In Tulia, Texas, where I lived as a kid before we moved to Saskatchewan, when you said you were going “skating” it was understood it would be on a wooden surface with rollers attached to your feet. Imagine my shock, then, when I found out that up here, “skating” meant sliding on thin metal blades on ice.

Until I tried it, I couldn’t figure out how anyone could remain upright on ice skates. After I tried it, I still couldn’t figure it out. (I also discovered that ice is harder than wood.)

I gradually got the hang of it, but not having started until I was eight years old, and having terminally flat feet, I was skating-impaired compared to my peers, and never caught up. Just because I’m not very good at it, though, doesn’t mean I can’t write about it.

People probably skated in the Scandinavian countries before the Christian era, using sharp splinters of animal bone fitted to boots. That may be why our word “skate” comes from the Dutch word “schaats,” meaning “leg bone” or “shank bone,” although I prefer to think it’s because of the shooting pains skating gives you in your shanks.

In the 13th and 14th centuries wood took the place of bone, and finally, in 1572, the first iron skates were manufactured. This was a big improvement, because wood and bone were only good for sliding. With iron skates you could not only slide, you could also push yourself along, because the iron blade could cut into the ice when you turned it sideways.

Steel skate blades permanently attached to leather boots, the next big improvement, came along in the 19th century. Steel held its edge much better than iron and leather boots provided far more ankle support than skates simply attached to street shoes. (From my experience, you can never have too much ankle support!)

Like the toboggan, skates work because there is very little friction between the blade and the ice. There are three reasons for this: first, ice is naturally smooth; second, the skate blade is very thin, so that very little metal is in contact with the ice; and third, the pressure of the blade causes the ice to melt a little, creating a thin film of lubricating water. (That’s why it’s harder to skate in cold weather. Below -22 Celsius, nobody is heavy enough to make the ice melt under their skates, and so the blades don’t slide as well.)*

*(Note: The idea that the pressure of skates, boots, skis, etc., melts the ice a little, making it slippery, has been superseded since this column was written; read my more recent column on ice for more.)

Different kinds of skates are used for different kinds of skating. Figure skating and hockey blades have a hollow running the length of the blade, giving two edges and hence greater maneuverability; on figure skates, this hollow is typically deeper than on hockey blades, however.  As well, the forward part of the figure-skate blade, unlike the hockey-skate blade, is sawtoothed and used for jumps and spins. (It’s also good for tripping people who have never warn figure skates before and are used to dragging the toes of their hockey skates. Trust me, I know.)

Speed skates have a much longer blade with a single, thin edge. The long blade increases the amount of sideways push the athlete is able to give with each stroke, while the single edge reduces forward friction to a minimum. As a result, speed skaters are able to maintain speeds of about 48 kilometres an hour.

One maneuver characteristic of figure skating is the spin, which also demonstrates an interesting scientific principle. Watch a skater spin, and you’ll see that she often starts fairly slow, with her arms spread–then she’ll draw her arms in, and speed up.

What’s at work is “angular momentum.” An object with a large diameter, like a skater with her arms spread, takes more energy to start spinning than an object with a small diameter, like a skater with her arms pulled in. The skater puts a certain amount of energy into the original spin, then pulls her arms in. She’s still got just as much energy as she did when she started, but now she needs less energy. That energy has to go somewhere, so the spin speeds up. To slow down again, the skater merely extends her arms.

In skating, friction, momentum, and ice that can’t take the pressure come together to provide us with fun, exercise, beauty, and hours and hours of television.

But there’s one other force at work that I should also mention, since every skater has had a run-in with it at one time or another: gravity. It’s thanks to gravity that I can truthfully boast that, incredible though it may sound, I am able to do one thing every bit as well as many of the world-renowned skaters who competed in last winter’s Olympics:


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