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.