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Original Issue


Plush facilities are in and the Roller Derby image is out as millions of Americans give roller skating a giant new push

The strains of an old-fashioned waltz reverberate through the large hall. The handsome young couples, hand in hand, smile warmly at each other and glide effortlessly around the maple floor as if bliss were there in their hearts and wings on their feet. The organ music almost drowns out the roll and squeak of the skates as they go round and round and round. Ah, roller skating! Those golden moments from the '30s or '40s or '50s, those days when true love blossomed in drafty old rinks where the dust left a haze in the air and the rental skates never fit.

Well, yes and no. It is roller skating all right, but the scene has changed. Those elegant couples whirling and turning in Pershing Auditorium in Lincoln, Neb. last August were senior dance finalists at the 41st annual U.S. Amateur Roller Skating Championships. Their skates cost some $300 a pair and the smiles on their faces did not necessarily reflect what was in their hearts.

During the finals for 10- and 11-year-old elementary kids, for example, four couples wheeled around in the Denver Shuffle, one of three required steps. The beautifully costumed children, perfectly made up, with every hair sprayed into place, moved with the precision of automatons, backs arched, chins up, superficial grins locked in. They had the look of actors in a silent movie, or couples on an antique valentine. But at the end of the Denver Shuffle, the pair representing a California club skated quickly to the sidelines, where the boy threw up over the protective barrier. Then, chins back up, they skated off for the next step.

The dancers were among 1,700 skaters, ranging in age from eight to the mid-40s, who were competing for 75 national titles in dance, freestyle, figure (or "artistic") and speed skating. All of the finalists in the 10-day meet were survivors of an original horde of 26,000 registered amateur competitive skaters who had appeared in elimination meets held around the country. The 26,000, in turn, make up the competitive hard core of an estimated 22 million Americans who roller skate.

Since its glory days in the '30s, skating has suffered its boom and bust. During the Depression, folks flocked to the rinks; skating was entertainment they could afford and in 1937 Detroit hosted the first national roller skating championships. But as the economy revived, roller skating declined. A brief resurgence followed World War II, but that, too, soon faded, and as the middle class drifted from cities to the new suburbs, many of the aging rinks took on a seedy, even sinister air. They became the sort of place mother told you to stay away from. In the past 10 years, however, things have changed again. Today, skaters are found in ever increasing numbers all across the country; wheeling along the beachfront sidewalks of Venice, Calif., playing roller hockey in the streets of New York, dancing at a roller disco in Chicago.

But what really set the wheels spinning at the nationals was the news that, for the first time, roller skating will be a full-fledged sport at next year's Pan-American Games, and from the winners at Lincoln would come the U.S. Pan-Am team. Those who had toiled in the dusty barns of oldtime skating were catching a glimpse of a lifetime dream. And with Olympic recognition expected—some spoke hopefully of the 1988 Games—there would come at last the acceptance and respectability that roller skaters have long struggled for.

To an extent, they have already succeeded. Certainly, if competitive skating were not pretty well established, 12-year-old Trisha Hiller, who scored a remarkable double by winning both the elementary girls' freestyle title and the elementary speed-skating crown at Lincoln, would not be spending three to four hours a day practicing at her rink in Orange, Calif. She has been skating competitively since she was seven, or shortly after her mother, searching for something they could do together, took her to a local rink. Six months later Trisha won her regional class meet in freestyle. "I'm a natural," she says.

One hopes so, because Jean Hiller, Trisha's mother, who works in a bank, also holds a second job at Trisha's rink to pay for her daughter's lessons and skates. Mrs. Hiller, a divorcee, has even moved and twice switched jobs to get better coaching for Trisha.

"My whole life is built around her skating," she says. However, in spite of the second job, the financial burden of keeping her daughter in trophies is almost more than she can bear. Expenses for a top artistic skater run around $2,000 a year, but Trisha is also a speed champion. Artistic skates cost $200 a pair, a set of speed wheels at least $45. The Hillers' expenses to and in Lincoln added another $1,000. But for Jean Hiller, it's well worth it. "I just know that I've got a champion artistic skater in Trish," she says, adding that her daughter will only be 22 when—and if—roller skating arrives at the 1988 Olympics.

