IF Southern California is the great outdoor laboratory for new American sports, then Venice Beach is the home of advanced-research on roller skating. "Hands behind your back, knees bent, push outward not back," says Jonathan Seutter, holder of 14 world records to his interviewer, first-time renter of "inline" roller skates.
Dodging skateboarders, skatedancers, and paper-cup-slalom artists, we glide down Ocean Front Walk past four bikini-clad models, displaying skates with mondo-sized (6-inch) wheels in fluorescent colors. "Those will never sell here," remarks Mr. Seutter disdainfully.
Seutter has seen the future of roller skating and it is inline skating.
"Your energy is translated directly to the wheels," he says, describing how conventional skates strain ankles to keep the wider, flatter wheels flush to the pavement. My recreational inlines have four wheels, his racing inlines have five: "Less resistance per wheel," he says, "harder to maneuver 201&gt; but faster."
The mustachioed 34-year-old was sitting on four world and three national records in 1988 when a racing colleague of his came back from Holland with hot news and a deflated ego: "Skeelers" (inline skates) were the rage in the land of Hans Brinker. Holland was now skating's mecca, according to Uwe Brockman, the United States ultra-distance champ on conventional skates.
American skaters privy to that hot tip began donning the new technology and delivered surprising defeats to former champions stuck with wide-wheeled skates - including Seutter.
Unused to losing, Seutter went to Holland to see and train for himself. Though he was in top condition, he was left in the dust after 30 seconds in his first race - and lapped in five minutes.
But after six months of learning technique and style from the Dutch, Seutter moved up, eventually placing 15th. Back in the US for four months more training - up to 340 miles a week - Seutter became the first American to garner a world record: 177.62 miles in 12 hours last Feb. 3.
"He came back with new-found technique," says friend and colleague Eddy Matzger, who set the world one-hour record the same day. "Long, smooth strokes with great leg extension." His other secret? "He uses the outside edge of the wheel rather than most who use the inner edge," says Paul Dunn, editor of Skater Magazine.
Mr. Dunn, Mr. Matzger, and Seutter say that inlines are sparking huge interest as an offshoot of a sport that was hot in the mid-'80s but has since cooled down.
Because they look flashy and high-tech compared to their boxy forebears, inline skates are attracting ice skaters, cyclers, and cross-country skiers to a burgeoning racing circuit. The number of officially sanctioned outdoor races has grown from only about 10 in 1989 to around 70 last year. They are sponsored by such organizations as the United States Amateur Confederation of Roller Skating, the Outdoor Marathon Roadskating Association, and the Rollerblade In-line Skate Association.
A FOURTH sanctioning and racing body, the United States Professional Skating Federation, is within weeks of being launched. Seutter is one of the most outspoken advocates of the professional federation, one he thinks can bring the sport out of its infancy with more money, prestige, and direction.
He carries a suitcase pasted with logos of over a dozen sponsors who donate enough money and equipment for him to "eke out a meager living." He also wears the names on body shirts, hats, sunglasses, and shoes. When his interviewer grabs for a camera, Seutter grabs for all of the above.
"The fact that he is a walking billboard shows the reality of inlines as an infant sport," says Will Prouty, who runs Rolling Soles skate shop on the boardwalk. "For now, if skaters want to skate for a living, [that's] what they have to do."