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.