Mike Cunningham touches the steel blade to the grinding wheel humming away in his cramped Waldorf workshop. Sparks fly and a grating whine fills the air. Cunningham squints to focus and, in five minutes, the blade gleams, ready to bite the ice.
"Not terribly exciting, is it?" Cunningham says of his effort. But in truth, through the years he has sharpened the figure skates of such Olympic champions as Tara Lipinski, Dorothy Hamill and the ice dance team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Moreover, in the most recent two Winter Games (2010 and 2014), Cunningham served as skating technician for the U.S. team in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Sochi, Russia.
His clients swear by his handiwork and attention to detail in a sport in which one half-thousandth of an inch difference in the edge of a blade might save or sink a skater.
"Your equipment is crucial to your performance," says Lipinski, 33, the 1998 Olympic gold medalist. "I love Mike. When I started skating [at age 6], he was my go-to man, and he still does my sharpening today."
Hamill, the 1976 Olympic and world champion, sought out Cunningham when she moved to Baltimore in 1997.
"I was doing ice shows, as many as 12 a week, and I'd overnight my skates to Mike to get the precise sharpening and mounting of the blades that are so difficult to do properly," says Hamill, 59. "People assume that if they buy skates and blades, and attach them, that they're good to go. But skating is all about balance and the timing on jumps and spins — and the setting of the blade is different for everyone.
"Mike will hone the hollow [the groove that runs down the center of the blade] just the way I want it. He's a master at what he does, one of maybe four or five in North America who are excellent at what is almost a lost art."
Hamill now lives near Palm Springs, Calif., but still seeks Cunningham's expertise.
"When you're a perfectionist, you don't want to have any possibility of things not going right out there," she says.
Cunningham, 75, has also worked with Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold, who finished second and fourth, respectively, at the recent World Championships in Boston. There he performed an emergency skatectomy, helping to repair the boot of former U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu when it ripped during a landing in practice. Nagasu finished in 10th place.
Cunningham began sharpening skates in 1959, when, having graduated from Bladensburg High, he found work as a skate guard at a rink in College Park while attending the University of Maryland.
"I'd skate around the ice and pick up people who fell down," he says. There he learned to sharpen rental skates, practicing on a troop of Girl Scouts who'd come to earn their merit badges. Soon after, Cunningham joined the Navy and spent a year in Vietnam as a steelworker, building roads and bridges.
Back home, he helped manage several ice rinks in Northern Virginia before opening his own business, Skater's Paradise, in Alexandria, Va., in 1980. Twenty-five years later, Cunningham moved his skate sharpening shop to its current site in the Capital Clubhouse Rec Center in Waldorf in Charles County.
The walls of his 10-foot-by-12-foot workplace are adorned with photos and autographs of champions — from Michelle Kwan to Michael Weiss, and from Katarina Witt to Johnny Weir. Sasha Cohen, whom Cunningham fitted for boots, signed her name and drew a heart beside it. One snapshot shows Cunningham flanked by Davis and White after their gold-medal performance in 2014.
The Winter Games, he says, were "three weeks of being on call, 24/7 — and I loved every minute of it."
Cunningham received deserved recognition in 1994 when, in addition to managing his own shop, he was asked to run one at the University of Delaware, then a top training site for American and international skaters. He worked there for six years. At one time, six of the world's top 10 dance teams trained at Delaware, and Cunningham serviced their skates.
In 1998, he had 12 clients perform in the Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Last January, 16 of Cunningham's skaters took part in the U.S. Championships.
"I get thank-you notes and shout-outs from coaches," Cunningham says. "There's a huge amount of gratification in having a skater I've worked with stand up and get a medal. In my job, I get to cheer for everybody."
Cunningham himself shuns the spotlight. He and his wife, Joan, live in a log cabin in Port Republic, a rural crossroads in Calvert County. Before the most recent two Olympics, where he toiled backstage to fix the skaters' footwear, folks would say, "Maybe we'll see you on TV."
"I hope not because if you see me, it means something bad has happened."
In more than 50 years, he has sharpened thousands of skates at $20 a pair without serious mishap. There's scar tissue on his right thumb where it interfered with a blade but needed no stitches.
"Some [celebrated] skaters want their blades wicked-sharp," he says. "Others want the bite taken out of the edge so they can stop easier."
Most, he says, are "very possessive of their skates and don't like letting them out of their sight. They hate checking their skates at airports, which they must do in Europe but not here in the States."
When will Cunningham retire?
"Two or three years," he says. "But I said that 10 years ago.
"Tell you what," he says, tapping his grinding wheel. "This machine is 30 years old. When it quits, I'll quit, because these things aren't inexpensive to buy."