The Saratoga Winter Club Is Up To Speed

Maxine Lautenberg spends most of her days around the ice. With slate gray hair and thick-rimmed glasses, she exudes a coolness and poise that betrays her busy schedule as president of a sporting organization almost as old as the Spa City’s famous horse racing track: the prestigious Saratoga Winter Club (SWC).

“It is quite historic that this is the first time we’ve had a woman at the helm of the Saratoga Cup meet being supported by a woman president, and our skaters are being coached by a woman,” says Lautenberg, who in 2019 became only the second woman president in the club’s 135-year history. (The first was Sue Strauss, who held the position from 1999 to 2003.) Lautenberg had previously served as vice president for three years and although she’s never speed skated herself, she fell in love with the sport through her three children, who all learned to skate through the SWC at the city rink on Weibel Avenue. “I was previously a dancer,” she says. “When I watch these athletes, I so appreciate the technicality and the intricacies of speed skating, and being able to skate on the edges of those blades and turn those corners. It’s its own dance on ice, and that’s really where I get my pleasure.”

The SWC began as the Saratoga Toboggan Club in 1888, the same year as the Spa City’s Great Blizzard and only five years after Saratoga Race Course opened. In the early days it was just an allotment of locals who shot riders onto Saratoga Lake via a large toboggan slide. By the early 1900s, however, the organization had changed its name to the Saratoga Winter Sports Club (“Sports” would be dropped from the name in the 1930s) and added skiing, skating and even a Winter Snow Queen coronation. Over the years, the SWC evolved into a serious speed skating center that has sent eight athletes to compete in the Winter Olympics. That number doesn’t include the North American Short Track Champion and renowned Olympics skating coach Patrick Maxwell, who trained some of the SWC’s top athletes from 1976 to 2002. Maxwell’s tutelage was so successful that of the 32 speed skaters who competed at the qualifying trials for the ’98 Olympics, 18 came from the Saratoga Winter Club.

The 1938 Eastern States Outdoor Speedskating Championships, hosted by the Saratoga Winter Club on Saratoga Lake.

The list of those who made it all the way includes the brothers Richie and John Wurster from Ballston Spa, who both competed in the 1968 Winter Games (and John again in ‘72); Kristen Talbot, also Ballston Spa–born (’88, ’92, and ’94); Saratogians Moira D’Andrea (’92 and ’98), David Tamburrino (’94 and ’98) and Erin Porter (’98 and ’02); and Schenectady native Trevor Marsicano, who made headlines in 2009 as the youngest gold medalist in the history of the World Single Distance Championships and again the following year when he won a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The winter speed demon who most tugged at the heartstrings, however, was the imitable Amy Peterson-Peck, a five-time Olympian who emerged from the Saratoga Winter Club to compete in every winter games from 1988 to 2002, racking up two bronze medals and one silver—and then carried the US flag for the opening ceremony at the ’02 Salt Lake City Winter Games. “It was right after 9/11, so it was a very special moment for all Americans,” she says. “It was an amazing experience—culminated my career.”

Peterson-Peck (who was just Peterson during her Olympic career) is particularly important to the SWC because she didn’t just train at the premier skating club: She’s now the head coach, having been promoted to that position the year before Lautenberg became president. “It didn’t really occur to me until just now that I’m the first woman head coach,” Peterson-Peck says with a laugh. She originally came to Saratoga in 1997 to work with Maxwell at the SWC. She later met a local, the brother-in-law of her friend and fellow Olympian Kristen Talbot. In 2006, the same year Peterson-Peck was inducted into the National Speed Skating Hall of Fame, the couple married before settling down in Schuylerville, where they had four boys. “I always see life as an even playing field: men, women, anyone,” she says. “You just do the job to the best of your abilities.”

Female members of SWC in 1939.

But the timing, right before life came to a halt because of Covid, couldn’t have been worse—not only for Lautenberg and Peterson-Peck, but for the SWC as well. Like every other sports organization, the Spa City’s historic speed skating club suffered greatly during lockdown. “The club is in transition for sure,” says Lautenberg of coming out of the pandemic. “We are not the club of the late ’90s and very early 2000s. But we have new members that are enthusiastic and love the sport and appreciate it for its blend of precision, technical training and physical training. It’s a sport to carry throughout their lives.” 

One of Lautenberg’s first moves as president might have saved the organization. She created a new program that offers accessible skating classes for all ages and levels, including beginners. The program kicked off shortly before Covid and, while it had to take a hiatus during the pandemic, it’s come back strong. “Maxine has been instrumental in designing and implementing the learn-to-speed skate program,” says Peterson-Peck. “Of our current members, I’d say maybe 80 percent or more have come through that program. Skating has such a history in this town that we just keep wanting to make it thrive and provide the same opportunities that we had when we were younger.”

Of course, Peterson-Peck’s expertise as head coach has also been part of the SWC’s secret sauce. She’s been skating since she was 2 (speed skating since the age of 6) and is one of only a few Level 3 certified speed skating coaches in the country. “Coaching is a big part of our success,” says Lautenberg. “We’ve been super fortunate to have had really great coaches: Pat Maxwell, Paul Marchese—who’s one of the top boot-makers in the world—and now we have Amy!”

Erin (Porter) Bembry, one of several SWC alumni who became Olympians, competed for Team USA in ’98 and ’02.

And one more powerhouse female recently joined the ranks. This past autumn, Karolina Quinn, who shares the office of VP of Racing with her husband, Tim, stepped up as the new meet director, the first woman to ever hold that position since the SWC started hosting skating meets 90 years ago. “I can assure you it’s a collaborative effort all the way,” Quinn says about overseeing the Saratoga Cup, a regional ability meet held in the Weibel Avenue ice rink that attracts nearly 100 skaters from across the mid-Atlantic and Northeast every fall. “It’s humbling to work with so many dedicated people who donate their time and talents to make this meet what it is.” 

Though her children are all grown now and no longer involved with speed skating, Lautenberg says her family’s experience in the sport was completely worth it. “As a woman,” Lautenberg says, “one thing I’ve brought to the club is not only continuing the competitive opportunities, which are significant on many levels, but also acknowledging the importance the sport has as a lifelong form of exercise and a place to find community and friends. The Saratoga Winter Club is a breakout place for me—it’s where I can go and just enjoy being there.”  

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