Sometimes being Dante Muse's younger brother is more than Tony Muse can stand. Dante, 21, of Des Moines, is the best speed roller skater in the U.S. Tony, who's 16 months younger, is the second best, neck and neck with his brother according to the U.S. Amateur Confederation of Roller Skating (USAC/RS). It's a situation Tony detests, he says, "because nobody ever remembers second."
What makes Tony's plight even less tolerable is that speed skating, a non-Olympic sport, is not exactly mainstream. Its competitors race in packs on 200- to 400-meter tracks outdoors—or on 100-meter courses set up in roller rinks. And while it might seem as if we're talking about an uptown version of good old roller derby, the histrionics of roller derby are to speed roller skating what Hulk Hogan is to amateur wrestling—something of an embarrassment.
Dante Muse is a bona fide speed roller skater. He has won the indoor national title in his age division three out of the past six years, and he has been outdoor national champion. He was the world-record holder at 5,000 meters in 1986 and the three-time world champion at that distance, and he won five gold medals at the Olympic Festival in '87.
It's not as though brother Tony never wins—he just won the world championship, and he has won the indoor national title and the outdoor national title. Also, he came in third in the 300-meter sprint (31.26 seconds) at the worlds last year in Grenoble, France, to become the first American ever to place in the sprints. It's just that he seems to come up short when compared with Dante. "Tony wins all the time," says their brother Mark, 34, who is also their coach. "But when Dante wins, he walks away with it." Not surprisingly, Tony lives to beat his brother. "If I win, Dante hates it," he says. "He just goes insane. But it's the best thing in my whole life."
To look at Dante you wouldn't think he could pose much of a threat to anyone in the rough-and-tumble action so common in pack skating. He's a lean 5'10", 140 pounds, with ankles as slender as a ballerina's. His casual attitude toward his sport seems little suited to the role of roller terror. "I don't train hard; I hardly train," says Dante. He rarely rides a bicycle, a favored training device for many skaters. (Tony rides 30 miles a day, six days a week.) Dante never, ever lifts weights. (Tony hits the weights three times a week.) His training consists of a two-hour indoor skating workout three times a week in the winter and six times a week during the rest of the year.
Dante wins his races, he says, "because I run the curves so close nobody can get inside me. When I'm in second, I follow so close I can pass on the corners. If I'm in front and some guy is laying on my back, I hesitate on the first step into the corner. He slows down, and I have room to take off."
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Dante is the smoothness with which he skates, and always has skated, ever since he was two years old. Other skaters barrel down the straightaways at full speed—up to 25 miles an hour outdoors, where the straightaways on 400-meter ovals can be 100 meters long—and then slow down before they hit the corners. Dante's balanced stride allows him to maintain his speed deep into the corners. He has the stamina for the long races in outdoor competition (the longest is 12.4 miles), but his style works best on the 100-meter indoor ovals, where the curves are tighter and a slick spot often forms on the floor where the skaters have slowed down repeatedly. "Everybody knows he's fast in the corners, so they try to follow him," says Mark. "He stays inside [the line taken by most skaters]. They hit the slick spot, they slide, and he's gapped them."
Together, the Muses make up the only real challenge to the perennially powerful Italian national skating team. The brothers proved this four weeks ago at the world championships in Cassano d'Adda, Italy. Dante won golds in the 10,000 meters and in the 10,000-meter relay, and came in second in the 5,000 and 20,000 meters, the only American to win more than a bronze. Tony won the overall individual world title, which is based on points given for the number of skaters beaten, even though he never placed higher than third in any event. The American team also won the overall crown. Oscar Galiazzo, 23, Italy's three-time European champion in the 300 meters, says, "The Americans are strong on curves. We are much stronger where speed is concerned. Undoubtedly, they are our biggest antagonists, followed by the French. But the Muses are the only ones who really worry us."
It's 11 a.m. on a sunny day in the Muses' hometown of Des Moines, and America's fastest roller skaters are just getting out of bed. The brothers live in the compact three-bedroom house they grew up in, which is tucked, like a tidy Hobbit hole, into an embankment at one end of Skate West, a roller rink their parents own. Dante and Tony are the youngest of Ramona and John's six children, whose ages span 16 years. Both boys began skating almost as soon as they could walk. "We didn't necessarily want them to be skaters," says John. "It was just easier to keep track of them that way, being in the rink business." By the time they were six and seven years old, the boys were competitive skaters.
The trouble was, they hadn't specialized in speed skating, and they weren't always all that competitive. Furthermore, as Mark says, his father "is excellent at teaching technique, but horrible at positive reinforcement. For years I'd see Tony and Dante come to the nationals, and they'd look at the program and start naming off all these national champions they had to skate against, and they'd be scared. They'd race step-for-step with the champions in the heats. Then in the finals, they'd come in last." Mark, himself a former indoor skater who now manages Skate East, one of the family's other two rinks in Des Moines, took over the coaching of his brothers and the Des Moines club team in 1982. That summer the youngest Muses won the indoor national championships in their age groups. Dante was soon sweeping indoor events—which range from 1,000 to 5,000 meters in length—and earned the nickname Silver Bullet for his speed and his silver uniform.
