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Seniors work the ice
Dennis Woody glides across the ice, his lips pursed beneath his white beard. He shifts from left to right, looking for his center of balance, tucks in his arms and jumps up like a spring, one full rotation and sticks the landing.
Woody is 65 years old and didn’t step onto the ice until he was “well past 50.” Now he is doing waltz jumps at the Bremerton Ice Center’s Senior Skate, a session held by the rink for seniors ages 55 and up.
“I used to take my kids, but I didn’t just want to watch, so I strapped on a skate,” said Woody.
Some seniors in Bremerton have discovered ice skating as a way to stay active during the winter months, and contrary to popular belief, it is not just a sport for the young and agile.
There can be substantial benefits for seniors with a physical hobby like skating, including strengthening the joints, staving off depression and improving memory, said Chris D’Attilio, Alzheimer’s advocate for Bay Vista Commons Assisted Living and Memory Care in Bremerton.
“It’s important for our seniors keep their minds and bodies active,” D’Attilio said. “But during this time of year it’s harder for them. It’s right after the holidays, and it’s cold and rainy outside.”
D’Attilio said that “mall walks,” where seniors would be shuttled in the mornings to Kitsap Mall to jog when the weather was bad ended when there wasn’t enough participation.
For some seniors, cold weather means aching joints which make them reluctant to exercise or get out.
“I couldn’t jog or do other exercises because of my back, ankles and knees,” said Bill Paulsen, a 61-year-old senior skate member. “But when I found ice skating, it’s all a gliding motion. I do 14 miles in one session.”
Paulsen said that he has lost 27 pounds since he began ice skating and has developed stronger leg muscles. He does not do jumps but skates laps around the rink.
Sandy Schopes, a 69-year-old member, said that she found that the fresh, cool air on the ice has also helped her asthma.
The seniors were invited to participate in a holiday show of the Jungle Book in December. 2011. Helen Butler, a 66-year-old member recalled their coach drilling them on “synchro lines,” where all the seniors skated in unison in single file.
Butler said that ice skating requires seniors to memorize routines, count steps and workout their minds, which she believes is essential to keeping “a healthy brain.”
“Our coaches told us, don’t look down,” Butler said. “And don’t look old when you’re skating, smile and make it fun.”
Regulars at the Senior Skate range in experience, some are former competitive hockey players such as Paulsen who can still spray ice with a quick stop of his blades. Others, such as Butler, hadn’t skated since she was a young girl.
Butler was injured on the ice last year when her toe pick caught the ice during a skating session. She shattered her knee cap and for some time considered not coming back.
But in five months she was back on the ice, a place she feels “truly free.”
“This is a passion,” Butler said. “If I was going to quit, it was going to be on my own terms.”
Butler argues that seniors can hurt themselves every day. Just this morning, she recalled starting to slip on a patch of black ice on the road. This time, her ice skating experience saved her.
“I bent my knees like they taught us here, stood still and just slid,” Butler said.
All seniors who come into the rink can sign up for basic lessons and have a coach help them on the ice, said Derek Donald, general manager of the ice center.
“Our staff is trained to deal with falls,” said Donald. “We’re not going to just send them out there if they don’t know what they’re doing. There’s plenty of help to make it safe and fun.”
Public skate sessions can be crowded on the ice and intimidating to seniors trying to skate for the first time, Donald said. That is why the rink partnered with Bremerton Parks and Recreation Senior Center to start the special senior skating session three years ago.
Seniors can skate for free if they register with Bremerton Parks and Recreation Senior Center. The dues for single city residents are $8 for the year. Senior Skates are Mondays and Wednesdays at 11 a.m.
The group currently has 10 to 12 regulars and has a “tight knit camaraderie.” Butler said that they look forward to seeing each other all week and teach each other on the ice.
“It can be one of the most humbling and humiliating experiences when you’re first tripping around on the ice,” said Robin Spadey, the youngest member. “But nothing beats that feeling when your body does something you didn’t think it could anymore.”