Award caps Floyd Bedbury’s six-decade holiday on ice

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The way Floyd Bedbury tells it, he didn’t appreciate the full impact of what he’d done until he stood alone in the Oslo train station, an 18-year-old kid newly arrived from Minnesota, knowing no one, without a single word of Norwegian. He was terrified at the strangeness of it all, but he’d come this far on ambition and he wasn’t going to turn back.

The year was 1957, and Bedbury had come to Europe to study the fine art of metric-style speed skating.

Over the next 51 years, Bedbury was to prove himself an exceptionally apt pupil. He set several national records, became the U.S. men’s speed-skating champion and competed in the 1960 and 1964 Olympics. He was the first American to skate an indoor mile in under three minutes.

Earlier this year, Bedbury, 70, who lives in Falcon Heights, was inducted into the National Speed Skating Hall of Fame in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

It was the victory lap in a lifetime of skating that extends back to the mid 1940s, when Bedbury learned to skate on the outdoor rink at Langford Park near his boyhood home on Raleigh Street. At age 11 he wrote down his life’s ambition.

“I wanted to win the city, state and national championship,” he said. “I didn’t know about the Olympics or I would have put that down, too.

Bedbury knew that to gain the proficiency he was seeking he would have to master the European system, which pits solitary skaters racing against the clock rather than a herd of competitors elbowing each other at the starting line.

“In metric skating,” said Bedbury, “you’re out there on the ice all by yourself.”

Although his goal on that first European trip was strictly athletic, Bedbury found himself engaged in some impromptu one-man diplomacy as well. It was during the darkest days of the Cold War, and even as seemingly nonpolitical an event as a skating race was viewed as a go-for-broke contest between the Free World and the Soviet Menace.

Bedbury, who had attached himself temporarily to the Finnish skating team, suffered an injury on the ice. The only doctor available was a Soviet team physician.

“The Russian doctor took care of me,” Bedbury said. Gratitude ripened to friendship when one of the Russian players offered the injured youth a soft drink.

“I said ‘Spassiba’ (thanks)” — the one word of Russian he knew. “From then on we became friends,” he said. “If you learn the language and treat people with respect, you can get along anywhere.”

Later on, when the Russian skaters visited America for the 1960 Olympics, Bedbury was on hand to show his new friends some of America’s more interesting native folkways.

“We took them down to Reno and ditched their security,” he says. “It drove the KGB crazy.”

Bedbury won his greatest laurels at skating, but he’s by no means a one-sport athlete. He’s also a five-time state bicycling champion who’s logged over 163,000 miles on his bike. He’s a runner, and he’s raced autos and flown planes, as well. In 1995, he won the National Inline Skating championship in the over-50 class. What it amounts to, he said, is “68 years of racing.”

Nowadays, Bedbury gets much of his satisfaction from guiding the skating efforts of others.

Retired after working 42 years as a lithographer for a local printing company, he has become the elite coach of Twin City Speed Skating, an organization he helped found in 1964. He spends about 235 days a year at the John Rose Oval in Roseville, working with hockey players and top-flight speed skaters.

According to Bedbury, age has its advantages, even in so youth-oriented an endeavor as speed skating.

“The kids have got all this go-power,” he said, “but they don’t have the brain power to use it. I can blast away because of my knowledge.”

Not that his criticism is targeted at the skaters that he himself coaches. He described his students as “hard workers and smart.”

A hip replacement operation five years ago barely slowed Bedbury down. “I was out riding again 10 weeks after the operation,” he said.

A few months ago he suffered an even more serious setback with an episode of total liver failure. True to character, he was back on the ice in record time.

“I just want to keep teaching,” he said. “There’s nothing more rewarding. A student comes out to the ice rink and she can’t even stand up. Two weeks later she’s skating. I get more excited than she does.”