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Julia Lamb
October 30, 1978
Plush facilities are in and the Roller Derby image is out as millions of Americans give roller skating a giant new push
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October 30, 1978

Fancy Figures Down At The Rink

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

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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.

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