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.
The Irvine championships displayed the sport in all its Day-Glo glory: Rock music blared from speakers, members of Team Rollerblade performed freestyle stunts, and prizes—including cash—were awarded to the winners. "I'd never seen something so big for skating," says Parra, who finished eighth in the men's 10-kilometer race.
The folks who preside over quad roller-skating are latecomers to the in-line scene, and by comparison their in-line championships in San Francisco seemed somber. The day was cold and miserable, and the event was a no-frills affair—a flat stretch of road, a few grim-faced officials, a timer.
But if the Nebraska-based USAC/RS seemed out of its element in this flashy sport, the skaters definitely were not out of theirs. They are dedicated athletes, many of them national and world quad champions who have labored in obscurity for years. "We never got the recognition before," says Doug Glass, the 1990 national men's quad champion, "but we take our sport as seriously as other athletes."
They also had something to prove in San Francisco. "Everybody has been saying that conventional skaters couldn't stand up against the in-liners," says the 25-year-old Glass, of Huntington Beach, Calif., who has skated competitively for 14 years.
Although he stepped into in-line skates only six months ago, Glass won the 30K race at Irvine in 55:23.10. Then, proving it was no fluke, he won the USAC/RS men's marathon in San Francisco a week later. Glass finished in 1:25:50.55, averaging almost 20 mph.
As if to drive home the point that quad skaters bow to no one, Gypsy Lucas, a 17-year-old from Dallas who has been the national women's quad champion at 300 meters since 1988, won the USA women's 10K in 19:59.49. A week later Lucas won the women's half-marathon in San Francisco despite flirting with disaster as she pushed down the homestretch. The USAC/RS race got off to a painfully slow start, mostly because many of the women in the race had little experience in pace-setting. Things heated up only in the last four miles, when Lucas, Heather Lacayo and competitive cyclist Tricia Walters broke from the pack. But no one had a chance against Lucas, even though she nearly had a catastrophe. Coming down the final straightaway she caught the edge of her right skate and had to execute a full spin to recover. Lucas's accident was understandable, for, like Glass, she is a rookie on in-line skates.
While Glass, Lucas and Parra impressed the handful of spectators at this "third" national championships, the event was equally notable for who was not there. Tony and Dante Muse, the brothers from Des Moines who have shared the men's world quad speed-skating title since 1988, were absent. They didn't feel comfortable racing on in-line skates. In June 1989 the two had entered the 100K Tour de Malibu race and—skating on quads—were demolished by the in-line competition. "Tony and Dante don't want to come and race unless they're at the top," said Parra.
Also missing were many of the top in-liners who had raced in Irvine. Their absence was the result of a feud between USA and USAC/RS, which are competing to become the national governing body for in-line skating. Sponsors who are members of USA weren't about to spend money to send their team skaters to a rival event.
It's hard to imagine that a roller skate could cause such a fuss. Five wheels in a straight line seems simple enough. What complicates the issue is the money this skate can generate. By 1995, industry experts predict, in-line skating will be a billion-dollar-a-year business. "When USAC saw how big the industry was becoming," says Matzger, "they wanted to get in on it."
USAC/RS insists that's not true. "We wanted to make sure that in-line skating wasn't a fad," says USAC/RS spokesman Dwain Hebda.
To allow sponsored in-line skaters into its national championship, USAC/RS had to loosen its regulations for amateur athletes, allowing skaters to keep cash prizes and to wear logos.
Still, it .seems unlikely that roller-skating traditionalists will turn their backs on their beloved quads—which aren't allowed in USA races—anytime soon. "I hope you aren't going to knock quad skates," says Glass, who is newly sponsored by quad manufacturer Hyper, to a reporter in San Francisco. Sheepishly, he adds, "My sponsor wouldn't like it."
San Francisco free-lancer Laura Hilgers is a frequent contributor to SI.