Learning to have fun on the ice.

If you read anything about Katherine Reutter during the Winter Olympics, you probably know the speedskater from Champaign got her start on the ice in the Learn to Skate program at the University of Illinois Ice Arena.

While some, like Reutter, may go on to competitive glory, the goal of the program is simply to get people – kids and adults – comfortable enough on the ice to enjoy public ice-skating sessions, said Jami Houston, assistant director of the Ice Arena.

Many young people go on to learn the basics of figure skating, though. Beth Harris’ two daughters – 12-year-old Dakota and 9-year-old Sierra – learned to skate at an ice arena near their former home in Virginia. They continued with skating lessons at the UI Ice Arena after moving to Savoy, and now compete in figure skating events.

“I put them in skating lessons because I didn’t want them to be sitting on the couch playing video games,” said their mother. “I wanted them to do something. They took to it right away, and it’s great exercise.”

For Trish Gulley of Champaign, getting her daughter Olivia on the ice was a given. Gulley figure skated as a kid, and her husband played hockey through high school and still plays in a recreational league. Both their sons play hockey, and Olivia, now 11, started with the Learn to Skate program about 4 ½ years ago. She’s now skating with a new youth synchronized skating team.

“She’s just doing it for fun, and she enjoys the personal accomplishment of doing the Learn to Skate classes, and she’s so enjoying the synchronized skating team, where she gets the camaraderie of all the other girls on the team,” Gulley said.

The classes have grown too. Houston said there are nearly 400 skaters in the program for this spring semester’s eight-week session, compared to 350 last year. There were nearly 200 in the four-week session during winter break, compared with about 140 last year.

The beginning classes teach the basics – how to get back up after a fall, how to move across the ice, how to do crossover turns. Eventually, students can progress to simple jumps and spins.

“It’s such a little gem in our town,” Gulley said of the Learn to Skate program. “We have this little group of talented college students who come from Chicago. (Figure skating) is very intense up there. They come down here and we, the community members, get to capitalize on that.”

Kristine Galloway, a junior at the UI, is one of two coordinators of the program. She began skating in middle school and coached skating in high school. When she came to college, she looked for a way to continue and began as an instructor in the program her freshman year.

“One of the great things about the program is our instructors make the classes fun,” Galloway said. “I just love all the classes out on the ice. The kids are having a blast. They’re laughing, they’re playing games.

“It’s great to see them love the sport I grew up loving.”

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