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Seniors cut loose speed skating in Hicksville

Dominic Altamuro and Barbara Fennell began skating together when they were teenagers.

They started at a rink in Flushing Meadows Park on the site of the World's Fair. She was a competitive speed skater. He was also an excellent skater but at the age of 15 was motivated more by the social opportunities skating provided. To be more precise, it was a good way to meet girls.

Turns out, it was a really good way for young people to connect. Barbara would meet her husband and Dominic his wife while speed skating.

But then life got in the way. Jobs, children and a migration to the suburbs sent them on their way. Through it all, their passion for speed skating never waned and finally, 10 years ago, it reunited them at the ice rink at Cantiague Park in Hicksville.

Dominic is now 76, and Barbara is 67, and they skate every Monday and Friday morning at Cantiague.

"When you retire, you have to do something. You can't just sit home all day and watch the walls," said Altamuro, of Mineola. "I like to get out, get moving and go fast."

Altamuro and Fennell, who lives in Queens, are part of a senior speed skating club known as Blades on Ice. At any given session, there are as few as five or as many as 15 speed skaters. The youngest skaters are in their 60s, the oldest in their 80s.

"It's a great way to stay in shape," said Bud MacKenzie, 72, of Syosset, a retired vice president from Grumman and the leader of the group.

"I got into this because after I retired, I started to gain weight. One morning, about 10 years ago, I woke up and told my wife I was driving to Vermont to buy a pair of speed skates.

"I've been skating ever since. We may not be as fast as we once were, but there is always something to work on, there's always a way to improve." 

Mix of exercise, social time
For the skaters, it's part exercise, part social activity and part therapy.

"The stride has a very therapeutic sensation, you are just gliding along the ice," said Alan Klat, 64, who ought to know: He's still a practicing clinical psychologist in Great Neck.

"I never try to miss this," said Bob Weiss of Hicksville, who at 82 is one of the group's oldest skaters. "If you have ice in your blood, you'll make the trip. It's total relaxation. It's good on the body and good on the mind."

The emphasis, though, is not on speed. With Altamuro leading the way, the group skates 100 laps, takes a coffee break, and then skates another 100 laps. It's the equivalent of jogging about five miles. The routine works the body's core muscles, particularly the legs, and is a fantastic cardiovascular workout.

"I don't think I'd be living this long if I didn't come out here and exercise," said Altamuro. "Plus, I like the company I skate with. It's like a comedy hour when we sit down and have our break."

There were always two pairs of skates in the house when Fennell was growing up, speed skates and figure skates.

"I didn't do too well with the figure skates," she said. But she was a state champion in speed skating and cycling as a teenager. She still practices both.

"Now, coming here with my husband, Vinny, is my entire social life," she said.

The group also meets occasionally away from the rink. They get together around St. Patrick's Day, the Christmas holidays and once a summer for a cookout.

"And if someone is missing, a call goes out," said Weiss. "We check up. How are you? Is everything OK?" 

Captivated by the Olympics
Of course, the group was very interested in the exploits of American speed skaters Apolo Ohno and Shani Davis during the recent Winter Olympics.

"We're all winter sportsmen," MacKenzie said. "A lot of us ski. We follow all the winter sports. Watching the Olympics was a special event for us. We've watched the evolution of skating, and skiing over the years. The skiing and skating sports have exploded. There is so much interest now. That's exciting."

And while the group is more long-track than short-track, it was hard for some not to get caught up in the excitement of the shorter races.

"I love the short track," said Norman Andersen, who is from Plainview and competed well into his 70s. "I can't believe the moves they make on the short track. Those fellas are small and light and quick. It's a joy to watch them move like that."

For Andersen, skating is less a hobby and more a way of life. Growing up in Brooklyn, he learned how to skate when the lake at Prospect Park froze over.

His parents were from Norway and insisted their son learn the customs of home. So instead of being consumed with the Dodgers, Andersen learned to ski and skate.

"I've been on skates ever since I was a kid," said Anderson, who is 80. "My father was a cabinetmaker and a carpenter; he made my first skis. When the lake was frozen at Prospect Park, they'd raise a big flag with a red circle in the middle of it. That meant the ice was thick enough and it was safe to skate. But when the war broke out and the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they went with a different flag." 

Getting back on the ice
As a teenager, Andersen competed in the Silver Skates at Madison Square Garden. It was a citywide tournament. But again, life interfered with skating. He went into the Army, got married and had a long career with New York Telephone. One of his last major projects was implementing "new technology" to convert rotary phones to touch-tone. That was in the late 1960s.

When he retired, Andersen resumed competitive speed skating. Ten years ago he won a race in Lake Placid on the same 400-meter oval used during the 1980 Winter Olympics.

But health issues have slowed him down. Although he has had back surgery, and an aneurysm removed from his aorta, he's determined to skate.

He says that doctors have given him a clean bill of health, but he's only skated twice since October. He still joins his friends at Cantiague and serves as a friendly coach.

"I've been really bummed out," Andersen said. "I know that I have to build myself back up. It's not so important to compete again, but I want to try and get back to a place where I feel comfortable on the ice, just so I can get around. But everything is harder as you get older. I just love skating. I would find it very hard to give this up."

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