The Wheel Thing

Jim and Amy's most ambitious number may never be seen. Three years of practice, and it keeps getting tangled in twists of fate. Last year, just before the State Artistic Skate Meet in Greeley, Jim and Amy were rear-ended; the accident landed them in therapy for months. The year before that, Amy was pregnant. And the year before that, the number just wasn't good enough.

Perhaps this May, at the 1998 state meet?
"Ain't gonna happen," Amy says grimly. "We're not there yet. I want to enter back at a huge level or not enter back at all."

"Or videotape it," Jim reminds her.
"All right," she says. "That would be acceptable."
The cameraman who takes on that assignment will do his work in an atmosphere that's strictly ballroom (suburban roller-skating-rink division) crossed with Colorado's Ocean Journey. Jim and Amy Schoendaller rehearse every Sunday in the relentless aqua of the Aurora Skate City--with its low ceilings and white globes of light competing for attention with several mirror balls--working on their number from eleven to noon, before the rink opens to the public. After that, they repair to a nearby McDonald's, where they spend an hour decompressing, entreating their two-year-old daughter to finish her Chicken McNuggets and wondering what the future holds. This weekly ritual is their only current tie to organized artistic skating, a sport--or art--that is thought to be on the verge of extinction.

"Art skating is dying," Amy confirms. "No youth is coming in. It isn't cool to be an art skater. It's cool to own Rollerblades."

"Plus," says Jim, as if thinking it through aloud, "the kids don't have the drive or the discipline. Maybe they'd rather play Nintendo?"

If so, it would be a much less taxing way to kill time than learning the intricacies of artistic skating, which, like figure skating on ice, has spawned various sub-disciplines devoted to technique, artistic expression, gymnastic stunts and dance.

"Tara Lipinski started out as an artistic roller skater," says Michael Zaldman, curator of the National Museum of Roller Skating in Lincoln, Nebraska. "She was a primary girls' champion. Then she went to ice."

Why she would make the switch is pretty clear to anyone who has ever tried to carve out a career as an artistic-skating champion: no sponsors, no TV coverage, not much of an audience and no real promise of one in the future. Roller skating isn't going to the Olympics anytime soon.

Of the three acknowledged roller-skating disciplines--hockey, speed skating and art--art is the only one that isn't growing in popularity. And Rollerblades are still picking up speed. When you study skating trends, however, you learn that what seems a miracle of modern technology may, in fact, be just another recyled invention. Among Zaldman's favorite artifacts is a letter describing a drawing-room crash on roller skates in the mid-1700s. The victim, one Joseph Merlin of Huys, Belgium, an inventor better known as a crafter of musical instruments, appears to have whipped up a prototype pair of in-line skates and attempted to use them to entertain the ladies at a soiree. "Not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction," the letter reads, "[Merlin] impelled himself against a mirror, dashed it to atoms...and wounded himself severely."

"Actually," Zaldman says, "up until 1863, all skates were in-line. People ask me if I pre-date the Rollerblade, but the fact is, the Rollerblade predates me. The name was patented in 1966, in Chicago. The skates themselves were patented in 1819. And roller hockey's been around since 1882."

The act of dancing on roller skates, however, is a more recent phenomenon. USA Roller Skating, the organization that oversees Zaldman's museum, consists of three separate "arms," as Zaldman puts it, and "art skating was added last, in 1939." That was just two years after the founding of the Roller Skating Rink Owners Association, which was established "to get more publicity and to get the rinks cleaned up," he explains. "Historically, there were hoodlums at the rinks. They had to make some pretty stringent regulations to get rid of them. No smoking, no spitting, no being rude or making rude remarks. Even the ladies had to skate in long skirts--but they revolted against that in the Forties."

Otherwise, though, roller skating cleaned up its act. By the time the now 34-year-old Zaldman tried it as a child, it was seen as "something everyone likes," he says. "And they still do."

"It was very straight and narrow, and so was I," recalls Amy Schoendaller. "No jeans were allowed. You had to be polite. Parents could drop you off for up to six hours. It was safe and clean and fun. It was a great activity."

Which was handy, because it was the only activity the young Amy could manage. Crippled by asthma as a child, she was forced to avoid pollen, cold air, chlorine and excessive exertion. At times almost bedridden, she found that skating was the only safe way she could move around. Sometimes her brother, who was five years older, would accompany her to the rink. His best friend was Jim Schoendaller, who lived right across the park in Aurora.

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