These skaters perform on concrete instead of ice - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

These skaters perform on concrete instead of ice

October 17th, 2019 development
These skaters perform on concrete instead of ice
Sports and Recreation

By amy-xiaoshi depaola  
Cronkite News

The whirl of wheels, interspersed with sharp commands and bursts of laughter, punctuate Sunday practice.

Before they step out to perform, the 12 members of the Phoenix Roller Sports Club sit down to lace their skates under a disco ball suspended from the ceiling and the glow of hot-pink lights that speckle the rink’s gray floors.

Most of them had come into the Skateland rink in Mesa dragging bulky sports bags through double doors illuminated by fluorescent bars overhead.

The skaters are not into roller derby, the competitive and well-known contact sport. These are figure skaters, similar to those we see gliding on ice – except they do it on concrete and on wheels.

Roller figure skating is a sport many have never heard of, at least not in the United States, even though it’s where Tara Lipinski, the famous Winter Olympics gold medalist, got her start.

Before she began her figure skating career on ice, Lipinski was a national competitive roller skater, winning a primary United States Roller Skating Championship freestyle event at age 9.

Unlike ice skating, there are no big crowds watching the roller skaters practice their routines. This is mostly a close friends-and-family affair.

Club member Brock Turner, 16, said only a handful of his friends know of his skating – but they often confuse it with ice-skating until he sets them straight.

“They just say, ‘Oh, so cool! Never heard of it,’” Turner said with a self-deprecating laugh.

Still, Turner and his fellow skaters persevere. They begin warming up by weaving through faded orange plastic cones that have been neatly aligned by a parent volunteer, one of several who shows up at practice. They’re usually the only spectators in the stands.

Members of the Phoenix Roller Sports Club practice speed-skating, figures, dance and freestyle under the watchful eye of their coach, Polly Parks.

Roller figure skating is serious business to Parks and her team, but it’s clear that the Phoenix Roller Sports Club plays second fiddle at this rink in Mesa.

Their practices, especially their extensive Sunday ones, are sometimes cut two hours short because other events at the rink take precedence.

That’s different from some European countries, Parks said, while her skaters crowded around a tablet watching the live-stream of a national championship event in France.

“They have government rec centers with skating,” she said. “They sell out stadiums in France, Spain, and Italy for competitions.”

In the United States, Parks said, “rinks are now amusement centers rather than sports facilities,” adding that there are now half as many rinks in the country than there were in the 1970s.

Karen Shumway, 68, a member of the Phoenix Roller Sports Club, remembers the sport being much more popular in her youth.

Over time, as participation in roller figure skating dropped, the number and types of events began to change. She believes that the male skaters drifted away in pursuit of more “macho” sports, such as football.

“We girls were left without partners,” she said, chuckling. Even boys that compete now, Shumway said, like their ice counterparts, often focus more on the technical aspects, such as jumps, than the artistic components.

Roller figure skating is a costly sport and requires serious commitment.

The team’s skaters use hand-me-downs given to them by skaters who have left the club or outgrown their skates, or they bought their skates at half price online.

Unlike ice figure skating, roller skating requires different pairs of skates for each discipline.

There are serious competitors who get custom-made boots molded to their feet. But even those among the Phoenix Roller Sports Club members who have been training and competing for years aren’t there yet.

“For a lot of people here, there are financial difficulties with roller skating,” said skater Samantha Rinker, 27, one of the skaters.

“If you want quality equipment, you’re looking between – for the wheels, the bearings, the plates in the foot – $800 to $1,000,” Rinker said.

On top of that, Parks said, skaters pay $55 a month in club dues, $30 or more for an hour of private lessons, and $80 for an annual membership to the Roller Skating Association.

Still, she says, it’s less expensive than ice skating.

Competitions begin at 6 a.m. and can last until the late afternoons or evenings.

Turner has been skating for a little over a year. He practices six days a week, often for four hours and in between attending classes at Mesa Community College.

He’s competed in more than seven regional and national competitions, and in dance, figures, freestyle and pairs events.

To many members, the costs and inconveniences don’t matter.

Parks recalls being introduced to the sport at a young age by her parents. Her father and sister roller-skated, and the sister even landed a national placement in team dance.

Eventually, she gained a partner – her husband – and they both qualified for the national team-dance event together.

Despite being in three other sports – football, high-diving and speed-skating – David Chestnut, 11, still makes time for roller figure skating, which he has practiced since he’s “learned how to crawl,” he said.

Joe Kirchhevel has never competed, only roller skated casually on dates with his now-wife but wants roller figure skating to make it to the Olympics.

Parks shares that dream of adding the U.S. to the world stage of figure roller skating, noting that it’s mostly speed-skaters who transition from rink to ice.

Still, Parks said, people go into roller skating not for the Olympic glory, but for fun.

“It’s cheaper than ice,” she said. “Not so cold. Not so ‘cutthroat’ atmosphere.”