Interview: Boots and Blades, Part 1

December 4, 2007

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I am in shock. I recently purchased a new pair of boots and it didn’t hurt to break them in.

In order to deal with the dreaded “breaking in” process, I entered the rink on that first day armed with gel pads, band-aids, lambs wool, make-up pads, cold packs, hot packs, ibuprofen, painkillers, and even brought in a morphine drip and an old pair of crutches, just in case.

We always talk about “muscle memory” in this business, but we rarely talk about  PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder): the psychological condition we probably all developed as a result of breaking in skates as kids. (How did any of us survive the era before gel a.k.a. “bunga” pads?) I still have flashbacks to the raw skin, the open wounds, the infections. Band-aids were nomadic. Clumps of lambs wool had a way of escaping over the top of the boot like prisoners at an unguarded fence. All those other pads we stuffed in there only made things worse.  

In fact, I was planning to write a dramatic piece about how, after a few hours in these new skates, I couldn’t walk anymore, how I had to rent a wheelchair, and how subjecting my injured feet even to the lightest silken socks had become too unbearable.

But nothing. Of course, the new skates felt a little weird, and took a little getting used to. I’d been wearing the same kind of stock boot ever since I started skating, so I had to adapt. I was hesitant to switch to another brand, but I was becoming intrigued by the reported lightness and heat molding of the latest Jacksons. Many of my skaters were wearing them and I figured I’d give them a try.

I have been visiting Mark Magliola at Skaters Landing in Greenwich, CT for blade sharpenings for a while now. What I like about him is that he’s also a coach, a longtime skater, and the parent of a skater. So he knows his products inside and out, both from his clients’ and his own experiences. He thought that, based on the shape of my foot, Jacksons would be a good choice and he was obviously right. Based on my surprisingly smooth break-in experience this time, I’ve come to see the whole heat molding process as a stroke of pure genius.  

Our equipment, in this sport, is incredibly important. It’s not that we are princesses (or princes): if our boots or blades are wonky, so is our skating. With inappropriate skates, performances suffer and chances for injury increase. Therefore, it’s imperative to have a “skateguy” you can trust, both for yourself and your students.

As coaches, we should all have a basic understanding of fit and the latest advancements to pass on to our clients. Mark was kind enough to answer some of my burning questions and to generously share his knowledge with the rest of us:     

How long have you been in the business?

I’ve been at Skaters Landing in Greenwich going on three years. I’ve been working in the equipment and sharpening business as a sideline since I was the manager of Terry Conners rink back in the 70’s. In the past seven years, I’ve become more involved with the business, working with Chris Bartlett of Skaters Landing in North Haven. We met when I was teaching skating at the Stamford Twin Rinks. It seems we had the same reason for becoming involved in the equipment business.

Why was that?

Each of us, for years, were frustrated by the poor equipment of some of our students. It is hard enough to learn to skate with good equipment. It’s impossible to learn when your equipment fights you. And you understand the frustration that a coach feels when the person they are working with can’t get on an edge because the boot is twisted or too big or too small or the blade is set wrong. I had another reason, my daughter. As she became more skilled in the sport her boot demands changed. The boots became more expensive and tougher. She did develop a fractured second metatarsal on her right foot (the picking foot for toe jumps) and part of the problem, I feel, was an improperly fit boot.

What is your own background with skating?

I was competing in dance back when Peggy Fleming won her first national title (that’s how old I am). Figures were the thing. I passed my Gold level dance test just before going off to college. I began teaching skating at college. I worked in West Hartford as a skating instructor and was one of the assistant managers at the rink. During my time there, I left for a year to get my Masters in Park and Recreation administration from Indiana University. I became the first manager of Terry Conners rink in 1973. After moving to a number of locations that included Ohio and New Jersey, I returned to the Terry Conners rink and stayed for ten years. Then I left the recreation field and ice skating for ten years, returning as an instructor in the Darien learn to skate program. When I came back, much had changed. Boots had changed little. They were either of poor quality or tough and hard to break in.

What are the biggest trends or changes you are noticing in the boot industry now?

The industry has organized itself into two large manufacturers (Reidell and Jackson) and a small number of what could be called family businesses. Harlick, SP Teri and Klingbeil are the American smaller operators. Graf of Switzerland and Risport of Italy round out the field of major manufactures. The larger manufacturers tend to create innovations that the rest follow.

Right now boot flexibility with lateral strength is the trend in figure skate boots. The heavy, extremely rigid boot is no longer the desired item. At one time, it probably was thought that with higher rotation jumps boots had to be unforgiving to protect the ankle from the extreme stress of landings. Actually, the opposite tack is now being taken, especially if the skater is young and their foot and bone structure is still developing. Ankles need to be flexible and an inflexible boot worn two to three hours a day, five to six days a week does not allow the ankle to become flexible. Micro fractures develop in inflexible ankles.