Another outstanding competitor at Lincoln was 21-year-old Natalie Dunn, the reigning world ladies champion from Bakersfield, Calif., who has won nine national titles during her 20-year skating career. She rolled out before the crowd of 6,000 for the freestyle portion of the International Senior Ladies Championship dressed in a black costume trimmed with red, her hair done in the obligatory Dorothy Hamill wedge. Dunn started shakily, and then, as the audience gasped, fell with a bruising crash on one of her first jumps. But she picked herself up to continue the four-minute program, twirling through 16 jumps and three spins, including the difficult triple Salchow, plus assorted camels, loops and Mapes. These are many of the same maneuvers performed by figure skaters on ice, but Dunn executed them with eight pounds of roller skates on her feet, an encumbrance that limited the height of her leaps and sent a jarring thunk through the hall whenever she landed. The thunks and klunks notwithstanding, it was a graceful, sometimes breathtaking, exhibition of strength, timing and style, and it won another national title for Dunn, plus a trip to Lisbon to defend her world crown.

Then along came Chris Snyder of Dallas, the defending senior men's national champion, crouching on the maple floor at the starting line of the 3,000-meter speed-skating race, one of four events that make up the men's overall title. Snyder had been "thoroughly embarrassed" by his poor showing in elimination races, but hoped to regain face in the 3,000. "I thought I wouldn't have any problem here," he said. "Maybe I'm trying too hard."

At the gun, the eight finalists started down the straightaway of the 100-meter oval course, arms pumping, and the clatter rose to thunder as they ran on the toe stops of their heavy skates to gain momentum. They wheeled in single file around the first turn, inches apart, bent low, skates squealing and scraping as they maneuvered to make the turn. Occasionally, one would pull out of the tight line and slip in front of another; then the ranks would close and the pack would enter the next turn. The crowd, somewhat scruffier and definitely noisier than that at the artistic events, cheered and whistled at every change of position, while a gaggle of referees skated in the infield, trying to maintain law and order among the racers.

With 17 of the 30 laps to go, Snyder slipped into the lead, and the audience went wild. Though he was challenged continually, Snyder held position until, with only four laps remaining, Tom Peterson of Tacoma, Wash, whipped to the front. Again and again Snyder tried to regain the lead, but Peterson wouldn't give way. At the line it was Peterson in a record 5:53.7, followed by Snyder, which was the same way they finished in the point standings for the overall title.

Speed skating is no game of Parchesi. Though six to 10 referees patrol the course to keep down the pushing, shoving, elbowing and tripping, things can get pretty rough. One afternoon a 7-year-old primary class boy tripped over his own skates at the end of a race, fell and broke an arm. The same day, two freshman girls collided. One suffered a possible concussion, the other was carried out with an arm in a sling. Three heats later, two senior men tangled on a turn and one left the floor on a stretcher. And nearly everyone got bruises and floor burns.

"Speed skating is a contact sport," says Elmer Ringeisen, the meet director and a rink operator in San Diego, "and, as in all contact sports, there's bound to be some injuries."

The obvious reference to the Roller Derby at this point sends shudders through even the sturdiest member of the Roller Skating Rink Operators Association. The tough and bloody derbies are what most Americans picture when roller skating is mentioned; the derbies and the sport's crumbling old rinks, full of teen-age punks in ducktails and leather jackets. The RSROA wages a constant battle against these "negative" images. For instance, despite numerous head injuries, helmets are not required in speed skating. According to an industry release, "...helmets give an appearance of Roller Derby, which the roller skating industry has been battling for years...." Moreover, speed skating is downplayed at the nationals and in rinks around the country, at least in part because operators fear the derby image, and think speed may attract too tough a clientele. Dance and figure skating are considered more high-toned, suburban, middle-class—all the qualities that the roller skating folk have striven for over the past few years.

Ten years ago, when roller skating was languishing, the RSROA had a membership of only 500 rinks around the country, many of them run-down facilities located in decaying inner cities. Even the rink operators' headquarters was located in downtown Detroit. When the race riots hit that city in 1967, the RSROA decided to look for greener—and safer—pastures. They were found on the edge of Lincoln, in a suburban-cum-rural atmosphere redolent of clean living and fresh air. Today, the large, modern headquarters building is surrounded by expensive housing, with a cornfield only a block away. The facility boasts a four-tiered fountain in a courtyard and a plaque in the lobby that reads: DEDICATED TO THE OWNERS OF ROLLER SKATING RINKS WHO HAVE INVESTED THEIR RESOURCES AND TALENTS IN THE CHILDREN OF AMERICA HOPING FOR A FUTURE NATIONAL COMMUNITY CHARACTERIZED ISY A LOVE OF OUR COUNTRY AND A RESPECT FOR LAW AND ORDER.

