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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
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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

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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."

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