In 1760, a Belgian inventor named Joseph Merlin introduced the roller skate to the world at a swanky London party. He promptly lost control and crashed into an expensive mirror, breaking it. He is credited with delaying the popularization of roller skating by at least a few years.
In 1863, James Leonard Plimpton invented the first four-wheeled roller skate capable of making turns, steered by an axle threaded through a cushioned truck, attached with varying tightness to the skate by way of a kingpin bolt. Three years later, Plimpton would lease a popular Rhode Island hotel and convert the dining room into the first public roller skating rink in the United States.
130 years later, their contributions would ruin my childhood.
My sister was a competitive roller skater — the quad-wheeled, obsolete kind of figure skating that is the bastard sibling of ice skating. She hit the rink to skate almost every day, trained by a team of coaches we drove an hour to see.
Though I spent nearly as much time there as she did, I didn’t participate. The first reason was purely practical: competition would have required me to wear a sparkly dress. But the larger reason, something that sounds more natural articulated in a child’s voice, was that in my mind, admitting to like the same things my sister enjoyed was unthinkable. And so I spent my childhood being carted to her practices, where I looked in on another world that I never totally understood.
In point: according to the November issue of Popular Science from 1951, skaters are “rugged individualists.” This, the author claimed, is why the boot of the skate is sold separately from the plates and wheels. Outside of roller derby, very little about roller skating remains rugged, especially in figure skating — a sport dominated by rhinestones and sequins and small girls gliding across an arena to prerecorded string instruments, flouncing their arms in the dancer’s imitation of a swan. I am less graceful; skates are like free weights strapped to the ends of my legs, clumsily extending them far from my body.
To this day, I hate the smell of skating rinks. It is the perfume of aged sweat and wood polish and greasy snack bar foods and most importantly, feet. It’s the smell of the numbed boredom of long afternoons on cold plastic picnic-bench-style tables piled high with purses and jackets and event programs, my nose buried in a book to transport me somewhere far away. But even as I delved into Narnia or Hogwarts or the Lands of Beyond, that smell kept me grounded in reality. Because it is the smell of other people’s sweat and other people’s feet, somehow twenty times more disgusting than my own — even my sister’s, made of the same DNA as my own. Maybe hers more than anyone’s. We are too alike to get along, and too different to be understanding.
Post-disco era, there are somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 roller skating rinks in the United States and Canada. Somehow, all their floors have the same distinctive, permeating scent. I have always suspected it smelled like the 70s, but I have no way of proving that. In my mind, they all seem the same: bleak, Twilight Zone versions of each other.
The average rink has an oval skating surface of approximately 70 by 150 feet, which must be re-coated at least once a year with a polymer-based, resin-based gloss. The high class institutions sport maple wood flooring, though cement can also be used. The rinks are always cold, all smooth, solid surfaces that trap no warmth. If there is carpeting, it is the thin coarse kind that you can get rugburn from just looking at, speckled with bright abstract geometric shapes. But more often, there are smooth cement floors that squeak against the rubber soles of shoes and stay cool even at the height of summer heat.
When my sister gets older, she doesn’t hit the floor at 6 a.m. for her event, doesn’t have to roll out of a bleached white hotel bed in the dark to begin applying makeup she’s too young to wear, to pull on warm-up sweats over her tights and custom-made dress and wait for my mom to drive her across some shithole town in Los Angeles County. We can arrive at the seemingly reasonable hour of 9 a.m.
My grandmother knows the name and face of every girl in the glossy thick pages, stuffed with ad space for boot vendors, dress makers, sequin sellers, the nation’s leading brand in wheels or super-hold hairspray. Every once in a while she goes out to smoke in the doorway with someone else’s mother or grandmother, and despite the haze from their cigarettes the fresh air is a shock — the outside world, the cool breeze against exposed forearms or, more often, the stifling heat that hugs around you like a cloud.
Fun fact: Tara Lapinski, gold medal winner at the 1998 Winter Olympics, won the USA Roller Sports Figure Skating National Championships at the age of nine — before moving on to ice skating. If you want some sort of success out of the endeavor, you switch to ice; wheeled skating is a second-tier sport.
I don’t pay much attention to the event itself. Unless there are tears or turmoil, it doesn’t affect me. The highlight of my weekend is when I’m allowed to wander into the lobby for a concession stand lunch. I remember sitting in the stands at Nationals. It’s not my sister’s day to skate, but we’re watching anyway. We’re high above the floor where girls allow the momentum of their feet to carry them up into the air in rapid spins, legs twisting together to the wordless tune of obscure classical music. If they hit the floor their skates clunk down with the dull thwack of hard plastic and metal on wood — the sound of defeat. When they get up they flash at the crowd, through their tears, their performance smiles full of teeth and heavily rouged cheeks, arms outspread in forced triumph. Months of work for a two minute program, ruined by a momentary loss of balance in mid-air.
It could be Bakersfield, or Fresno, (California’s finest destinations) or the Florida panhandle, or Lincoln, Nebraska. The arenas all blend together, sandwiched in the least appealing parts of the country, wherever they can get a free couple days at a convention center. There are never any windows in the high-ceilinged warehouses lit by fluorescent bulbs, and there is no sense of time; the minutes and hours stretch on forever. Even in the biggest venues, used by conventions and basketball tournaments, the smell is there, haunting. There’s something claustrophobic about it, like being trapped in another world.
I wonder if I didn’t give them enough credit, these people that poured their whole lives into a sport that’s practically an alternate reality.
USA Roller Sports still holds out hope that one day, roller skating will be an Olympic sport. They’re currently and desperately campaigning for inline speed skating to be considered for the 2016 Winter Olympics, and they hold training clinics at the US Olympic Complex in Colorado Springs, Colorado — though their athletes practice at a local rink in town and not in the complex.
The skaters slide around and around striding forward with legs flicking out one and then the other feeling the cracks between the coated maple boards thunder under their polyurethane wheels. The music stops, and they strike a pose, holding the drama for an instant before letting out their breath and releasing their tensed muscles.
And then they try again.