Skip to main content
Original Issue

He's Heaven On Wheels

It's not roller disco. It's not Roller Derby. It's speed roller skating, and last year Tacoma's Tom Peterson was the world champion

It was April in Portland, Ore., raining, of course, and in a quiet little backwater of the city, along the Willamette River, tiny Oaks Amusement Park was still closed for the winter. The bumper cars sat motionless, like hibernating beetles. The Haunted House, shuttered tight and steaming in the rain, seemed ready for the cover of a Stephen King novel. The only activity was inside Oaks Roller Rink, where the 1982 Pacific Coast Speed Invitational was under way. A television reporter was laboring through an interview with a lean young put-on artist from the Tacoma Speed Club. The skaters knew him; he was the world champion, perhaps the finest speed skater of all time. A few of the younger females were even heard to call him "cute," but it wasn't as if Steve Garvey, say, or Sugar Ray Leonard had wandered in. If the champion's reception seemed not quite charged enough, and if the surroundings seemed unsuited to his status and skills—an amusement park off-season, a rink in an age of skating centers—well, that only revealed an ignorance of his sport. The world champion was a citizen of the U.S., after all, and a competitive speed roller skater, and there are few worse formulas for glamour and fame.

The reporter told him, "When we got the assignment we thought it was ice skating." The champion was ready for the line, as always. He said, "Do you know that there are more than twelve thousand registered, competitive speed roller skaters in the United States?"

The reporter, flustered, replied, "They told me to ask about your age."

"I quit counting."


"Age just isn't part of my life," Tom Peterson said. "I'm twenty, maybe."

The interview over, the world champion told a friend, "A few years ago I started having aches and pains, so I decided to quit having birthdays. I told my mother, 'I don't want to know when I was born anymore.' Sometimes now I'll decide that young guys have a psychological advantage, so then I say I'm eighteen. At other times I'm thirty-nine, and I say, 'Look what skating has done for me!' It's part of my tactics."

How old is the finest speed roller skater of all time? For that matter, who is he? The now-defunct Skating Life magazine has called him Tom Terrific, and Terrific at least once registered at a competition under the name Thomas Awesomme. "You can't just say 'awesome,' " he says, "you have to say 'aweSOMME.' " The skating world knows him as Tom Peterson, but on this day in Portland he grinned slyly and told an admirer, "My real name isn't Peterson, you know."

She asked him, "What's your father's last name?"

"I forget," he said.

Suddenly he gazed mournfully at the ceiling and raised his palms in supplication, in what might have been the start of some pre-race ritual. It wasn't. He cried out, for the third time that morning, "I need a woman!" And then he was gone.

Call that the Put-On Out Of The Blue, just another in Tom Peterson's arsenal of tactics, which also include his Creative Chronology and The Intentional Lapse of Memory. These may not directly contribute to the winning of races, but they are nothing if not spontaneous, can be entertaining, and just might help Peterson's sport—roller skating has never been an Olympic event—get some attention.

Peterson himself is fairly well known in selected parts of the world. He is bright-eyed, brave, kind and courteous, to say nothing of zany. Especially zany. And certainly his sport requires as high a level of fitness and skill as, say, ice speed skater Eric Heiden's, though it does have a less affecting history.

The roller skate as we know it wasn't invented until 1860, by a New Yorker named James L. Plimpton, who thus unwittingly made possible such blots on our culture as roller disco and Roller Derby. More than 20 countries compete internationally in speed roller skating, and world championships have been held since 1937, though the U.S. didn't compete in them until 1966. Peterson's debut in the worlds came in Italy in 1979, when he was 18, 19, 20 and 35 years old.

International competition is held on roads and 200-meter outdoor tracks with long straightaways. When Peterson came along, U.S. speed skating was mainly confined to some 2,500 rinks with small tracks full of circling adolescents in rented skates. So in May of 1979, with his first world championships only four months away, Peterson and seven U.S. male teammates flew to Italy for three weeks of international-style track competition.

