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Original Issue

Wheelers and dealers

Today the Pan-Am Games, tomorrow the Olympics. That was the message as the roller skating explosion hit San Juan, where the U.S. was the fastest and fanciest

This is for those of you who still think roller skating exists to provide work for organists. And for those of you who think of skate keys, skinned knees, dreary rinks and big Joanie Weston busting up pretty skulls every week on the tube for the immortal Bay Bombers.

At the Pan-American Games last week, the sport of roller skating streaked toward the '80s as forcefully as if it had been propelled by a six-man whip. But if you haven't yet noticed the 28 million-plus Americans whizzing around on skates, and 16-year-olds everywhere turning into John Travoltas on wheels, the idea of roller skating as an international sport may still seem a bit strange.

"People are amazed when they find out just how much the sport has grown," says Charles Wahlig, the American speed-team coach.

Though competitive roller skating is as popular in southern Europe as ice skating is in the north, in America interest has been largely confined to participants and their families, and what used to be a small community of skate manufacturers and rink operators. World championships have been held for years in each of the sport's three disciplines—artistic, speed and hockey—but last week marked the first occasion on which all three were contested in an international multisport meet as large as the Pan-Am Games. For this booming sport, it was a giant step toward the ultimate goal—the Olympic Games—which it almost assuredly will reach by 1988.

In Puerto Rico, the U.S. skaters provided as much excitement and just as much grace and beauty as their ice-skating counterparts would have in a winter Olympics. Americans won 10 of 16 possible gold medals—the hockey is being played this week—including all four in artistic skating and six in speed.

This was a surprise, because all speed skating in the U.S. is done indoors on un-banked wooden 100-meter tracks, while the track in Puerto Rico was outdoors, banked, 200 meters around and surfaced with polished cement. The only training on such a track that the U.S. skaters had done was during a two-week trip to Italy in early May.

It was fitting that in a brand new Pan-Am sport so important to the Americans, Ken Sutton, an 18-year-old who attends Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Mich., won the first gold medal of the Games in the 500-meter race against the clock, and a second in the 500-meter round robin. Tom Peterson, a 20-year-old skate salesman from Tacoma. became a winner of four golds, taking the 5,000-and 10,000-meter races, and the week's premier event, the 20,000-meter (12.4-mile) marathon. He also was on a winning relay team.

The 15 entrants in the marathon, representing the U.S., Puerto Rico, Argentina and Colombia, inspired a symphony of honking horns from halted traffic as they sped westward along Highway 165 beside the palm-lined north beaches from Cataño, an industrial town across the bay from San Juan. They rolled past the Bacardi Rum factory, past Levittown, past large fields of sugar cane toward the quaint little town of Dorado.

The Puerto Rican and Colombian skaters fell out of the lead pack early, leaving four Americans and three Argentines. Three miles into the race, one of the Argentines lost a wheel and crashed to the pavement. A teammate stopped to help him replace the wheel. That left the Americans, each taking his turn in the lead to draft the others, and the lone remaining Argentine, Raul Subiledt, all skating in unison in a tight column, sometimes reaching speeds of 30 mph.

Several times the Americans tried to sprint away from Subiledt, but they couldn't shake him. Approaching Dorado and the steep 90-meter hill near the finish, Peterson pumped furiously and opened a sizable lead. When he reached the center of town, he had to search to find the finish line, then had to thread his way through the cheering crowd and various motor vehicles to cross it. A children's band played and fire sirens blared. Peterson's time was 36:37.0, an average speed of nearly 21 mph; Chris Snyder of Euless, Texas finished eight seconds later, followed by Subiledt.

In the artistic program, Fred Morante, a 19-year-old art major from Plain view. N.Y., upset 23-year-old Lex Kane of Pontiac. Mich., the flashy defending U.S. men's singles champion. Robbie Coleman and Patrick Jones of Memphis won the mixed pairs, while Fleurette Arseneault and Danny Littel of Farmingdale, N.Y. took the free dance event.

The final artistic offering, the women's singles, was the stuff of a screenwriter's imagining. Natalie Dunn of Bakersfield, Calif., the 22-year-old three-time world champion and superstar of the sport, who had very politely said, "Anything Dorothy Hamill can do on ice I can do on rollers," was skating for the last time as an amateur against her 19-year-old rival, Jo-Ann Young of Norfolk, Va. What gave the plot punch was that Dunn, who had a tumor scraped from her left tibia in November and had barely skated since, was found while practicing to have a hairline stress fracture in the same leg. She was in great pain a week before the Games.

"After this, I'm turning pro," she said. "There's nothing to do then but teach. We don't have a 'Roller Capades.' This is my last chance to skate."

Young skated first and turned in a splendid performance. Immediately afterward she collapsed from the sweltering midmorning heat. Dunn, the cool champion, told her father, who is also her coach, that she was nervous and "felt exhausted" midway through her routine. It was uncommonly trying, and despite one fall and the fact she hadn't practiced the tougher moves in months, she won.

Roller skating's success in San Juan marked a high point of acceptance for a sport that has absolutely exploded in the U.S. in the last three years.

All this naturally pleases the U.S. Amateur Confederation of Roller Skating (USACRS), which administers local, regional and national competition, but at the same time roller skating people are, as always, concerned about how the public perceives the activity.

"The thing we've been bucking since the '50s is the image of the seedy rinks and Roller Derby," says Jane Puracchio Butera, a former world champion who coaches the U.S. artistic team.

Skating people agree that the sport never would have made it to the Pan-Am Games, never mind the brink of the Olympics, if not for 71-year-old M. M. (Red) Shattuck of Redwood City, Calif., a retired coach who has dedicated the last 10 years to a crusade for roller skating. Shattuck estimates he has traveled a million miles, "crashing parties and meetings" to bang the drum loudly. He went to Munich in 1972 to throw a party for members of the International Olympic Committee, hired a band, brought in food and hostesses, "everything you can possibly do to have a nice reception," he says. "Well, the IOC picked that night to have a retirement party for Avery Brundage, so I bombed out."

In November of that year Shattuck crashed a meeting of the Pan-American Sports Organization in San Juan. "I knocked on the door and told 'em I wanted 10 minutes," he says. "They allowed me five and told me there was nothing they could do for me." Two months later he went to the PASO Congress in Santiago, Chile and, through sheer perseverance, sold his plan. Roller skating was accepted on the condition that USACRS take the responsibility for training athletes from the Pan-Am countries in the sport.

Shattuck made five trips to Latin America and the Caribbean. USACRS donated $50,000 for equipment and training and half of the $300,000 it took to build the skating facility in Puerto Rico. "I have only one goal," said Shattuck. "Olympic participation."

In May 1978 the IOC planned its schedule for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. Roller skating was not included. However, Marie Walker, roller skating's representative on the U.S. Olympic Committee, is just about certain that the sport will make it by 1988. "Considering the 20' years of struggle behind us and the 10 years of really hard work," says Walker, "1988 seems like tomorrow morning."


Gritty Dunn (left) twirled to a gold, while Peterson and his U.S. teammates stopped Argentina's Subiledt (right) in the demanding marathon.