Boots are being built with lighter weight materials. Some have plastics in the boot to make them lighter while maintaining lateral strength. The newest and biggest innovation in the last ten years of figure skate manufacturing is heat molding.

What are the benefits of heat molding?

Heat molding eliminates 99% of the ‘break in period’. The ‘break in period’ is that time which all skaters looked to in fear: two weeks of the damp sock routine and pain before the boot started to move with your foot. Heat molding is an ‘almost customizing’ of the boot to the skaters foot. Boots are lasted to a mold. The mold cannot possibly match every foot. What I’ve noticed working in this business is that feet are very individual. While they can fall into categories (Low arch, high arch, flat instep, high instep, pizza feet, brick foot etc.), each foot has its own quirks. The higher end boots today are made of a kind of material with special glues that, when heated, can be squeezed against the foot and forced to ‘mold’ to the specific shape of the foot. This will probably take care of 90% of skaters. People with extreme abnormalities (extra wide fronts, extra narrow heals, extremely high arches and insteps) may need customizing right from the manufacturer and then heat molding as a last step. This is not the case for most people.

The whole point of the heat molding process is to eliminate pain and discomfort. Sometimes an additional ‘punch out’ of a pressure point that develops when skating may be necessary. You should not be skating in pain and new boots should not keep you from top performance. I fitted and heat molded a skater to her new Silver Stars in the morning and she was doing her doubles with no problem in the afternoon. This is not to say she was ready to compete in them that day but the practice time was not interrupted.

Any comments on the hinge boot?

The Hinge boot in my opinion is the right approach in principle but has some disadvantages in actual use. The major reason for its production is to add flexibility to the landing ankle so that the shock of landing is spread between the hip, knee and ankle. Traditional boots are stiff and to some extent prevent the ankle from sharing the load of landing. I’ve heard stories that the added flexibility adds height to jumps.

On the minus side: the design is bulky even though the updated versions have been slimmed down; the original design led to broken wires and to nuts that fell off; sizing difficulties; and sometimes the stretchable elastic on the tongue separated from the leather part. A practical consideration also wages against the boot: skaters who learned toe jumps in the normal boot have some problem adjusting to the extra flexibility. They at first tend to sit on the toe pick instead of vaulting. Younger skaters (like all youngsters) have an easier time of it.

The final story for the hinge boot is not done. There will probably be more alteration as time goes on. Being one who teaches dance, I think that dancers would benefit from the added flexibility.

Thank you so much, Mark. Very helpful.

***

Check in again next week, when I ask Mark more questions about trends in blades, “freakish feet,” coaching boots, and whether or not sharpening skates is a becoming a dying art.

To visit the Skaters Landing website, click: http://www.skaterslanding.com/

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6 Responses to “Interview: Boots and Blades, Part 1”

  1. Luke Says:

    The horror story you avoided happened to me with my last pair of custom Riedells about 4 years ago, couldn’t skate, all cut up. I recently got a pair of the hinge skates, and they are OK, but I feel unsteady in them. Next time maybe I’ll try the Jackson heat molded ones.

  2. Spicedaddy Says:

    Mark does my skates, too! I shocked him when he measured my feet, as my feet change length depending on how I “hold” the arch of my foot. I am able to “manipulate” my high arches to varying degrees of flatness. So my skate size was varying/flexible. He says I’m the only person he’s ever seen with this ability (or “condition” is perhaps more appropriate)!

    While heat molding may help with much of the process of breaking skates in, jumping is still painful at first! I don’t think any amount of technology will eliminate that. Maybe ballet will follow our lead in skating and develop heat-molded point shoes, ha!

  3. Gordon Says:

    Help me out, I’m not a skater: What (in italics) is a pizza foot? Jocelyn your intro with the personal experiences tales was great, really really funny! Have you ever given speed skates a ride?

  4. Martina Says:

    Great breakdown on skates! Just saw Mark last night, had a little skate boot chat. What a joy it is to be able to send your skater to him and know they are in the best of hands. Thanks Mark.

  5. Joy Says:

    Thanks Jocelyn! I’ve recently discovered Mark through other coaches and got my daughter the new Jackson heat moldable boots from him. It’s great to hear about his background because I never stick around to chat when he’s sharpening the many skates I bring him!

  6. Malinda Says:

    Wow!!! I had no idea the torture that must be endured in this sport. You all make it look so effortless! I remember being shocked when I saw the first line in those skin suits (is that the correct terminology?) I just assumed that part of the magic of being incredibly poised and graceful was that one’s sequined attire stayed right where it was placed. Walking in Jimmy Choo strappy sandals seems like – well – a walk in the park compared to the intricacies of skate wear. Jocelyn, I am learning so much!!!!

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