Since the move to Lincoln in 1968, RSROA membership has tripled to 1,575 rinks. In addition, as the organization proudly points out, two-thirds of those rinks have been built since 1970. From California to Maine, towns and suburbs have sprouted Rolladiums, Rollerways, Roller Kings, Rollercades, Rollerdromes, Rolleramas, Rollereos, Roller Gardens, Roller Ranches, Roller Townes, Roller Cities, Rollerlands and Roller Worlds (not to mention Skate Aways, Skate Palaces and Skate-adiums).

These are not the dirty, noisy structures of the past. The skating surfaces are gleaming plastic, some luminous, like the ice that so many wheeled competitors envy. The new floors and the plastic wheels that have replaced wood and metal are not only more attractive and efficient, but they also have considerably lowered the sound level. Now the worst a skater's ears must contend with is the pounding music from expensive sound systems. Multicolored carpeting is everywhere; plastic is hot, even on the walls. Dropped ceilings, bright lights, pro shops, snack bars, game rooms, club rooms—all give the typical new rink a safe and friendly atmosphere. Some of the new facilities even have themes. A rink in Downey, Calif. has installed a silver-blue skating surface that resembles a pond. The carpeting is AstroTurf, and 16 plastic weeping willows dotted with lights and chirping songbirds line the walls. There are park benches to rest on, and the floor guards are dressed like forest rangers. All is bright, clean, well-supervised—the kind of surroundings that most of the young skaters at Lincoln are familiar with.

Despite all the cosmetics, there is grumbling in skateland. The difficulty can be partly attributed to growing pains. Though competitive roller skating is officially controlled by the U.S. Amateur Confederation of Roller Skating, that group is actually little more than an arm of the RSROA. USAC is housed in the rink operators' headquarters in Lincoln, and many of the directors on the governing board are also rink operators. Even the USAC's finances are under RSROA scrutiny; George Pickard, executive director of the operators' group, is also the executive secretary of the US AC. Pickard acknowledged this close relationship when, at an awards ceremony during the championships, he declared that roller skating "has a special blend of amateurs and professionals." Some might find the blend a little too special.

For example, besides his second-place finish in the men's senior competition at Lincoln, Chris Snyder took a fourth at the recent world speed meet in Argentina, the best finish by an American in years. He accomplished this feat even though the U.S. does not have a single 200-meter outdoor track of the kind used in Europe and at world championships. To train for the meet, Snyder arose every morning at 4:30, skated seven miles through the dark streets of Dallas to his job as a hotel bellman, put in an hour or so of weight training during work breaks, then skated the seven miles home. All of the top speed-skating countries—Italy, Germany, Spain, France, New Zealand—have 200-meter tracks, most of them municipal or state operations. Why doesn't the U.S., a country well known for its fine sports facilities, have even one regular size track? Snyder has one answer. "The operators run the skating business," he says, "and they aren't likely to build an outdoor rink that might lose them indoor money." So the U.S. remains an also-ran at international meets, and Chris Snyder skates alone through the streets of Dallas. There is a change in the wind, however. The RSROA points out that next year it will assist in the construction of the 200-meter Pan-Am course in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

But at the moment, competitive roller skating finds itself in the peculiar position of being an amateur sport conducted almost exclusively in private facilities owned or managed by professionals. Not that rink operators are a villainous lot out to sabotage poor amateurs; many owners are former skaters who taught skating before they bought their rinks. But uncomfortable situations can arise. According to some disgruntled speed skaters, the emphasis placed on dance, freestyle and figure competition can be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that artistic skating requires many more individual lessons at $12 to $18 an hour, while speed skating can be taught in groups for a mere $2 an hour. Art brings more money to a rink, claim the speedsters, and that is why operators like it. The controversy continues.

Leave them to it. Unless you are a competitor, why not just lace up your skates (try the ones with the $8.5 Fan Jet Sprint Wheels with the Swiss-cheese compound), pull out all the stops on the electric Wurlitzer and, for old times' sake, take a couple of turns around the green plastic floor to Shine on, Harvest Moon. Roller skating is alive and well and thriving in Lincoln, Neb.; Bakersfield, Calif.; Flint, Mich.; Tacoma, Wash.; East Meadow, N.Y.; Austin, Texas....



Exemplifying the sport's new go-go image, racers don't wear helmets lest fans associate them with that oldtime derby crowd.



Showing stylish form in competition, Curt Craton and Chris Johnson (left) and LaRhonda Nolan (below) hope to prove it's every bit as nice as on ice.



Boy, they really know how to hurt a guy in this doggone ol' sport.



Representing Pontiac, Michigan's Rolladium Club, finalist Kimberly Campbell gives it a whirl.