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Switzerland: skating Mecca

In a time frame of about a decade, for inline skating Switzerland has become what Holland is for ice speedskating >>: the world’s Mecca. I've been questioning people about the origins of this spectacular growth and sporting success in a country with no tradition in skating. My investigation concluded that the following items have been cardinal in Switzerland skating development:

● Absence of a Federation: Of course there is a Swiss federation, but until very recently its president was a dummy, equivalent to the Queen of England in Swiss skating government issues. It’s not like that anymore, as the new president is a certain Mr Coni Altherr. Please note that similar situations can be found in Holland and Germany, which never suffered that cancerous illness that’s killing countries with great skating traditions: those old school federations misgoverned by yesteryear dictators.
France is a peculiar case, as its federation was able to grow and modernize itself withouth collapsing thanks to its own elders.
● Significant sporting state’s politics: Tourism is one of the mayor income sources Switzerland has; within this industry the sporting package holiday has a definitely relevant influence in statistics. That’s one of the reasons that mutated the whole country into a giant cycling path, usable by skaters and bikers alike. In fact, the Swiss Tourism Board even offers brochures that illustrate the country’s network of skating paths (check it here>>). Hoy about that?
Besides, each of these massive marathons attracts skaters from all over Europe and beyond, adding a sporting pinch to a cultural holiday. Or the other way around! So no wonder the national government sees this kind of activity with loving eyes. Plus, more and more people is getting involved in the sport: thousands of skaters of all levels can be seen along trails every day.
● Coni Altherr: to witness such a take off in any activity or business, you need a visionary, someone that has integrity, honesty and great organizative qualities. Sadly, there are not many like him in our sport.
● Other internal factors: their social and economic welfare, added to a great civic attitude and sporting mindset showcased by the Swiss people, allow for growth and evolution of any sport.

So all these items and their logical interactions made Switzerland what it is today: a sanctuary for pro (and wannabe pro) skaters from all over the world. Now, let’s take a closer look… My data gathering pointed me towards four definite sites where the action is hot: follow me in my journey around the country, and get to know what’s cooking in Skater’s Heaven.

Weinfelden

Location of 2009 Worlds and home to the only banked track Switzerland has (up to now, that is), this little town near the German border is also where the Begg family established their operational base. As you might already know, Bill manages a few pro and semi-pro teams, as well as the Swiss junior national team. In a three story building, the Kiwi family (Bill, Cheryl, Nicole & Wayne) live together with an enthusiastic bunch of skaters from half the world away.


Oh Romeo!Bring me some chocolate!

That group comprises more or less a stable base of Argentinean champion Andrea Gonzalez, Canadians Sigrid Ziegler and Andrew Hegarty, plus French lady Anne-Claire Maillard. Then it’s the occasional Russian, Estonian, Finn or whoever wants to spend some time training with possibly the best coach on Earth: Cheryl Begg, of course.
This big house is located right in the town centre, or rather a really small village near Konztanz lake. How come there’s such nest of elite athletes in a place that seemingly stays so far away from the big skating capitals? Quite simple: the most prominent shareholder of the LAS InlineDrom >> resides in the area, which lies in one of those nationwide skating paths I mentioned above. As it is, the Thurgau Canton promotes itself internationally as a “Skater’s Paradise” (see this web >>)
Truly, you can see road signs indicating where the skating paths are in every town in the region, and everywhere you can find brochures about the subject. Those routes are made of smooth asphalt, surrounded by lush greenery, and all of them lead you to this beautiful lake: you can skate around it’s entire border (even crossing from one country to another on your skates!). Do you need hills to climb on your bike or skates? No problem, there’s plenty around. Is it raining outside? No matter, we have a roofed track. All in all, this place is truly a skater’s paradise.
I arrived straight from St. Moritz’ race >> during a summer thunderstorm. After a pleasant chat with my beloved friend Andrea at a local bar, I spent the rest of the evening listening to Bill and Cheryl. I got to know so many inside things about WIC! Mind, good and even bad ones… Because WIC’s not all hunky-dory, y’know?
That night we also came to know that Andrea and a few of her fellow countrymen were expected to be in Argentina in less than a week for national trials. Those bad news wouldn’t let her sleep well. Mind, that’s what she told me: I didn’t sleep with her that night.
The next morning was still raining, so no skating around the lake. We had lunch all together (except Anne-Claire, who taught me a new way of doing omelettes. No sexual pun intended, I swear); afterwards there was a studying session of ice skaters’ technique on TV. I pointed out that the Russian official skinsuit was almost as bad looking as the horrid, yellow Canadian one.

