'Bladers' Skate Their Way Into Hot Sports Trend

WHIZZZZZ. Americans are on a roll. In Minneapolis they skate around the lakes. In Venice Beach, Calif., they tool along beachside. In Boston, students crisscross campus and roll into class.

In New York City, commuters overtake cabs and horrify pedestrians.

Inline skating - also known as "blading" - has become a symbol of the '90s for recreation, sport, fitness, and do-it-yourself transportation.

Resembling a hockey skate, an inline skate features a specially designed boot attached to one row of polyurethane wheels, with a brake on one heel. The design allows for smoother riding and higher speeds than conventional roller skates.

Many fans tout inline skating as exercise with excitement.

"I'm sick of running and I like to go fast," says Tom Venable, a computer software sales manager. Mr. Venable and his wife Ginger are taking their lunch hour to shop for inline skates at Hoigaards, an outdoor specialty store in Minneapolis. Ginger Venable, a communications manager, looks past the bow on her blouse and her gray skirt to a pair of Rollerblade Lightnings with hot-pink neon laces.

"I love skating and I used to roller skate when I was younger," she explains.

In Venice Beach, Calif., Laura and Paul Imperia are renting inline skates.

"If you ever roller skated as a kid, you will pick it up real easily - just like riding a bike," says Ms. Imperia. She adds that the aerobic workout is enjoyable. Nearby, Myles Epps, age 6, keeps falling down. When asked why he skates, he responds: "fun."

For many Americans, having wheels on the soles of their shoes has become not just a thrill, but a way of life. (See story below.)

Inline skating is thought to have originated in the Netherlands back in the 1700s, when a Dutchman introduced skates that would simulate ice skating. (In America, the first "conventional" roller skates - two side-by-side wheels front and back - were introduced in 1863.)

Then in 1980, Scott and Brennan Olson, two brothers from Minnesota, found an inline skate in a sports store, and proceeded to redesign and develop one for off-season hockey training.

The Olson venture turned into Rollerblade, Inc., which sells more inline skates than any other company and has spawned generic reference: "rollerblading" or just plain "blading." (After Rollerblade Inc. investors took control of the company from Scott Olson, he started "Switch-It," named after an interchangeable skate system utilizing one boot that adapts from inline skate to ice skate.)

OF the five or so major companies that make inline skates, three are based here in the Minneapolis area. High-quality skates start around $170. Cheaper versions (made in Taiwan) sell for around $70. Fisher Price has come out with inline skates for kids.

Contrary to what one might expect, the inline skating craze didn't start with teen trendsetters. The majority of skaters - recreational and competitive - are between 20 and 40 years old, says Greg Mendenhall, a salesman for Hoigaards (though his oldest customer to date was 82).

"Anybody can do it. That's the real attraction," says John Neimeyer, an inline skating instructor and racer. "It's a real good social activity and doesn't stress you out in a physical sense."

He suggests people rent inline skates before buying them. There have been instances of people hanging up their skates after their first spill. "It is a safe sport. You do fall" says Mr. Neimeyer, who just gave his 4-year-old daughter a pair of custom made skates.

Suggested protective wear includes: helmets, wrist guards, and elbow and knee pads. Fashion and various extras include neon jackets, shirts, stretch shorts, fanny packs, whistles, and more.

Enthusiasts say the main advantages of inline skates over conventional roller skates are that they are lighter, more durable, have lower maintenance, and travel more smoothly on rough surfaces.

"What makes them so ideal for wearing outdoors is that they handle cracks and rocks well. They're well suited to the outdoor skater," says Mary Haugen, a Rollerblade Inc. spokeswoman.

"They're the ultimate road skate," affirms William Prowty, manager of Rolling Soles in Venice, Calif.

In addition to securing recreation and competitive appeal in its own ring, inline skating did something not many other sports have done: become a second sport to serious athletes. As a cross-training regimen, many speed (ice) skaters, skiers (down hill and cross-country), cyclists, and especially hockey players - such as Brian Bellows of the Minnesota North Stars - supplement their regular workouts with inline skating.

The US Waterski team uses inline skating to warm up. "Roller hockey" will be an exhibition sport at the 1992 Olympics.

Numerous clubs and competitive organizations are sprouting up, including Rollerblade's Competition series and the Rollerblade Inline Skate Association, to accommodate racing, stunt, dance, and roller hockey events.

Opinions differ on whether the inline skating craze will push conventional roller skates into the closet. The growth of inline skate sales points in that direction: Sales grew from $22 million in 1989 to more than $70 million in 1990. Sales for 1991 are projected at $150 million.

Yet conventional roller skates are still popular: Estimated sales in the US in 1989 were $55 million, compared with inline's $22 million.

"I feel confident that inline skating will overcome the conventional roller skate market eventually," says Michael Cofrin, manager of special projects at Switch-It.

But as Mr. Prowty points out: "There is a minority that doesn't like inline skating." In Venice, for example, conventional skating has always been strong. THE inline skates by far outnumber conventional roller skates here," reports Rollerblade's Haugen from Minneapolis. "We'd like to see it evolving even more into the mainstream - as a product you'd go out and buy like a bike."

Some here snicker at the notion of inline skating being a hip new sport. "It's been around for 10 years; we've seen steady growth with the rest of the world just catching on now," says Mr. Mendenhall.

Indeed, Australia, New Zealand, and Korea are among the countries where inline skating has caught on recently. This will the first spring that the skates will be available in Europe.

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