Tony took more readily to outdoor skating, in which he makes up for his lack of finesse in the corners with an explosive start in the sprints, bursts of power on the straightaways and endurance in the longer races. He won his first gold at the world championships in Colorado Springs in 1985 in the 10,000 meters. Earlier that year, he and Dante had been paired in the two-man 5,000-meter relay at the indoor nationals, but rather than pacing themselves against the pack, they went all out from the start, lowering the national record for the distance from 9:01 to 8:57.
Dante's meteoric rise nearly fizzled in 1986, when he was involved in a dispute with the USAC/RS. During the 10,000 at the Outdoor National Banked Track Championships in Colorado Springs that year, Dante and another skater received warnings from the referees for elbowing. The next time around, says Dante, the other skater "smashed me into the rail and elbowed me in the face." In a fit of pique, Dante chased the other skater down and tripped him.
Dante was disqualified from the race, and three weeks later got a letter from the USAC/RS; he had been suspended for six months. That meant he would miss the qualifying trials for the 1987 Pan Am Games and the world championships. Dante appealed, unsuccessfully. After two months, Dante and Ramona made the 12-hour drive to U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters in Colorado Springs, where Dante told his side of the incident to Ron Rowan, general counsel to the USOC, which mediates between the governing bodies of Class-A sports and the athletes. Two weeks before the suspension would have ended, and a few days before the qualifying trials for the Pan Ams, the USAC/RS lifted the suspension. But not because Dante was exonerated, according to George Pickard, the USAC/RS's executive director. "It was a technicality," he says. "The USOC said our due process was flawed."
Dante, who went on to win a gold and two silvers at the Pan Ams and to come in second overall at the worlds, was less troubled by his reprimand than by the severity of his punishment, especially in view of the degree of contact usually tolerated in international competition. Skaters jostle each other, which is legal, and there's a fair amount of grabbing and shoving, although such infractions often go uncalled. "It's not nicey-nicey out there," says Dante. "It doesn't come down to who's fastest. It comes down to strategy."
Basically, the tactics of international racing require that two members of a three-man team sacrifice their own races so a teammate can win. In longer races, where pacing is important, skaters line up one right behind the other to draft, much the way bicyclists do. This means, of course, that the skater at the head of the line is working harder than the rest. According to strategy, the team sacrificial lamb, called the domestique, a term borrowed from French bicyclists, maneuvers through the pack while his teammates behind him save their strength. In the last few laps the domestique and the third teammate lead the designated winner to the front and run interference so he can sprint past them to the finish.
For all their sibling rivalry, the Muses are a formidable team. At last year's world championships, for example, Tony played domestique in the 5,000, leading Dante through the pack for most of the race while their teammate, Mike Mueller, followed as best he could. With three laps to go, Dante passed his exhausted brother and moved up behind the three front-runners, all Italians, and then sprinted around the outside into third place behind Patrizio Sarto, the Italian team's designated winner. At the bell lap the lead skater, Tomaso Rossi, the Italian team's domestique, moved to the outside to let Sarto pass him. Dante followed Sarto, whereupon Rossi grabbed Dante, allowing Sarto to sprint ahead. Dante shook Rossi off and caught up to Sarto. On the final curve he slipped to the Italian's inside and sprinted to a 20-foot lead to win the race.
"The Muse brothers are the only ones to use tactics similar to ours," says Sarto's teammate Galiazzo. "Perhaps the fact that the Muses are brothers sets them apart. They are clever and ready to sacrifice themselves for each other."
Tony reveals that he and Dante also have a secret weapon: elftalk, a children's language something like pig Latin, but with the word elf thrown in before every vowel (for example, the word skater would be pronounced skelfatelfer. Mark taught it to his brothers years ago, and the three of them can rattle on in elftalk as rapidly as in English. "We used to talk strategy at the starting line," says Dante, "and the Italians all knew what we were saying. Then we started using elftalk, and one of the Italians said, 'No. No good for Italy.' "
It's late afternoon, time for the two brothers to head over to Skate East for practice. Tony insists on taking a shower after his bicycle ride, so the two skaters arrive at the rink half an hour late. Mark glares at his younger brothers. Dante ducks his head sheepishly, but Tony just smiles, cherubically.
As they lace up their skates, Tony glances at his brother and says, sotto voce, to a visitor, "I've won before against Dante. But for some reason, I use up my energy before we get down to the final sprint. There's something stopping me. It's upstairs in my mind. What really stinks is that Dante knows it. I think I could beat anybody in the world if there wasn't Dante."
When they finally step onto the rink, the Muses join a last-man-out drill in which, once the skaters have completed three laps, the last skater in line must drop out of the competition. Fifteen skaters begin streaking around the course at top speed, jockeying to avoid being last. Dante skims so close to the pylons his upper body is cantilevered over them. With six skaters remaining, Tony sprints past his brother on the straightaway to take the lead. He drifts wildly through the corners and zigzags down the center of the straightaways so Dante can't pass him.
Tony wins, and Dante stalks to a bench, where he yanks off one skate. "I hate it when he does that. I hate being cheated even more than losing," he says, slamming the skate down. "He's skating outdoor technique—he brakes in the corners to stall me and then shuttle skates down the straightaways so I can't pass. A ref would call him for that." From the center of the rink Tony flashes a smile and says, "I love winning."