The Canadian skaters in the room agreed. Usually, everyone in this house would wake up, have breakfast/lunch/dinner, train and go to bed whenever they please to do so. But every conversation involves skating or skates in this house, which is exceedingly stimulant for fanatics like me. Well, sort of: I sometimes need a different kind of stimuli.


Skating,skating,skating,beer,skating...

Come afternoon rain still falls, so we drive to the nearby track with the Beggs and the Canadians. Enter LAS-InlineDrom. What an infrastructure! Maybe not as impressive and fast as the Chantrea roofed track in Pamplona >>, but awesome nevertheless. It’s truly a pleasure to skate while it’s raining outside, and the surface is mirror like, but the best is yet to come: a van approaches, pouring out the likes of Dobbin Brothaz and the Kiwi Young Gang, plus the Argies. All of them came from Kreuzlingen, my next destination. Theirs is going to be an interesting session; bear in mind that every Wednesday evening during the season, all of the above meet in this track with the Colombian bunch living here, plus the local champions and some elite Frenchmen… for a net total of about 30 world titles skating together! Sooner or later, there has to be a Swiss world champ, no doubt.


Right, today there’s launched laps sprints on the menu. Andrew is the only Canadian skating today; to be honest he’s got still much to improve technically, although he looks very fit. Kalon directs the show, they work for about 20 series: a massacre. Shane, who’s not exactly a sissy, steps aside to throw up. Man, these guys are fast! And what about the chicks? Nicole’s awesome; she’s the only one that could keep Kalon’s fast and furious pace. Next was Andrea Haritchelar, she missed a couple of laps, but remember that the girl suffered a frightening accident last march! While he’s soothing his muscles after the session ends, I took my chance and jumped after Kalon’s draft. I asked him from behind: Are you going to beat Duggento again this year? “Don’t know, mate”, he says, “I’m worrying about my sprint”. Do you? Actually, Duggento is the one that should be worrying! Not only he’s faster than Ghost Rider’s bike, Kalon has got one of the best techniques seen around, so I try to observe him as close as possible… only for a couple of laps, because he’s too fast for me, even while relaxing. Somebody please take a picture this moment! Mr Begg looks intently, so I ask him: Do I still look like a speedskater, or what? The plumpy coach scratches his head, then answers: “Well… while you’ve been skating behind Kalon, you did!” Er… What was that supposed to mean?
Night falls on Weinfelden, so does the bloody rain: no skating around the lake for today, then.

Kreuzlingen

Another big house chock full of skaters from every corner of the world. This one, however, is located on a bigger town near Weinfelden. A small city, actually. There you can find a little colony of Argentinians, a similar amount of Kiwis, a couple of Japanese skaters (the only two seniors left in their country, as they admit) and a slightly flamboyant Canadian called Double A.



