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Speed Skaters : They Dream of Becoming Big Wheels

April 14, 1988|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

Like many young athletes, Dariel Blackledge dreams of someday winning an Olympic medal.

But the 11-year-old Ventura girl faces an obstacle not shared by the multitude of other aspiring youths who hone their skills on this country's ski slopes, oval tracks and grass fields.

Her sport, while enjoyed by millions recreationally, is virtually unknown to Americans as a competitive event and has never qualified to be part of the Olympic Games.

Dariel is a roller-skater.

"When I first started skating, I said I wanted to go to the Olympics and everyone laughed," she said. "But I'm really serious about it. It would be like a dream come true."

Dariel is one of a handful of young Ventura County skaters who are preparing for that day by practicing with the Ventura Speed Club, a team of 43 roller-skaters who meet three days a week at the Skating Plus roller rink in Ventura.

Under the watchful eye of coach Don Lovato, they have begun to rack up an impressive array of victories at speed-skating events ranging from Southern California meets to the national championships last summer in Lincoln, Neb.

'Doors Opening Up'

"It's a sport that, when most people hear of it, they look at you kind of blank," said Lovato, 50, of Simi Valley. "But I think we're really starting to gain some recognition. The doors are opening up."

That, he said, is because people are finally realizing that competitive roller-skating has nothing to do with the rough-and-tumble world of roller derby nor with the old-fashioned image of wobbly-kneed kids on clunky metal wheels.

This is high-tech speed-skating, a sport in which competitors wear protective helmets and zip around a 100-meter rink as fast as 35 m.p.h. Their skates, which feature fitted leather uppers, lightweight metal alloy bases and urethane wheels, can cost as much as $700 a pair.

Events range from sprints to marathons, and courses vary between wooden indoor rinks and outdoor cement tracks.

Dariel's brother, D.J., who at 5 is one of the team's youngest skaters, recently won first place for his age group at an invitational meet in Missouri by skating the 100-meter course in 13.69 seconds.

One of the team's veteran members, John Seuter, 30, of Topanga, earlier this year set a distance record by skating 234 kilometers in 12 hours at a Long Beach track. His effort broke the record of 231 kilometers set by an Italian skater in 1982.

'Go as Fast as You Can'

"It's a question of seeing how fast you can do it, while still being under control," said Lovato, adding that the roller-skaters are only slightly slower than speed-skaters on ice. "We say, go as fast as you can. When you find yourself starting to slide, then back off."

Although their achievements rarely get the kind of publicity the skaters would like to see, they are hopeful that the sport will someday be awarded the status of a medal event by the International Olympic Committee.

Toward that goal, the U.S. Amateur Confederation of Rollerskating, which oversees competition among the estimated 9,000 speed roller-skaters in the country, was granted membership to the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1978.

Since then, the sport has gained considerable popularity internationally, particularly in Europe, South America and China, said Tom Beal, a spokesman for the roller-skating confederation in Lincoln, Neb. Speed-skaters have been competing in the Pan American Games since 1980.

However, because of resistance from many Eastern Bloc countries that have not yet cultivated the sport, advocates probably will have to wait until at least 1996 before international Olympics officials will consider speed roller-skating as a medal event, said Bob Condron, a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Boosters of other sports have tried to get Olympic recognition for years. Baseball, for instance, has been a demonstration sport at four Olympics over the decades, and only in 1992 will it achieve the status of an official medal event, Condron said.

Nonetheless, skating enthusiasts were buoyed by the selection of their sister sport, roller hockey, as a demonstration event in the 1992 Summer Games to be held in Barcelona, Spain. They attribute that breakthrough to Spain's Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, who is reportedly a roller-skating fan.

No Heroes Yet

"The problem really is that roller-skating doesn't have any heroes yet," Beal said. "But, someday, some skater is going to emerge as a hero to a bunch of American kids. Then you'll see. That will be it."

When and if that day comes, the youngsters in Lovato's skating program hope to be ready.

Practicing 10 to 15 hours a week, they whip around the smooth maple floor of Skating Plus with knees bent, heads forward and arms pumping. As they work their way down the straightaway, they leave a cool breeze in their wake. At the corners, the low rumble of their wheels turns into a raw screech as they try to fight gravity and pull their weight toward the center of the oval rink.

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