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FOR THE KIDS: ICE SKATING : Blades of Glory : The Conejo Valley rink provides family fun as well as instruction in figure eights and hockey.

At mid-morning, it was 80 degrees outside, but inside the Conejo Valley Ice Skating Center, it was barely 40 degrees. Mothers in long, down-filled coats huddled on bleachers to watch their children move on the ice.

Some of the kids had been at the Newbury Park rink since 6 a.m. Half a dozen instructors were giving private lessons to competitors, some as young as 7.

Welcome to Ventura County’s only ice skating rink--one of a dwindling supply in Southern California.

It’s a no-frills place in a converted grocery store, tucked into a shopping mall. Yet, it’s a hub for serious skaters, both hockey and figure, and it is the only spot around for public skating. It’s home to the Conejo Valley Figure Skating Club and a home away from home for many of the club’s competitively minded skaters.

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“We focus on youth training,” said Sean McGillivray, president of Ice Time Unlimited, a group that owns the rink. “We have a number of serious competitors who train four or five hours a day.”

One of them is Tisha Walker of Thousand Oaks who was on the ice for a lesson with her coaches during the freestyle session that morning. At 16, she placed eighth during the U.S. National Figure Skating Championship last February in Salt Lake City. As a junior the year before, she placed third.

She’s one of the few young people in the country who can do a triple jump, McGillivray said.

Tisha, already an international competitor, has her sights set on the 1992 Olympics. She’s been skating since she was 4. She’s at the rink by 6 a.m. for her daily workout.

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“None of it is easy. It takes a lot of work getting your jumps consistent and getting a finished look,” Tisha said during a break. To accommodate her skating, she attends Thousand Oaks High School part time and does correspondence courses at home.

Tisha’s first skating instruction was at the rink’s skating school, which is headed by Terry Tonius. The school offers an eight-week semester of classes for $78. That includes a half-hour group lesson each week and 20 practice sessions, and two guest passes. The children start as young as 4 and progress through a series of levels, learning both figures and freestyle skating.

At any one time, the school has about 300 students. On a Saturday, there might be 30 to 60 kids on the ice at a time for lessons. Those who want to compete go on to private instruction, which runs $16 to $25 a half-hour, Tonius said. The school employs 16 instructors who also free-lance as private instructors for aspiring skaters.

For young skaters not interested in freestyle or figure skating, the rink also has a drill team for competition precision skating.

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“It’s good for the kids who do other things in their lives and don’t have the time to make quite the commitment,” Tonius said.

The rink also is a hockey hub. The youth hockey program there includes 225 kids on 16 teams, all of which play each other. There is a beginners’ hockey program where they can learn the fundamentals of the game.

Adults play as well. At least 300--including a 72-year-old man--compete on 22 teams making up four divisions.

McGillivray has been with the rink since it moved into the converted grocery store 14 years ago. He said plans to build a new rink are in the formative stages.

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“This wasn’t designed to be a rink,” he said. “It’s not energy-efficient.” Over the years, the rink has had its financial problems--including rising rent and insurance costs.

“Two years ago, we were within days of closing down,” he said. “We fought to keep it open.”

It’s a familiar story at other rinks that face the same money problems. “There is a tremendous shortage of rinks,” he said. “Ten rinks have closed in Southern California, including one in Santa Barbara.”

For now, the Conejo Valley Ice Skating Center is on sure footing, although the ownership of the building changed recently. The rink may not have the dressing rooms and other perks that McGillivray envisions in a new rink, but he said it has the essential ingredient.

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“We have very good ice.”

* WHERE AND WHEN: The Conejo Valley Ice Skating Center is located at 510 N. Ventu Park Road in Newbury Park, just north of the Ventura Freeway. Winter public skating hours after Labor Day are noon to 2:45 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; noon to 4:45 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; and 2:15 to 4:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Evening hours are 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, 8 to 10 p.m. Friday and 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday. For information, call 498-6669 or 498-6660.


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