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.

"I hung out with them and tagged along and whatnot," Amy recalls. "So you see, we've been ingrained in each other forever."

More than twenty years went by before they became an item. In the interim, Amy got her degree in communications and married a non-skating man. Jim became a Medicaid administrator. But both Jim and Amy kept skating. It never occurred to them to stop.

About twelve years ago they ran into each other at an adult skate night and renewed their friendship. Amy was skating around in circles as usual, but Jim was doing something new.

"Exciting things," Amy recalls. "Couple skating, dancing, lifts. I wanted to learn, and he said he'd teach me, and right away we got kicked out of the Skate City for trying it. The manager thought other people would want to try it and get hurt. At one point they even called the police."

Undaunted, Jim and Amy cast about for a new place to skate. They put several rinks to the test before settling on Roll-O-Rama, a historic rink in Welby, a small town north of Commerce City. After three years there, they began taking lessons from Bobby Greer, a noted artistic coach.

"We were still just fooling around," Jim recalls. "Our coach wanted us to compete, not because we were technically so brilliant, but because we had a certain rough energy. We had never considered it. We didn't even have the right kind of skates."

"But we grew," Amy says. "We grew into another level."
At their first competition, an artistic meet at the US on Wheels in Thornton, they entered in the Freedance division, a kind of hybrid between freestyle and dance in which several cuts of dance music are spliced together to show the judges a sample of what the skating couple can do. "We did tango, mambo, conga," Amy recalls. "Our costumes were hot purple and lime green. My tush was all ruffles. It was really, really hot."

By this time, Amy had left her husband, and the number was too hot to escape the notice of Jim's girlfriend. "She said, 'You guys are making love on the skating floor, and I can't compete with that,'" Amy remembers. "'You guys need to quit skating together or go on a real date.'"

This came as staggering news to both Jim and Amy.
"There had been NO hanky-panky," Jim says firmly.
"We had explored NOTHING," Amy agrees. "In fact, I was always setting him up with girls so he could be married and happy."

Nevertheless, they scheduled a first date. It took place at the T-Wa Inn, a Vietnamese restaurant that happened to be hosting a wedding that night. As a result, the waiters ignored Jim and Amy, who were making awkward conversation and wishing the evening would end.

"It was a huge risk," Amy says. "What if it didn't work out? Could you go backward and just skate? But, well, after a kiss--you're skating with your best friend and whatnot--it was wonderful."

So were the next eight years.
Working ordinary government jobs--she's a Social Security caseworker, he's still with Medicaid--they enjoyed a secret life of glitz, romance and roller skating during their off-hours. It wasn't long before they eloped to Las Vegas, bringing Amy's parents with them. Her parents were also along for the family trip to Fresno in 1992, during which Jim and Amy played miniature golf, visited a vineyard and won their Pairs division at a national competition.

"Did we expect it? No way!" Amy says. "We just wanted to go to the big show once in our life! And was it cool! There was the podium, the huge bouquet of flowers, ESPN--"

"Although we just missed being filmed by them," adds Jim.
"But, oh, well! My mother was ecstatic! She still carries around a picture."
"A BIG picture. Five by seven. Not exactly wallet-sized."

Jim and Amy produce these pictures on request. Here they are, in a string of carefully posed studio shots, wearing various looks with a capital L: the Military Look, the Backless Look, the Latin Look.

"You'll notice that we're not well-paired," Amy points out. "He's a foot taller than me, and I'm not tiny or thin. And we're old: I'm 36, he's 41. Trust me when I tell you that's old for this sport."

"But we do a lot of lifts and tricks," Jim adds. "We'll try anything. What you need to know is this: We're enjoying the sport. We're having fun, and the pros don't have time for fun. We don't have to get a medal."

"If we do, so be it, and if we don't--"
"We'll leave early and have lunch," Jim finishes. "And when we're eighty, I hope that's what we're still doing."

Three years ago Amy tried her hand at choreography, designing a James Bond theme number to be skated with Jim and one other man. ("I was a Goldfinger Girl, Jim was Bond, and the other guy was a villain," she explains.) After that first creation, she put all her energies into their masterpiece, a couple's dance that would have ten to twelve lifts in three minutes.

Then the setbacks began.
Amy sprained her ankle in a freak laundry accident. Then she got pregnant. Then both Schoendallers were in a car accident.

Now they're coming back. Slowly.
It's hard to find a babysitter for their weekly practice, let alone another one for the occasional coaching session. So all their work is crammed into one hour a week--which is really more like 45 minutes, because Amy cannot deny her two-year-old the chance to skate the "Hokey Pokey."

This particular Sunday has been productive, though. The Schoendallers skated a rousing paso doble to the theme from Bonanza, as well as a waltz, a tango and a bit of disco to the strains of "It's Raining Men." Technically, as they are the first to point out, there are still some rough spots, but Amy is skating with a windblown, madly-in-love look on her face, and Jim is whispering something in her ear. It's a pleasant way to end the skating session.

But wait. It's not over yet, even though the doors have opened to the public and a group of six-year-old boys swarm in, Rollerblades in hand.

"Jim," Amy reminds him, "put on something nice. We always skate one number for the crowd.


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