouldn't miss it. I have talked with her a few times. I consider it an honor. Look where she is now," said Andrew Reiss, a 14-year-old skater from Franklin Park, N.J., after a workout Sunday.

But 2006 Olympians from Bulgaria, Italy and Japan also train at the club's Fred Rust Ice Arena, as did American men's champion Johnny Weir until recently. Meanwhile, a handful of other ISSDC skaters are preparing for the junior world championships next month. Another will compete at an event in Italy.

"We have all these skaters in all these competitions," said Ludington, 70, a World Figure Skating Hall of Fame member who won a bronze medal in the pairs competition at the 1960 Olympics and has coached numerous Olympians, mostly in pairs and dance.

Best of the best
Even though Meissner is the first singles skater to reach the Olympics after having trained exclusively with ISSDC, the club is too successful to get starry-eyed over one skater's performance. Three Olympic gold medalists (Tara Lipinski, Sarah Hughes and Oksana Baiul) have trained at times on ISSDC ice. The teaching staff features world, national and Olympic champions.

"This facility is a mecca. You know you're skating with the best of the best when you train here," said Robert Reiss, a hotel manager from New Jersey whose son worked with three coaches as he trained last weekend.

The club's success has surpassed the wildest dreams Ludington entertained 36 years ago when the Skating Club of Wilmington lured him to Delaware from Detroit, where he couldn't find enough ice time to train his skaters. His program grew through the 1970s and early '80s, even though he had to coach mostly from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. because profitable hockey leagues took precedence.

Ludington finally gained leverage when he took eight Wilmington-based skaters to the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, including Kitty and Peter Carruthers, who brought home the silver medal in pairs.

"Delaware had never had much of an identity as a sports state. They were very excited about that skating success," Ludington said.

After some political wrangling, the state agreed to a deal in which the university would raise money for an arena Ludington could design and control. Fred Rust Arena opened in 1988. Ludington, who was in his 50s by then, found a business partner and set out to hire as many bright, young coaches as he could.

"The idea was to make sure the program would continue if something happened to me. I can now safely say that it will," Ludington, who is married to another skating coach and has two grown children, said last weekend.

His is the rare rink in which figure skating takes precedence over hockey. It also features an off-ice workout facility, conditioning coaches and a science center in which doctors study biomechanics and nutrition and develop figure skating equipment.

A skater training full time with ISSDC pays $6,000 a year for unlimited use of what amounts to a full-service training facility. The price doesn't include coaching fees, which range as high as $96 an hour for Ludington.

"I'll always be poor," joked Bob Durkin, a high school English teacher from West Norriton, Pa., as he watched his 14-year-old son, Kevin, skate Sunday morning.

Formula for success
As up-tempo music blared, a half-dozen coaches worked individually with various singles and pairs skaters ranging from age 8 to 18. Parents and siblings watched quietly from raised metal bleachers on either side of the rink.

"Every time you pick up the paper, another Olympian has come out of here," Durkin said. "You know they must be doing things right."

Durkin's son was drawn to Delaware by one of the coaches, Philip Dulebohn, who won a U.S. championship in pairs with Tiffany Scott in 2003. Others on staff include DiGregorio, who coached Lipinski; Scott Gregory, a two-time Olympian; Gregory's wife, Pam, who coaches Meissner; 1980 Olympic dance gold medalists Gennadiy Karponossov and Natalia Linichuk; 1960 Olympic women's bronze medalist Barbara Roles-Williams; and Scott and Dulebohn.

The star-studded staff attracts top young skaters from throughout the East, some of whom commute as many as 100 miles each way five days a week. (Those out of high school often move to Delaware.) Debbie Varner, a skating coach and parent (her 18-year-old son is a top junior) moved from California several years ago so she could coach under Ludington and her son could skate for the club.

"In my opinion, this is the best facility in the world to train in," Varner said.

The club recently sent 34 skaters to the national junior competition. Nine won medals.

"I am very confident we have more Olympians coming through the system," Ludington said.

DiGregorio and Varner say a key to the success is the convivial tone Ludington demands; his coaches work together (many specialize in jumps, skating or choreography) and don't steal each other's students.

"Most rinks don't operate that way," DiGregorio said. "In most rinks, each coach is out for himself. Here, we're like family."

Even though skaters have other options - there are successful clubs in Detroit, Atlanta, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Los Angeles, to name just a few - Ludington's program continues to grow. The success of Meissner, who trains at the rink five days week from 1 p.m. to dinnertime, figures to attract even more potential Olympians.

"Kimmie grew up watching Sarah Hughes and Lipinski and Baiul, and now another generation can say they were on the ice with her," Ludington said. "Success begets success. If Kimmie wasn't having a great year, we would feel it in this program to some degree, But she is having a very good year, and she is certainly an asset. People look at her and at our overall success, and they say, 'They must be doing something right up there.' Hopefully, we are."


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