Ken Walden donned all the right protective gear when he strapped on his first pair of in-line skates. But everything else he did wrong: Knees locked, leaning forward at the waist, arms and legs splayed like a starfish, he headed downhill. He picked up speed but had no idea how to stop, careening shakily across 100 yards of asphalt before steering himself toward a parked van.
Slam! He hit the side of the van. Safety.
"I was just happy to make it there," said Walden, 35, a Baltimore attorney, who was not injured. "I was out of control."
Walden's next step: lessons.
He and his wife, Julie, 32, joined about 300 skaters at the Owings Mills Metro stop yesterday to take lessons on every nuance of in-line skating at the fourth annual Maryland In-Line Skate Festival.
About 1,000 skaters, skateboarders and chaperones -- no unaccompanied minors were allowed, helmets and wrist-guards required -- turned out for the bustling event that was a cross between an athletic competition, a technical workshop and a party celebrating the culture of in-line skating.
"The goal here is to get people to enjoy the sport and learn how to do it better," said Pat Bernstein, executive director of CAM Corp., a nonprofit organization that raises money for protective sports gear and put on the festival.
"It's fun," she said. "You feel like a kid, and that ain't bad."
The festival's in-line offerings were many: hockey, limbo, an obstacle course, funk dancing, even basketball courtesy of a team called the Nibblers from New York. "The biggest difference?" asked Louie Casillas, captain of the Nibblers and known as Altitude Lou. "The speed. Adjusting your shots. And getting skates caught up together. That's bad."
In-line skates, often called Rollerblades in reference to the largest manufacturer of them, usually have four small plastic wheels in a single line, ample padding and a fiberglass boot to protect ankles and toes.
The activity has grown in popularity by nearly 900 percent between 1989 and last year, said Laura Ranquist of the International Inline Skating Association. There are about 2,000 certified instructors and 23 city chapters of a National Skate Patrol, which promotes safety in the sport and lobbies for skater access in public arenas.
Although interest is leveling off, niches within the sport are developing every year, Ranquist said.
The latest trend: off-road skating, also called extreme skating.
"Yes, people are actually skating down mountains," she said. "A couple of people went down Mount Kilimanjaro recently. And they made it."
In Maryland, the latest is so-called aggressive skating, which has been popular in California, New York and Florida for about five years and attracts about 10 percent of in-line skaters.
Yesterday, hundreds were drawn to a competition sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Aggressive Skaters Association. It was the only such competition in Maryland that could lead to a spot in the regional competition and, eventually, at the nationals in Las Vegas this winter and a chance to turn professional.
The 90 or so competitors -- mostly teen-age boys wearing baggy jeans and helmets covered in "No Fear" stickers -- came from all over the mid-Atlantic to leap and spin and hurl themselves to and fro before judges at the Owings Mills festival. The course: ramps, platforms and rails. And unforgiving asphalt.
Many were listless in the sweltering heat. Many fell. At least one was taken away in an ambulance, his face in a grimace of pain, with a dislocated shoulder.
"You do this instead of doing drugs," said Alex Swenson, 17, of Bethesda, who competed but was not hurt. "You have something excellent to do. You just skate as much as you can."
Said Kalani Wakinikona, who drove six hours from Hampton, Va., to compete, "It's a new sport. It's different."
By far, most in-line skaters -- about 80 percent -- strap on skates, helmets, wrist-guards and knee and elbow pads for fun and exercise.
Many who attended yesterday's event wanted to hone their skills. In some cases, they wanted finally to figure out how to use pricey equipment sitting in their closets.
"I put them on but couldn't get away from the car in them," said Angie Cornish, 54, a nurse from Baltimore. "These aren't like the roller-skates we had when I was a kid. I mean, I had wooden skates."
Pub Date: 5/31/98