Icemaker has thin margin for error during 2010 skating events

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VANCOUVER - Imagine the diameter of a dime.
It may only be about a centimetre and a half but for some Olympic athletes, that tiny measurement could be the difference between gliding on glass and slogging through sand.
It could also be the difference between a good day and a bad day for Kam Kameron.
A centimetre and a half is about the difference in ice thickness the icemaker will have to contend with during the short-track speedskating and figure skating competitions at the 2010 Winter Games.
The two events will both be held at the Pacific Coliseum during the Vancouver Olympics. Short-track ice should be between 3.1 and 3.8 centimetres thick. Figure skaters need a surface between 4.4 and five centimetres.
''There is a significant difference,'' Kameron said in a recent interview. ''Short-trackers want the speed. On the straights they want hard, fast ice.
''Figure skaters want the whole surface to be soft, so when they pick in, they are not breaking it like glass and going down to the concrete and wrecking the picks on their skates.''
Kameron's job will be to make both the speedskaters and figure skaters happy.
''We have spoken with both (of the sport governing bodies) and told them right up front that we are going to try and pick a happy medium,'' he said.
During the Games the ice surface may be prepared for one sport to practise during the day. It will then either be shaved down or built up for a medal competition in the other sport that night.
''We're basing everything off who is on at night,'' said Kameron. ''That's the key.''
Venue staff will also have to deal with some quick turnarounds. There will be days when crews have just two hours 45 minutes between a short-track practice ending and a figure skating competition beginning. In that time, the speedskating track will be torn down and the ice repaired.
''The track is no big deal,'' said Kameron. ''It's more the holes and the ruts. Figure skaters don't like ruts. Short-trackers don't like holes The big thing for us is to patch all the holes.''
During short-track competitions, a crew of eight ice patchers, some with water tanks strapped on their back, will swarm the ice like ants at a picnic.
''They will try to heal up the ruts as soon as possible so you don't have to wait until the end of the night to do a lot of maintenance, which would include us shaving (ice) down to get those ruts and holes out, then building it back up,'' said Kameron. ''We don't have that turnaround time, so we have to try and get on it as soon as possible.''
Most of the work repairing the ice will be done at night.
The two sports also require different surface temperatures. The temperature for figure skating is between -4 C and -4.5 C. Short-track ranges from -6.6 C to -7 C.
Kameron said this can be achieved by cooling the salt brine which runs through the pipes under the ice surface.
''We just change the set points,'' he said. ''The compressors shut down. Just by rotating the brine through the floor, it gradually heats back up. And it doesn't take long.''
For the average person, ice is ice. You like it in your drink but hate scraping it off your car window on a cold winter morning.
Kameron approaches icemaking like a chef preparing the perfect dinner. He excitedly talks about water pH levels (the measure of the acidity) and mineral content.
''The city of Vancouver has great water,'' Kameron said. ''The pH is really low. We don't have to demineralize it.
''We test that every day. First thing in the morning we make sure we have our parameters and away we go for the day. Otherwise, we change our filters and start over.''
It wasn't always that easy. Much of the water Kameron is using comes from outdoor reservoirs. When he first began testing the water, it was in January and February, a time when winter rains carry mud and debris into the reservoirs.
''It almost looked like ice tea when it was coming out,'' he joked.
Too much sediment in the water and ''it's like sandpaper in the ice,'' Kameron said.
''It dulls the skates. If they lose an edge, down they go.''
While Kameron works late nights trying to make the perfect ice, at least one Canadian figure skater isn't worried about the conditions.
''We have learned over the years to deal with whatever is thrown at us,'' said ice dancer Tessa Virtue. ''The good news is everyone is going to be in the same boat.
''We're not a special case and we'll just have to deal with it.''

Geographic location: VANCOUVER

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