The small U.S. tracks are mostly turns, so on the turns of the large ones in Italy, the Americans held their own. On the straightaways, they were pathetic. The Italians laughed at them. Peterson fell eight times, acquiring 59 road burns, which he totaled as if they were medals; his feet were burning, too, inside newly fitted skates. The Americans had brought their indoor skates to Italy, and they proved to be worthless on the big outdoor tracks. It's a mark of how quickly and how far Peterson has come that only three years ago the current two-time world champion didn't even know what kind of wheels to use in international track competition.

Peterson returned from Italy with six pairs of outdoor skates, and he hit the roads. That July, in Puerto Rico, in the first speed-skating competition ever held in the Pan-Am Games, he entered five events and won four gold medals. Back in Italy for the worlds in September, he fell seven times but won a silver and two bronzes. In 1980, with thousands of road miles in his legs, he was in his second worlds, in New Zealand. The Wairarapa Times wrote: "This phenomenal skater...came to these championships as something of an unknown quantity...but [his] ability to unleash a devastating final couple of laps, no matter what the distance...was breathtaking stuff."

The four-man U.S. team won eight medals, and Peterson won six—a bronze, two silvers and three golds, for his victories in the 5,000-, 10,000- and 20,000-meter track races. Peterson's next international competition was more than six months away, so what did the new world champion say when the partying began? He said goodby. He said, "I wouldn't want tomorrow's champions to think partying was the thing to do." He didn't wink.

In July 1981, World Games I were held in Santa Clara, Calif., the purpose being " provide an international stage for sports such as trampoline, fin swimming, and bodybuilding." It's debatable whether speed skating was helped by being lumped with them, but numerous skating countries were represented. The first three of four "road" races were held on an asphalt parking lot, around a 400-meter oval line of white paint—speed skating, U.S. style. When he wasn't snarling at questions about Roller Derby, Peterson was winning three golds, one in the marathon, run—or rolled—on nearby streets.

The skaters coursing those quiet streets didn't gleam with chrome and lacquer, like their more familiar cycling counterparts; they pumped their arms and undulated like a Chinese parade dragon. In a sprint, they called to mind a school of minnows; suddenly, the skaters all would burst ahead, as if they shared a common brain. At 21 miles, a Belgian had got himself 200 yards in the lead, but he was fading. The pack seemed to sense an opportunity, and quickly the Belgian was deep in its belly. Peterson was near the head, moving at a pace of three minutes and 20 seconds per mile. Into the stretch he was second. At the finish he was six to eight feet in the lead. His time was one hour and 26 minutes for the 26 miles, 385 yards.

"I didn't have to sprint all out," he was saying, only slightly winded. "I almost coasted the last hundred feet." Nance Herman, associate editor of Skate magazine, asked Peterson, "How do you feel about people who say, 'Before the Pan-Ams, Tom was a nice guy, but boy has he gotten a big head'?"

"That's O.K.," he said. "I don't live for those people. I don't think I'm too bad a guy. I do have a lot of confidence, but it's because I've spent a lot of hours watching the sweat drop to the ground."

A television reporter, this one from West Germany, came by. "Excuse me, Tom," he said, "I need to know your age and your profession."

"I'm...a student...and I'm nineteen."

Herman said, "Why do you get younger every time you're, asked that question?"

"I discontinued having birthdays when I was young. I said to God one day—"

"God, can I always stay eighteen?" Herman interjected.

"—and God justified my fibbing about my age. But only about that."

The TV reporter edged away.

Peterson later extended himself so far as to say that he was a part-time business student at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, Calif., and that he hoped to operate a skating rink someday, but he didn't say when it was that he had spoken to God. It could have been risky. As he had told Herman, "I played around with skating when I was a baby, in nineteen—oh, wait a second, I can't give that date, can I?" Peterson never combines how old he was with the concept of when. But he is generous with his whats and wheres, thereby creating a powerful case for predestination. He claims to have been conceived before a skating meet, in Portland's Blue Spruce Motel. His mother, RoLores (her parents are Roger and DoLores), was a skating instructor. RoLores quit teaching on a Saturday, and Tom was born the following Thursday. His custom-printed birth announcement depicted a baby boy wearing roller skates; at nine months, before he could stand, he had been fitted with a tiny pair of skates and was crawling around the floor of grandfather Roger's business establishment, the rink in Tacoma. At three he was entered in the Northwest Regional Championships, seven-and-under division, one lap around the track. He was training one day a week in those days, for 45 minutes. At seven he was the Northwest champion.

