Passion for skating: Bemidji coach Inger Kroeplin reflects on 35 years
Staring down at the ice rink from the second floor of the Neilson-Reise arena, Inger Kroeplin could not believe so many years had come and gone.
"The years I spent here... I mean, I practically lived here," she said.
After 35 years of coaching figure skaters in Bemidji, Kroeplin has retired. Her efforts will be recognized during the second performance of the Bemidji Figure Skating Club's Fantasy on Ice show at 1 p.m. Sunday in the Sanford Center.
Kroeplin, whose maiden name is Melander, arrived in Bemidji in 1973 from Helsinki, Finland, to be the new coach for the Bemidji Figure Skating Club and the Bemidji Parks and Recreation Commission.
The three-time Finnish figure skating champion began skating at age 7 and won her first championship at 13. She had trained in Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and Germany and spent nearly four years with the international Holiday On Ice show.
The figure skates she wore throughout her competition days are currently being displayed in a museum in Helsinki.
While touring with the Holiday on Ice show, Kroeplin's roommate, who was from Rochester, Minn., was asked by Doris McClellan of Bemidji to coach figure skating in Bemidji.
Kroeplin said her roommate declined the invitation in order to stay on with the international show, but recommended that Kroeplin take her place.
"It was always my dream to come to the United States," Kroeplin said. "When you're with the show for that long, you have to decide what else you are going to do with your life. It was time for me to do something different."
When she arrived in Bemidji, she recalled feeling like she had traveled back in time.
"It was like a time warp the way people dressed," she said. "They had rhinestone glasses and wore polyester suites. Here I came from Europe where fashion was everything. But there was no shopping, no malls, no nothing. I thought, 'Oh my lord.'"
She rented a mobile home where Perkins now sits, right across from the Neilson-Riese arena. But after learning her European hair dryer and hair curler would not fit into the outlets in the home, she went to a downtown electrical retail store, where she met Terry Kroeplin.
One year later, the two were married.
As the new coach for the Bemidji Figure Skating Club, Kroeplin said she was impressed by how hard the figure skaters worked in those earlier years.
"We used to have 22 girls out on the ice in total competition mode and just gung ho," she said. "They skated every day. They were on the ice at 6 a.m. before school and after school at 4 p.m."
While many of today's figure skaters continue to show dedication to skating, Kroeplin said figure skating does not receive the attention it once got.
"It's difficult nowadays because it's an expensive sport and girls can participate now in other things like hockey and soccer," she said. "I understand it, but there were not as many options for girls when I started."
After a few years, more coaches joined the staff, Kroeplin said, and over time the small club began to grow.
"We were small, but when we competed in the surrounding areas, we had 22 girls who were unbelievably talented and hard workers," she said. "When we went to Fargo or Duluth, it was like 'Oh my god, here comes Bemidji.' They knew the girls were strong."
Eventually even hockey coaches began encouraging young players to take skating lessons with the figure skating club in order to improve their skating skills, she said.
Kroeplin said speaking English on a full-time basis never stopped her from coaching the way she wanted to, adding she knew how to speak four different languages.
However, she said, sometimes the girls would jokingly poke fun of the way she would say some words like, "Thief River Falls," which sounded more like "Teef River Falls" to the skaters.
Kroeplin said it can be difficult for a person to go on to become a professional ice skater because it often requires a lot of traveling and money. When she was young, Kroeplin said, her father spent a fortune sending her to different countries to train.
"When you start to get into really competitive skating, you get home schooled and you skate and take ballet classes and exercise classes all day long," she said. "It's a whole different story. There is a lot of stuff you have to give up."
But to her, the work she put in was worth it. She said she grew to enjoy living in Bemidji and getting to know the community.
Kroeplin said she is most proud of how the skaters she worked with in Bemidji were able to find success in their lives.
"When I look back at all the skating girls that I taught, every one of them has done well," she said. "It just teaches you discipline and purpose. Most of them are very successful in their lives. You learn to take responsibility."
Her enthusiasm and passion for ice skating is still evident, but Kroeplin, 64, said she feels it is time to retire.
She said she will miss watching the figure skaters continue to improve their ice skating skills, but she is also looking forward to spending more time flower gardening at home.
Laura Buchholz, a coach with the Bemidji Figure Skating Club, said Kroeplin brought a European flare to her coaching style that will likely not be forgotten.
"In the U.S., we tend to coddle a lot. It's not what she grew up with or her style," Buchholz said. "She wants the best from her kids and there's no beating around it. She knows her stuff."
Buchholz said Kroeplin encouraged her as a coach to continue furthering her education to become a better teacher.
"It's been a pleasure to work alongside of her," she said. "I admire her passion. She has inspired me to make myself a better coach."