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Speed skater Orlowsky returns to his oval roots

2020 was meltdown year for long-track speed skater Eric Orlowsky. When it hit in March, the pandemic wiped out the rest of the race season.

2020 was meltdown year for long-track speed skater Eric Orlowsky.

When it hit in March, the pandemic wiped out the rest of the race season. It got even worse for the 20-year-old Prince George Blizzard Speed Skating Club alumni in early September when a mechanical failure at the Olympic Oval in Calgary left the 33-year-old facility unable to make ice on its 400-metre indoor oval track while the viral outbreaks continued to cripple the competition schedule.

The repairs to the refrigeration plant won’t be complete until May, at the earliest, and that’s prompted Orlowsky to return to his old stomping grounds in Prince George, where he’s been taking advantage of the outdoor oval at Exhibition Park for the past two weeks. Known for having the fastest ice surface in the world, the Olympic Oval suffered similar breakdowns in 2016 and 2018 and the fixes obviously failed to provide a longterm solution.

“It’s definitely disappointing but it’s to hear they’re actually trying to fix the problem instead of just delaying them again,” said Orlowsky. “Having trust in the ice equipment will be great and we’ll at least know we’ll be able to skate quite a bit longer.

“As far as I know the season is pretty much canceled for competition but it makes it a good year to build strength and endurance so I can hit next season even harder. ”

A year ago in Calgary at the Canadian junior championships, Orlowsky posted five personal bests, including a bronze-medal win in the 5,000-metre event, and he finished sixth overall – his career-best meet performance. There are no races scheduled this winter and Orlowsky plans to use that time in training to build up his strength to try to make the jump from the Olympic Oval Stage 3 long distance provincial team to the NextGen national team next season.

The national teams traveled to Fort St. John in November to skate at a two-week camp on the indoor oval at the Pomeroy Sports Centre and Orlowsky was all set to go there after that with the rest of the provincial team when the COVID outbreak flared up and the facility was closed to all but local skaters. He’s been training on inline skates on the concrete oval in Calgary and has been on short-track arena ice but nothing compares with sinking his blades into a 400-metre rink.

 “It’s going to take a while to get into some proper racing skating but we’ve been doing lots of training without the ice and I think the fitness and strength is still there, it’s just a matter of applying it,” he said.

Orlowsky’s mom, Kathy Lewis, is president of the Outdoor Ice Oval Society of Prince George and has long been involved in keeping the volunteer organization operational. Until the unseasonably warm weather hit the city this week, which forced a temporary closure of the rink for the weekend, Orlowsky has been busy training four or five hours per day every day, either skating at the oval, skiing at Otway Nordic Centre or working out in the gym.

“The volunteers here do an incredible job getting it together,” said Orlowsky. “Without a cooling system I imagine it’s pretty hard but they do an incredible job of building the ice up and maintaining it.”

In Calgary, the home of the national teams, Orlowsky sometimes trains with the World Cup long track skaters. That elite group includes Olympic medalist Ted-Jan Bloeman, World Cup champions Ivanie Blondin and Valerie Maltais, and national team veterans Tyson Langelaar, Alex Boisvert-Lacroix and Jordan Belchos, who are preparing for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. For Orlowsky, who gave up hockey at age 14 to focus exclusively on speed skating, it’s like being a junior hockey player training with NHL pros.

“It’s incredibly inspirational being able to see such amazing skaters every day, people that really inspire you when you’re a kid,” he said. “You see how they train and how they skate and it’s incredible. I usually get to be on ice with them although typically our teams are split. A lot of time they’re focusing on their programs but if you ask them they’re really open to helping skaters out. Calgary is the place to be.”

He might have chosen hockey as his Number 1 sport if not for his mom’s influence. Lewis, who won the Prince George Iceman multisport endurance race eight times, saw his talent for skating at a young age and signed him up for the Blizzard short track program when he was eight.

“She noticed I was one of the quicker guys on the team and she pushed me into it, even though I was very resistant about it,” said Orlowsky. “I wanted nothing to do with speed skating but after a few months I fell in love with it and stuck with it ever since.

“I really enjoy going fast, being able to push myself, always knowing if I race well it was on myself, I wasn’t getting carried by my team, it’s just all about what you can do that day.”

Orlowsky just began the four-year advertising photography program at the Alberta University of the Arts in Calgary, and has been enrolled in online classes since September. His Stage 3 team coach, Arno Hoogveld, is encouraging Orlowsky to stay in Prince George as long as the ice remains in place at the oval, knowing the rest of team will have only limited access to an outdoor oval in Red Deer, a 90-minute drive north of Calgary.

Orlowsky is among several Blizzard club alumni based in Calgary. Twins Carolina and Nico Hiller, 23, are on the NextGen national team, one step below the World Cup team. Craig Miller, 18, part of the Olympic Oval Stage 3 short track team, is also back training temporarily in Prince George. Former Blizzard member Kieran Hanson, 17, a provincial team long tracker who moved to Fort St. John a year ago, plans to relocate to Calgary later this year.