In theory, Kalon’s the house boss, although everybody reckons that Andrea really is the one in charge. Truth is, Kalon’s the ship’s chef: it appears he does very well in the kitchen. As opposed as Weinfelden’s, this house inhabitants tend to do things together as a group. There are not many computers here, although cars abound for sure. WIC organizers provided Mr Dobbin with one of those bombastic 4x4 Ssanyong SUV’s, but some malevolent sources maintain that he’s not able to drive it properly. Even so, he wasn’t kind enough to lend it to the house’s girls to pick me up for a stroll over to Konstanz, the lovely city that lies in the German side of the lake. Having Melisa Bonnet as pilot, Andrea Haritchelar as first officer and Natalia Artero as stewardess, we drove across the border to eat some almost-Italian pizza and get a few genuine German ice creams. Well, they did, truth be told. I was forced to commit to local beer only, as these lovely girls pointed out early on that I’m looking rather stocky in my middle section lately. I assume they paid proper attention to the lower section, too.
So, how does a WIC athlete live around here?, I asked them. “Pretty much training all the time”, says Andrea. “We have a daily double session during the week (skating or biking), then it’s usually racing on week-ends. When we have a day off, we go to Zurich or to the movies”. Quite so, readers. What did you expected, a life of lavishness and glamour? These are professional athletes, not pop stars.
Andrea shows me a scar that goes from her wrist to roughly her shoulder, a constant reminder of the accident that almost cost her life. She says that she still has problems moving that arm, but I didn’t notice any difficulty whilst she was skating, and her placements in every race this year seem to prove she’s more than OK. “It’s hideous”, she says, although I think it isn’t that bad, one has to really look hard to notice the scar. “They’ve cut away a large chunk of my biceps and replaced it with silicon”, concludes Andrea. How fashionable! Every other girl wants to have silicon in her tits, she’s got it on her arm! Wow, isn’t that chic?
The other two girls are anything but introspective. Some say they tend to be party animals… I wouldn’t know; all I can say is that one can’t be assailed by boredom with them. Their laughs attracted enough attention, but the German men were mostly left hypnotized by their magnificent bums. In a harsh teutonic accent, they would excuse themselves: “Sorry! There aren’t many of those ‘round here!”. You’re excused, guys. By all means.


Schindellegi

Up the hills that overlook Zurich, one can find this ridiculously named small town that boasts two important stages in my exploring trip: WIC’s headquarters, and the biggest skating shop in the whole world.
Driving on a creaky car owned and operated by Mr Bill Begg, we arrive on a hot sunny morning to the renowned World Inline Center >>, a three floored department store devoted exclusively to skating equipment. I can’t describe it, even pictures can only give you a limited idea of what this place really is. When you enter there for the first time, the sensation could be similar to that experienced by a poor child who's looking through the glass of a huge toy shop. Or, in my case, as if visiting a luxury brothel with all the merchandise being exposed before my bare eyes.



The Lord of the Manor, Mr. Daniel Grab, has a cool & relaxed attitude. I would too, if I owned a handful of professional racing teams and sold about 20.000€ in skates every week. This last information it’s hearsay, but there must be something true in it, as there are 3 sumptuous cars parked outside with the company’s logo.


Danny doesn't walk. Ever.

During mid-week evenings you can find in this amazing shop’s lounge a happy gathering of local, Australian and New Zealand racers having a chat or two, then they would go all together for an easy skate around. Awesome! I’m planning on doing tonight’s skate, and definitely would like to be involved in any way to Mr. Grab: I’m seriously thinking about having a tit job done by next year.

From there, I went with Bill to WIC’s central office, located on the entire 3º floor of an impressive building right into the town’s industrial area. As you get inside, first thing you see is the meeting room, which is wonderful. There’s a complete collection of speed skates on one of its walls, while a precious piece of skating art decorates the opposite wall. The other side of the meeting room has a windowed large terrace overlooking this lovely bucolic scenery, while its center is completely dominated by a massive table with metallic iguanas as decorations.

Between the main hall and Coni’s office, there’s a crystal cage that contains a pair of living iguanas. I feel sorry for the poor critters at first, then again I think that they’re living a quiet and civilized life in a First World country. If they were in South America, they would be in an eagle’s tummy by now… or worse, spread over a barbecue in a native humanoid’s yard.


Whatcha looking at, human?