A year later his parents were divorced, and his mother remarried. Tom took his stepfather's name (his father's name is Ames). His mother founded the Tacoma Speed Club soon after that, and her son began training seven days a week. So did his sister, Lin, now 22, and at the 1977, '78 and '79 indoor nationals she and her older or younger brother won the 3,000-meter mixed-relay race. Lin had been put into skates at the ripe old Peterson age of two. Her finest solo performance came at the 1979 worlds: a silver medal in the one-on-one 500-meter road race.

In June of 1980, while training for the New Zealand worlds, Peterson was in Portland, competing at the Northwest regional and hoping to qualify for the indoor nationals later that summer in Lincoln, Neb. He was feeling lonely. As he recalls, "I'd just spent two months looking for a girl friend, and I couldn't find one. It wasn't that I didn't know any girls. I was just never excited about one. I'd never met one who wanted to know what I was about. So for two months I drove around Tacoma looking. It cost me five dollars a night for gas, and by the time I got to the regionals I'd given up. I decided there was no girl in the world for me, that I'd just have to forget about it and spend the rest of my life training. So there I was in Portland, playing Frisbee with a friend in the motel parking lot, when a big motor home went by. I looked at the back window and there was a girl looking out. I said to my friend, 'That was the girl for me. That was her.'

"He thought it was very funny. Then the motor home turned around, came back and parked. The girl got out and she went into the room right next to ours, so I accidentally hit her door with the Frisbee, and we met. Later, when she went to the soda pop room, I followed her there and locked her in. I said she wouldn't get out until she promised me a date. So we had dinner the next night, and the next day she came to my meet."

The girl's name was Donna LaBriola, and what Peterson had seen through the window of the motor home was a face both pretty and compelling, with flashing brown eyes, a wide, ready smile and a strong chin. She also turned out to be a three-time national champion in freestyle artistic roller skating who had recently retired to coach the sport and was in Portland to judge a competition. After Portland, she went home to the L.A. suburb of Fountain Valley, where she works at the Fountain Valley Skating Center, owned by her father, Bob, a five-time national champion in dance skating.

Peterson, having qualified for the indoor nationals, went back to Tacoma and resumed training. He wrote to LaBriola every day, phoned more times than he could afford to, and they met again at the nationals in Lincoln. "I got her up to seven dates," he says. Six months later, in January of 1981, he moved to a tiny borrowed motor home in Anaheim, where in no time skates and skate wheels lay strewn about, ready to tumble the unwary, and bicycle tires dangled noose-like here and there. (Peterson had begun bike racing three times a week to supplement his training.) The place needed a woman's touch, but as Peterson always tells friends, "Donna and I don't live together, or anything like that. It wouldn't be right. It's just not the way I was brought up."

They do seem inseparable, though. At World Games I LaBriola said, "The first time I saw Tom skate I thought he had rockets in his legs." A week later, when Peterson left for Belgium and his third world championships, he assigned her the task of finding him a real apartment while he was gone. It should have been a castle; in Belgium he added four gold medals to his little Fort Knox, and it could easily have been six: twice, when he could have won, he let U.S. teammates do so instead. Then he returned to California, and a new two-room pad that all but broke him in three months. A part-time job as a bicycle mechanic barely paid the rent. He moaned, "What's a guy like me supposed to do? Companies are dying to put my name on their equipment, but I'm not supposed to make one cent from my sport. I'm a two-time world champion and I may have to go home and live with my mother."

