At first it was the fresh pine scent and glistening lake waters that attracted Walter and Carol Probst to Lake Arrowhead to build a summer home a decade ago.
Carol, a former professional ice skater who grew up in Compton, spent a lot of time at the outdoor ice rink in nearby Blue Jay. Walter, a retired South Bay businessman, joined a country club to play golf.
"We were supposed to be retired," Carol said.
Then the town ice rink closed, and Carol suddenly realized that a part of her went with it. She thought about leaving, but returning to the searing summer heat of their permanent residence in Palm Desert wasn't that appealing.
So she and Walter built their own ice rink.
Now, seven years later, they have embarked on another ambitious project, a second rink on a ridge above Blue Jay. It will be the crown jewel of what has become the world-class Ice Castle International Training Center.
The hills in and around Lake Arrowhead are full of private retreats and rural conference centers, yet none has drawn as much attention or grown as quickly as the Ice Castle.
As many as 64 athletes at a time train here, and there is a waiting list that includes several international prospects.
Conducive to Training
Often skaters remain year-round. Said 1980 Olympic figure skating gold medalist Robin Cousins, the Ice Castle's director of skating: "This place is so conducive to train. It's far enough from the big city that you can get away from it all, but it's close enough to keep in contact."
How the Probsts wandered "up the hill" and built one of the world's newest training facilities in a sleepy little mountain hamlet 95 miles east of Los Angeles is a story in itself.
"It's been kind of a challenge," Walter said, standing dwarfed by pine trees reaching skyward near the center's 10-acre lodge. He was less than a mile as the crow flies from the original Ice Castle, the first rink they opened in Blue Jay in 1983.
The Probsts built the first rink in a new development on the east side of Blue Jay. In combination with an adjacent shopping center and movie theaters, in which the Probsts are not involved, the additions nearly doubled the size of the town's tiny business strip, which straddles state Highway 173 in a secluded valley on the southwest tip of Lake Arrowhead.
Some of the funding for the training center is provided by the Foundation for International Ice Skating Advancement, but the majority of its near-million-dollar annual price tag is footed by the Probsts. They have yet to turn a profit but say they are committed to keeping the facility open.
"We just gulp and reach a little deeper," Carol said. "This is something our government should be doing to help athletes."
The Probsts also wanted to provide recreation for local youths. Parks and sporting fields are rare here. Local kids can be seen hanging out at "in" spots such as an arcade in Lake Arrowhead Village. However, last year more than 300 local youngsters signed up for skating sessions.
"We are the local parks and recreation now," Carol said.
Youth Ice Hockey
Carol's interest in figure skating pushed the training center concept. The two rinks include two of the world's first 360-degree jump harnesses.
Cousins brought an international flavor to the center three years ago. He performed in a benefit fund-raiser in Blue Jay, liked the area and stayed on.
Growth continued with the addition of a youth ice hockey program. The Probsts do not have a hand in running it, but its success almost from its inception has made it the talk of Southern California ice hockey circles. A hockey program for women will begin this fall.
The skating staff also grew to 40 full-time employees. Today the center boasts some of the world's most skilled instructors, including Ice Castle Senior Vice President Frank Carroll, a medal winner in three U.S. national competitions and coach to Linda Fratianne.
The Probsts picked up the nearby 10-acre lodge on a foreclosure sale. They refurbished and reopened it as the Ice Castle Conference and Training Center. Dormitory rooms for skaters are located here, as are a swimming pool, dining hall, outdoor amphitheater, gymnasium and other recreational facilities.
"We really lucked out," Carol said. "We could not have afforded to build a place like this."
Earlier this year they broke ground on their second ice rink, a million-dollar enclosed training facility that will not be open to the public.
Best Skaters Best Students
Skaters range in age from 8 to 24. Since training takes about six hours each day, attending the public mountain schools is difficult, so the Probsts plan to open a private on-site school soon.
"We have found that some of the best skaters are also some of the best students," Carol said. "This is such a nice facility, away from all the things that get kids into trouble, and we want to keep them here."
Skaters pay $25 a day to live here. Instructor fees are extra.
Six skaters have qualified for national figure-skating competition and Carol says that several foreign athletes training here give the center "at least 12 skaters who could very easily qualify" for Olympic competition.
Wearing a black jump suit and sipping coffee, Carol sat rinkside as dozens of youngsters went through workouts at the Ice Castle recently.
"I could sit here all day," she said, glancing at the skaters. "Trouble is, I wouldn't get any work done."
As Carroll and Cousins put the skaters through stroking drills, Carol smiled.
"Winning championships is not our main goal," she said.
Carol turned pro at 18. She said she learned early in her youth that training for Olympic competition was not for her.
"I would get nervous. I was not competitive material."
Instead, she turned to figure skating after graduating from Compton High School in 1952. Her career spanned a decade with the Ice Follies.
"We want to teach these kids how to meet their own goals, whatever they are, not to just meet our goals," Carol said.
Walter views the center a bit differently, with a hint of red, white and blue.
Some 'Going to Make It'
"I love to see the kids develop. I want to get them off to a good start. Anything I can do so our U.S. athletes can compete successfully. . . . Some of these kids are going to make it."
Cousins said he came to work in Blue Jay because of the mountain community, its good training altitude of about 5,100 feet and the facility's ambiance.
"The place itself is so beautiful compared to other places that I have seen skaters train in," he said.
The Probsts joke about the center's lack of profit. "If we do (turn a profit) we'll throw a big party," said Walter.
To make ends meet, the Probsts rent the training center for weekend business retreats, weddings and receptions. Carol showed off a honeymoon cottage that she had decorated in country French. Quaint, it rents for about $100 a day, including meals and use of all center facilities. The Probsts hope to attract more clients from metropolitan areas by including ski packages with local resorts this winter.
"There are 10 million people within 50 miles of this place," Walter said. "The population up here just is not enough to support a place like this."
As the center grew, the additional workload was taxing. The Probsts went through half a dozen supervisors in the Ice Castle's first few seasons.
"I don't think you can find anyone who has (managed a facility) like this before because there isn't one like it," said center manager Dennis Senior, who has been with the Ice Castle for about a year. He previously worked in a major hotel chain.
Ice time, a precious commodity in Southern California, can be maximized for additional revenue, Walter said. He expects the rink in Blue Jay to operate all but four hours a day, seven days a week.
Seated later in an office at the training center, Walter and Carol spoke of the personal time they may have had if they'd not gotten involved with skating here. Walter would be playing golf on exclusive desert courses, and Carol would travel.
From May to October, however, they spend just about every day at the rink or the center.
"We'll go home (to the desert) in October," Carol said.
Walter chuckled. "But you'll drive up here at least once a week."
Said Carol: "It's always something."