SI Vault
 
He's Heaven On Wheels
Dan Levin
September 20, 1982
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 20, 1982

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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5

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 "...to 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.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5