Sole Of A Champion:
Last week a teenager who lives only a
few miles from the borough’s border skated her way into the hearts of a
nation in a pair of skates made in Queens.
But few may know how a family business
in Jamaica played an essential role in women’s figure skater Sarah
Hughes’ recent Olympic Gold Medal-winning performance.
Hughes, a native of Great Neck, in
Nassau County, won the gold at the women’s figure skating competition at
the February 2002 Winter Olympic Games held in Salt Lake City, Utah.
She was wearing Klingbeil skate boots,
which have been made the same way at a building on a corner of Jamaica
Avenue for the past 50 years.
Klingbeil Shoe Labs started in 1949 when a young Bill Klingbeil began crafting shoes in a cellar near Sutphin Boulevard — a few blocks away from the company’s current location.
A few years later he had enough money
to buy a building on Jamaica Avenue. The rest is ice skating history and the
basis for a world-renowned business.
Klingbeil considers himself a
shoemaker in the old fashioned sense – crafting by hand all of the
“I’m a shoemaker . . . I’d make
shoes for nothing. I just like to make them,” Bill Klingbeil said.
Most of the shoes he makes today are
fitted on top of ice skates — one of the most sought after brands in the
world crafted in a process learned over a lifetime.
Today the company owns five nearby buildings where they store skate boots distributed to 200 shops worldwide.
Entering the Klingbeil salesroom, one gets the feeling that they are walking into an old-fashioned European-style ski lodge.
A fireplace in the corner is adorned
with skates, artwork, thank you notes, newspaper articles and a poster-sized
photo of Hughes during her gold medal winning performance in Salt Lake City.
It reads “To the Klingbeil Family and Staff, With Love, Sarah.”
Adding to the room’s coziness is the
smell of leather and wood emanating from a back room.
It’s an aroma that makes visitors
instantly aware that a fine craft is taking place behind the scenes.
When a skater comes in to the shop
they are seated in a large elevated and cushioned seat to get a custom
Virtually all of the skaters who have
received a fitting at the shop in its 50 years of business have signed their
name on the seat’s armrests and cushion.
According to an article in Skater’s
Landing magazine, the signature tradition is one that Hughes helped
“There were a couple of names, just
in one corner, the first time I was getting fitted. I asked if I could just
sign my name and he said OK. So I wrote my name and birthday and put a big
heart around it. When I came back the next time, it was just filled with
names,” Hughes said.
“The last is first,” said Donald Klingbeil, Bill’s 42-year-old son who began working at the shop sweeping the floors when he was seven.
The “last” is the name of the
maple wood foot carvings that the Klingbeils use to fashion their custom
Donald Klingbeil, now the company’s
vice president, explained how the process works.
“The boot is the most important part
of the figure skate,” he said.
Once seated, Bill Klingbeil traces the
skater’s foot on a piece of paper, paying close attention to dimensions.
“I follow the contour of the foot,” he said.
“The measurement has to be
precise,” Donald Klingbeil added.
The tracings are then transformed into
lasts carved out on a carving machine called a Gilman Lathe.
The unique machine used to carve out
the lasts is at least 90-years-old, Donald Klingbeil added.
Then, layers of leather are cut out to
construct the boot.
“There’s a lot of piece work involved,” Donald Klingbeil said, explaining that anywhere from 17 to 27 pieces of leather are involved in constructing a skate boot.
The leather is then fitted around the
last, sewn, glued and stapled and then the tongue of the boot is added.
Heels are nailed on and the entire
boot is trimmed, sanded, buffed and smoothed to perfection.
Then the skater’s name and logo –
an edelweiss – are added to
the inside of the boot.
“The entire process takes about two
weeks. It’s a great skill and there is a lot involved,” Donald Klingbeil
All together there are about 121
operations involved in creating a pair of skate boots.
“Then we or someone else puts the
blades on,” Donald Klingbeil said.
On average a pair of skates costs
about $495 – well worth the price, according to Hughes.
“The boots and blades are really our
only equipment,” Hughes told the publication Skaters Landing in a
recent article. “It’s what we depend on for our jumps, for our skating,
for our feel of the ice.”
Sixteen-year-old Hughes has been
wearing Klingbeil skates since she was about 11.
Hughes’ coach Robin Wagner said in
published reports, “I trust Don so completely I really haven’t
researched the market for other prices. Skaters can run into terrible
problems and wind up with injuries to their feet that cause them to be off
the ice. That’s how important boot-fit is,” Wagner said.
Klingbeil customers include 1976
Olympic Gold Medallist Dorothy Hamill, 1984 Olympian Elaine Zayak and 2002
Olympian Sasha Cohen.
“I love watching them skate,”
Donald said of his clients. “I’m a nervous wreck (when I watch), but I
love watching them.”
Donald Klingbeil was watching when
Olympian Sasha Cohen took fourth place during the women’s figure skating
competition at this year’s Winter Olympiad.
“Sasha laced up her boots several
times” before her performance on Feb. 21, Donald Klingbeil said.
“You could tell they were our boots
by these,” Donald Klingbeil said, pointing to the trademark hooks — a
visible part on each pair.
“Sasha’s boots were here
yesterday,” he told the Tribune a day after shipping off a new pair
of skate boots to the skater from California.
Cohen’s boots were not the only pair
for a top figure skater constructed in recent days.
During a visit from the Tribune
this week, Donald Klingbeil showed off a pair of new skates being specially
crafted for Hughes.
“The harder we work, the more people
appreciate it,” said Bill Klingbeil of the job he loves. It’s a
sentiment passed on to his son – much in the same way he has passed on his
“My favorite part is the
satisfaction, when you do it right,” Donald Kingbeil said.
“We get better every
year. We’re not perfect, but we try.”
Moments after skating her gold medal
winning routine on Feb. 21, Hughes was briefly visible on national
television talking on a cell phone.
When asked by a NBC correspondent who
was on the other line she said, “I think it was my Congressman.”
It was our Congressman too.
The Tribune confirmed that on
the other line was none other than Queens Tribune founder and
Congressman Gary Ackerman whose district covers Queens and the North Shore
of Long Island, including Hughes town of Great Neck.
Ackerman said, “I made arrangements
with her father to congratulate Sarah,” regardless of the outcome which
was “a lot more exciting” than what many people predicted.
“She was flawless,” Ackerman said.
“I called and I got right
But it was hard to hear, according to
“Everyone was screaming,” Ackerman
said of the crowd that gathered at the Great Neck House in Great Neck.
“There was screaming on both ends. It was pandemonium,” he said.
However, Ackerman was able to
congratulate Hughes on her performance and tell her that a parade was
planned in her honor.
“I told her we can’t wait” until
she returns home, Ackerman said.
A parade for Hughes was
scheduled for Saturday, March 2 on Middle Neck Road in Great Neck.
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