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Hot wheels, big kids

Adults, now that you're getting in on the skate-shoe craze, please wear protection. Wrist guards and kneepads, that is.

August 20, 2007|Janet Cromley | Times Staff Writer

Those infernal Heelys.

The trend started innocuously enough: A few isolated kids popped up in malls, zig-zagging around shoppers quick and nimble as fleas, in pint-sized tennis shoes with rollers hidden in the heels.

They seemed almost cute at first -- budding figure skaters landing triple axels in store aisles.

Heelys had all the earmarks of a passing fad -- poor-man roller skates that don't go particularly fast or far -- but kids found that the shoes gave them secret powers. They could walk around normally, then quietly shift their weight to the back heel and transform themselves from ordinary kids to superheroes quicker than their parents could say "Stop that!"

Clearly the shoes have been on a roll. Sales topped $40 million in 2005 and $188 million in 2006, the same year Heelys Inc. went public. In addition, Heelys logged nearly $50 million in sales the first quarter of this year, putting it on track to top last year's sales.

In fact, since the introduction of Heelys in late 2000, sales have been nothing short of phenomenal, creating an even more alarming development: Of the millions spent on Heelys last year in more than 70 countries, an estimated 15% of the shoes sold were for adults.

Big, brittle-boned adults. Recent research suggests that kids are at an increased risk for injury in Heelys. One can only imagine what happens when an adult straps on a pair.

Clearly it was time for some hard-hitting investigative reporting.

At the Sport Chalet in Long Beach, sales rep Eli Ortega said it's not unusual for adults -- often mothers wanting to accompany their kids -- to purchase the shoes. He rummaged around the back room and emerged with a pair of pink-trimmed Heelys roughly the size of the Queen Mary.

"If you're going to buy Heelys, you'll need protective gear," he added, looking me up and down skeptically.

Hmmm. Sunglasses?

"Wrist guards. It's not that you might fall," he said. "You will fall."

There's precious little data on adults using the shoes -- they're manufactured in children's size 13 through men's size 12 -- but research on children indicates adults should proceed with some caution.

Investigators at Children's University Hospital in Dublin, Ireland, for example, tracked Heely injuries at the hospital during a 10-week period and attributed 67 injuries to Heelys or Street Gliders, a similar product.

Most of the injuries -- fractures to the upper limbs and hands and dislocated elbows -- occurred while wearers learned how to use the shoes.

This learning curve poses a particular problem for adults, who tend to be slower in picking up new skills. Whereas the average preteen can master the shoes in a few days, adults take about a week, says Heelys president Mike Staffaroni.

But it's not all bad news for Heelys. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons -- you might think they'd discourage Heelys -- has not taken a position on the shoes.

On the one hand, the Academy sees the shoes as promoting exercise, says AAOS spokesman Dr. Leon Benson, chief of hand surgery at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare. On the other, it acknowledges safety issues and strongly recommends protective gear -- helmet, wrist guards, knee pads and elbow pads. When that's worn, Benson says, he believes the shoes are reasonably safe.

"Probably the biggest problem with Heelys is that often they are purchased in shoe stores which aren't in the business of selling protective gear," he says. That increases the likelihood that the purchaser will not get the proper safety equipment when they most need it -- the first few times they try to use the shoes.

If you're going to go looking for Heelys battle scars, Santa Monica -- land of kids, malls and pedestrian walkways -- would seem like as good a place as any. But Dr. Wally Ghurabi, chief of emergency services at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital, says he hasn't seen a single Heelys injury in all his years in practice there.

"We see a lot of serious injuries from roller blades -- broken hips and busted skulls -- but not from Heelys," he says.

Nevertheless, "I wouldn't encourage older adults to try them," he says.

My own experience was pretty dismal. After lacing up the shoes, I confidently stood, only to have my feet go out from under me, catapulting me backward into the chair.

It was downhill from there.

Under admittedly poor test conditions, lurching around a large, "Dilbert"-like office holding onto waist-high cubicle partitions for support, I told myself, "Surely this will get better." It didn't.

The next day I tried again, pushing off with one foot, gaining a little speed, then tucking the back foot in behind, just like the kids do -- only to careen out of control and crash into partition after partition.

A few bruises later, I hung up my spurs.

A recent study found that 60-year-old climbers were more likely than younger climbers to die while attempting to scale Mt. Everest, despite decades of mountaineering experience that you'd think might have done them some good.

Heelys, it seems, are another instance where advancing age, for all the wisdom and perspective it brings, won't help you roll with the kids.

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