From Inline Skates To Ice Skates To the Olympics
By Tom Banse
At the winter Olympics in Sochi, the U.S. has collected no medals so far in speedskating - an uncharacteristic result. The Americans' best remaining hope for hardware rests with short track speedskater J.R. Celski and the men's relay team. Celski began his career at a skating rink in Federal Way, Washington - the same one his former speedskating idol Apolo Ohno started at. But it's a roller rink, not an ice skating rink.
The roller skating center is called Pattison's West. It has the requisite colored lights, music and disco ball shimmering over an expansive hardwood floor. But the pedigree of its rollerblade racing team separates this place from other Northwest roller rinks.
Mike Pattison: "That's J.R. who started skating for me when he was three years old."
Rink owner and coach Mike Pattison points to an autographed picture of J.R. Celski, the top medal hopeful on this year's U.S. Olympic short track speedskating team. Next to that on the office wall... a mounted, autographed Sports Illustrated cover of three-time Olympian Apolo Ohno.
Mike Pattison: "I remember Apolo. He wanted on the team really bad."
The kid raced for five years on Coach Pattison's speed team. Celski stuck with it for nine years. In fact, nearly the entire U.S. Olympic short track ice speedskating team in Sochi started their careers on rollerblades. Or as they call it, inline racing.
At the Winter Games, U.S. speedskater Jessica Smith explained why a 16-time inline national champion like herself would switch to ice.
Jessica Smith: "Unfortunately the sport of inline speed skating is not in the Olympics in the Summer Games. So yeah, I made the switch into short track speedskating to follow my dream of becoming an Olympian. And here I am today in Sochi."
For his part, Apolo Ohno caught the Olympic bug watching the 1994 Winter Games on TV. Then J.R. Celski watched Ohno in action at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and decided he wanted to do that too. Now at Pattison's Federal Way skating rink, it's happening again.
Photo: Olympic gold medalist Apolo Ohno poses with a younger generation of speedskaters from his original club team. By Tom Banse, 2010
Julian Rimbey: "J.R. and Apolo came from here. I want to be in the Olympics because they are my inspiration too."
10-year-old Julian Rimbey says he wants to start ice speed skating lessons next season.
Julian Rimbey: "I think it's going to be a little hard at first, but I think I'll get the hang of it."
Watching the young rollerbladers practice their starts and zip around an oval marked with cones, you immediately notice how similar speed skating on ice and on hardwood looks. But not everyone here is ready to throw away their wheels in favor of blades, not by any means. Nine-year-olds Autumn Herman and Sidra Reich told me why.
Autumn Herman: "Ice skating is way cold; roller skating not so cold."
TB: So that's a reason to stay with what you started?
Sidra Reich: "I've tried ice skating. I don't think it is as fun because when you fall you get really cold. Sometimes if somebody falls over you, they'll hit the blade on you."
Photo: Youth inline skaters line up to practice sprint starts at Pattison's West in Federal Way, Wash. By Tom Banse
A coach for an ice speed skating club in Bellingham says he expects a surge in newcomers generated by the Winter Olympics. "We'll end up with about a twenty percent bump in participation," predicted the Whatcom Speed Skating Club's Jed Clark.
Roller skate center owner Mike Pattison says he's sorry to see racers defect to the ice rink - in neighboring Tacoma in his case - but doesn't begrudge them for following their Olympic dreams. Parent Paul Rimbey says a perfect solution would be to get inline speed skating into the Summer Olympics.
Paul Rimbey: "I mean you have some other sports in the Olympics that you would think by watching those other sports - I don't want to say (what) other sports - why wouldn't we make it?"
A related event, roller hockey, was included as a demonstration sport at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. But no roller sports have even made the short list for consideration since then.
USA Roller Sports:
NW Speed Skating clubs (ice):
Whatcom Speed Skating Club (Bellingham, founded 1994):
Puget Sound Speedskating Club (Tacoma):
Mountain View Speed Skating Club (Vancouver, WA):