At first Derek Parra was slackjawed, then he was skeptical. The course he had just skated could not have been a true 300 meters in length. How else to explain his time of 19.991 seconds, which had not only won the race but had also lowered the world roller-skating record by five seconds!
Two officials scurried to remeasure the course. With a surveyor's wheel, they twice negotiated the race course on a stretch of San Francisco's Great Highway; the original measurement proved to be accurate. If Mars Blackmon had attended the U.S. Amateur Confederation of Roller Skating's (USAC/RS) National In-Line Championship on Oct. 26, he might have asked, "Is it the skates? Is it the skates?"
It was the skates.
For the past seven years Parra had raced on "quad" roller skates—you remember, Cher wore them in the '70s. On quads Parra had won the 1991 5,000-meter world championship in Ostend, Belgium, on Aug. 25. But when the 21-year-old from Dover, Del., had tried out a pair of in-line skates in July, he could tell they were faster. He didn't know they were that much faster.
How could he? Although they have been around for more than 10 years, in-line skates weren't approved for national or world competition until this year. USAC/RS, the stodgy, 54-year-old governing body for all roller sports, allowed in-line skates into its competitions for the first time in February; Federation Internationale de Roller Skating (FIRS), the sport's international federation, didn't officially recognize the skates until July.
The national championships in San Francisco were USAC/RS's first in-line event and were touted by organizers as a proud day for the sport. But what USAC/RS coats-and-ties were less eager to point out was that this would be the third in-line nationals of 1991. Confused?
Only a week before, the International In-line Skating Association ( USA)—a new consortium of seven in-line manufacturers, including Rollerblade Inc. and Varifiex Corp., which are the biggest in the U.S.—had held a 10K national championship in Irvine, Calif. "Anyone who has a race can call it a national championship," says Eddy Matzger, a 24-year-old Berkeley resident who has dominated inline speed skating for the past two years.
Matzger should know. In September he won the USA National 50 Kilometer Championship, in New York City's Central Park, a race that Matzger jokingly refers to as "the first national championship." A back injury kept him out of the "second" and "third" championships, the Irvine event and the San Francisco race.
A few years ago no one would have expected that there would be any in-line championships. Although in-line skating is wildly popular as a recreational activity—an estimated four million Americans participate—it's still in its infancy as a competitive sport. In 1990 the Roller-blade company organized the first racing circuit. A season later the USA was created as the sport's international governing body and the circuit became part of the USA racing series.
When skaters arrived in Irvine for the "second" championships, on Oct. 19-20, they came complete with sponsors and with rankings drawn from the four-month racing season. And while the skaters aren't well-known yet, the image of in-line skating—urban, funky, thrilling—is.