The future of speedskating is “dependent on” Milwaukee. That’s the word from five-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist speedskater Bonnie Blair and Dave Cruikshank, the four-time U.S. Olympic speedskater and owner of a performance center for hockey players in Brew City.
“We’ve always been a sport where we get looked at every four years,” Blair, who trained in Milwaukee, recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We’d like to be a sport people look at more frequently than that.”
Milwaukee’s Pettit National Ice Center’s 400-meter speedskating oval hosted the U.S. Long Track Championships in late October (with free admission!), and the sport’s latest phenom — 19-year-old Jordan Stolz, who in March became the first male skater to win three individual gold medals at a single World Speed Skating Championships — is from nearby Kewaskum.
As the Journal Sentinel notes: “The Pettit Center, once it opened in December 1992, served as primary training grounds for U.S. Olympic speedskaters. But with the Winter Games headed for Salt Lake City in 2002, US Speedskating moved its base to the new rink there in 2001. Suddenly, Milwaukee played a much smaller role in the sport.”
“We’re a convenient facility, right?” Blair said. “We’re right on [Interstate 94]. You’re not too far from Madison, where you had the likes of Casey FitzRandolph and Eric and Beth Heiden, who would travel back and forth from here on a daily basis. [Cruikshank] grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and in his high school years he was going back and forth every day. We have that ability to draw off of a lot of surrounding areas, but we need to start trying to gain that momentum of letting people know we’re still here, we exist, we want athletes to be involved in it.”
Blair and Cruikshank are married and oversee The DASH Project, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit focused on increasing participation in speedskating while building on “Wisconsin’s iconic speedskating history,” according to the organization’s website. (DASH is an acronym for “Developing Athletes for Speedskating High-Performance.”)
Wisconsin has long been a haven for speedskating, with trials for the 1928 Winter Olympics held in nearby Oconomowoc. In 1966, an outdoor oval contributed to local passion for the sport and was the training home of Heiden siblings, who brought widespread national attention to the sport at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. The Pettit Center opened in 1992 and became an official training site for US Speedskating with its oval and two international-size hockey rinks. According to the facility’s website, all U.S. speedskaters who have participated in the last six Winter Olympics have competed or trained at the Pettit Center — including Blair, Dan Jansen, Chris Witty and Shani Davis.
At DASH, “the goal for Cruikshank, Blair, their partners and their skaters is to generate interest, cultivate talent, showcase the best athletes and to energize the community to help rebuild their sport from Milwaukee to the Olympics,” according to the Journal Sentinel.
“It’s our job to spread the word about what goes on at the Pettit … and let people know that the building is a very special landmark in the state of Wisconsin and the Midwest and certainly in the city of Milwaukee,” Cruikshank said. “If I poll the next hundred people who walk by, they’re not going to know that our national championships are here. We need to do a job in future times of making sure people know and getting people involved in what skating used to be [here] in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. When Bonnie and Dan were household names in the United States.”
“I’m lucky to have the memories that I have, but I know now it’s the next generation, and we are making new memories for U.S. speedskating and that’s been really exciting,” Blair told NBC15.com in 2022.
It’s not just skaters who can bring renewed attention to the Pettit Center, though. Last summer, ultramarathon runners from around the world headed into the 55-degree facility for “Six Days in the Dome” — a nearly week-long competition during which runners log as many miles as they can within set time limits. U.S.-based winners punched their ticket to the U.S. 24-Hour National Team.
“Whereas many ultra competitions feature rough terrain, brutal conditions, and require an ‘expect anything’ mindset, … race director, Steve Durbin, wanted to create an ultra race in a fully-controlled environment,” according to RunnersWorld.com.