Boss' office, no computer   Main hall, delivery boy   The ordered mess 
Skate collection  Fine art  The terrace 

Since Coni is leaving for the airport right now, there’s not much time to chat, but I get the chance to have a glimpse to his royal office. You know what? The Big Boss himself does not use a computer. Ever. He’s got a big, topsy-turvy room full of papers, but no computer. In fact, what does he need it for?
The rest of the office might seem an enormous mess at first sight; however nothing gets lost in there, as everyone working around knows exactly where to find anything. Today most of the staff is outside running out the details for the next races, but I found on duty charming Ilona (design department) and all-round nice guy Hansueli, that can be seen in almost every WIC race coordinating things. Even Bill has a desk here, as he is officially a technical consultant.
Who do I have to kill to get a job there?

Zug

The last stage of my helvetic journey is this gorgeous city that rests along the homonymous lake (on the way to big tourist hub Lausanne), where RollerBlade established its base. It’s normally a short drive from Schindellegi, but since I borrowed the infamous Beggmobile, I’m not able to fully enjoy the panoramic views the road offers. As opposed as the other destinations, this is a thriving city that offers plenty of entertainment as well as shopping options. Rollerblade’s team manager lives in a centrically located apartment, same as Shane Dobbin and his wife, who share a flat with Diego Rosero. The rest of the team stays at a typical Swiss cottage right at the lakefront. This is by far the best living quarters I’ve seen, and to be honest the cleaner and tidiest. As a matter of fact, the organization in this house is something in between the other two: meals and trainings are done mostly individually, while cleaning and tidying is sorted in turns. Lodging here you can find Lady Tamara Llorens and her “personal trainer” (let’s label him so) Mr Guillermo Trinaroli, who used to be a world level skater and is still able to do some serious butt-kicking on wheels. Then you have two friendly kiwis, Reyon Kay and Scott Aldridge, a quiet Colombian named Juan Nayib Tobon, and this young exotic beauty called Catherine Peñán.
Tamara awaits me at the city’s train station. She suggested to bring my swimsuit. Following my objections related to the lake’s waters low temperature, she mocks me: “You really are a grumpy old man, you know?” . Apparently so, dear. We were supposed to do a short skate along the lake’s coast too, but black fluffy clouds are gathering over our heads. She takes me then to the cottage and cooks a gigantic plate of pasta, with a special salsa made especially for me (without onions). In the next room, Reyon eats instead some kind of creepy pizza topped by sausages, jam and cereals. Or something atrocious like that.

So, how do they train around here? There’s a vast array of choices: all along the lake there’s a cycling path, five minutes away they have a flat, smooth surfaced square where corners can be worked out, or they can pick several leg-crushing routes to pedal on the hills nearby.
We try to go out for a coffe, but rain starts to fall heavily, so we stay home chatting amiably.


Pro ladies get personal trainers

While being at it, Cathy walks down from her room, and without saying a word she comes to me and pecks my cheek. Do I deserve it because of my political influences, or is it for my aged charming looks? Most probably it’s a Chilean way of courtesy towards elders, but in any case I’m deeply moved and grateful for her gesture. Boy, she smells so good! Her's a mixed scent of freshly backed cookies, strawberries and spring breeze. Truly inspiring, but I was too shocked to take her picture. Sorry, fellas.

Time over; I have to get back to pick up Bill from his office, my journey is about to end. No skating here either this evening due to bad weather, so we drive back to Weinfelden, chatting all the way about good ‘ol times. I was hoping to get soon enough for the local night skate, but guess what… More rain! Skater’s Heaven my arse!

Thanks to:

● Coni & Sylvianne, for their support
● Bill & Cheryl, for all the favors
● Andrea G, for her friendship and patience
● Andrea H, Melisa & Natalia, for the unforgettable night out
● Tamara & Guillermo, for the hospitality and good vibes
● Catherine, for the kiss
Florencia De La Vega >>, for the avid sex after 4 days of dismaying Swiss abstinence. 
Marcello Bresin ©PatinArgentino.com  


The highest banked track on Earth
Worlds 2007, the balance