But Bob Olson, a member of his cycling group, saved the day. Olson lived alone in a four-bedroom Los Alamitos split level, and last December Peterson moved in. The rent is low, a cliché of a California redwood whirlpool/hot tub percolates on the patio and the living room is a thicket of barbells and weight benches. But the real muscle bombing takes place under the hard eye of another cycling buddy, a 67-year-old paragon of fitness named Phil Guarnaccia, who owns Brea's PG Industrial Electric. For 17½ years Guarnaccia has had a standing offer of $5,000 to anyone who can match his calisthenics and weight-training routines. To date, more than 171 consecutive failures have been recorded, most of them by disbelieving cyclists, college football players and track athletes. Peterson, by no means devoted to iron pills, lasted 20 minutes, one of the better performances, and Guarnaccia says of him, "I find Tom to be a very refreshing guy, and I hate young people—I go out of my way to thrash them, in bike racing and weightlifting. The reason I don't like them is that they're wasting their lives away. Look at our national cycling champions. These young folks are training for an Olympic event, just to go over and compete. They're not up to world standards, and you're nothing until you're a world-beater. But Tom Peterson is an exception to the rule."

Which brings us back to Oaks Amusement Park, where Peterson won two individual events and was a member of five winning relay teams. He clinched his second Pacific Coast seniors title early in the competition. When the final of the four-man 4,000-meter relay race was about to begin, he was saying, "I can go out there, make it a crowd-pleaser and have everyone screaming. Or I can go out and make it boring. What should I do?"

"What do you think?" came the reply.

"O.K.," he said, "I'll be at the front, lapping dudes."

There were eight four-man teams, and each man would skate five 100-meter laps, to return later for five more. Peterson was anchor man, and when he entered the race his club was last. When his first five laps were over, it was fifth. He came back to find Tacoma second, and there it stayed until the next-to-last turn of his last lap. He was holding back. The leader knew Peterson was behind him and acted accordingly, like a mouse one jump ahead of a cat. He stumbled all over the track, and approaching a turn, by this time frantic, he picked up speed. Peterson edged along his inside leg, and seemed about to commit a foul, which would have disqualified Tacoma, but he backed off suddenly. Nearly into the turn, he set himself for it. The leader was now totally confused. He went out of control, took the turn wide, Peterson rushed by on the inside, and in little Oaks Roller Rink the rafters were ringing.

That evening, back at his motel, Peterson stood in the bathroom, seemingly talking to someone. But when asked, "Who's in there with you?" he replied, "I was just saying goodby to my vitamins and thanking them."

The next day, in California, he was calling out, "I need a woman.... [His voice rose and fell, from sentence to sentence] Yes...[It fell]...Sometimes I think I need a woman.... [He seemed to be forgetting about LaBriola, but they don't live together, or anything like that]...and then I'll turn on the radio and hear some guy singing...[and he sang, his voice rising again] 'Leave her alone, she'll break your heart.' " Suddenly, shifting moods 180 degrees, he started throwing punches into the air and shouting, "Sugar Ray, I'll fight you for a million dollars, one round.... I need the money." His eyes were rolling, the words rat-a-tatting from his mouth. "Or maybe I'll go to the Roller Derby people and say, 'I'm going to put you in the headlines again.' I'll show them what a real athlete is."

Unfortunately, what this real athlete did in late June was to cavort on trick water skis, doing helicopters at about 11 mph, jumping and spinning around. On his last spin he hit the water in a split, tearing the medial collateral ligaments in his right knee. His surgeon told him that he would compete again, but not for six or eight months, and in August his Tacoma Speed Club was less than awesomme at the nationals in Fort Worth. And sans Peterson, the U.S. probably will be a whole lot less than awesomme at the worlds, in Italy again, at the end of this month. But, "I've got a whole year to get ready for next year's worlds," says Peterson, "and the world is going to be in trouble. I'm going to be unbelievable." Or unbelieevable.

He already is. Both of those things.



Peterson whirls to victory in the '81 worlds in Belgium (below) and shows off his hoard of medals (right) outside of the family rink.



Guarnaccia: a staunch supporter of Tom.



Tom with RoLores, Lin and his spoils.



Off to the races, Peterson gets his wheels aligned.



Very clearly, Donna LaBriola and Peterson aren't at all cast down.