With wheels on their feet is how they compete

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Laurel Skating Center -- a roller skating rink off Route 1 in Prince George's County -- is just what you expect: Squares of blue, gray and orange carpeting cover the lobby. Two disco balls hang above opposite ends of the rink. It's chilly inside, and organ music plays from the sound system. You can imagine all the skaters shuffling around the hardwood rink, which at 4 p.m. is almost empty.

Almost empty, but not quite. Larry Cook and Susan Brown, who compete in the sport of roller skating team dance, glide around the rink. Their arms are locked together, their hips parallel, and every motion, down to the smallest flick of an ankle, is perfectly synchronized to music.

"You're supposed to make it look smooth, like there is nothing to it," says Cook, who has teamed with Brown -- on and off the rink -- for 12 years.

There was a time when skating on quad skates -- as opposed to modern inline skates -- was a popular pastime for adults as well as children. Now, there are only a handful of roller rinks in the region, and relatively few people who compete in team dance.

But Brown, 40, and Cook, 46, are the couple to beat in the Mid-Atlantic skating world. They've won regional dance competitions seven years in a row. Magazine covers showing the couple with various trophies cover the walls at the Laurel rink.

"Their technical abilities are very good. ... They have a lot of years of experience," says Cindy Schrader of USA Roller Sports, chair of the regional organization in which Brown and Cook compete.

Team dancing is "like ballroom dancing on wheels," says Brown. There are about 5,000 people who compete in the sport in the United States. Dancers compete in pairs -- a man and a woman -- and skate three dances for a panel of judges. Each dance is three minutes long and there are four couples on the rink at once.

Brown and Cook look perfect as they glide around the rink during a recent practice session. It is only when they skate to the edge of the rink and start talking that it is apparent they are both a bit winded.

"Our coach would not be happy with that," says Brown, after the pair have skated for a few minutes. "I counted about five mistakes."

Ready to compete

Brown and Cook practice together at the Laurel rink four hours a day, four times a week. Neither lives particularly close to the rink; Brown is in Baltimore and Cook is in Beltsville. When they're not skating they're in the gym, lifting weights, riding a stationary bike or doing yoga. And each has a full-time job. Brown is a travel agent; Cook works at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

They just returned from a competition in Las Vegas, and now they are preparing for the 18th Valley Invitational -- an international competition to be held next month near Pittsburgh, Pa.

Quad skates, which have two sets of wheels, one pair in the front of the skate and one in the back, are considered old-fashioned compared with sleek inline skates, whose wheels are parallel in the center of the skate. But quad skates, with their clunky lace-up boots, are more stable than inline models -- and more expensive, too. Brown and Cook's custom-made quad skates can run anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500.

"Quads hold a good edge," says Cook, who has skated since he was 15 years old. "You can do tight circles." Most roller skating rinks -- including the Laurel Skating Center -- allow people to use inline skates on the rink.

When Brown and Cook compete, they sparkle. Brown's competition costume is covered with more than 1,700 rhinestones. Cook's costume is slightly less elaborate. "I wear a one-piece velvet crushed suit," he says. "If you're fat you can see every bulge. You can't be out of shape."

Both also compete solo in figures, which involves tracing a pattern on the ground while gliding on one skate.

Wearing wheels

The first documented use of roller skates was in 1763 when a Belgian inventor, Joseph Merlin, turned up at a masquerade party wearing shoes with metal wheels attached. He teetered around the party playing a violin.

"He had a couple of problems with his skates," says Deborah Wallis, director and curator of the National Museum of Roller Skating in Lincoln, Neb. "He couldn't control his speed or his direction. This led him to run into a mirror, ... smash his violin and severely injure himself."

Skating came to America in 1863 when James Plimpton, an inventor, developed the quad skate, Wallis explains. It became popular in the 1950s, and then again in the 1970s and early 1980s with roller discos and what was called jam skating.

Some predicted recreational quad skating was making a comeback. Britney Spears recorded a video wearing a pair of quad skates. And Mike Myers wore them in an Austin Powers movie.

But quad skating has a long way to come back. In 1991, 18.6 million Americans strapped on a pair of skates at least once, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. In 2002, the last year the association tracked quad skating, the number had fallen to 7.7 million. Inline skating, while still more popular than quad skating, has also declined.

"It's getting harder and harder to get kids out," says Brown, who has a 16-year-old son who will not go near the sport. "A lot of the rinks have turned into catering halls and office parks."

But roller-skating remains a great way to stay in shape, according to Paul DiJulio, who has coached skating for 20 years. "Unlike other sports, it involves all of your body's muscles," he says. "It helps increase your balance and your agility, in addition to general fitness."

Cook loves the sport, but competitive skating has taken a toll. He's had five knee operations. But it is not likely to stop him from skating anytime soon.

He says he's still learning, and still improving. "You can't be perfect," he says. "There is always someone better than you, and of course you have good days and bad days."

Brown and Cook still take a tumble every now and then. If you're not falling, they say, you're not learning.

More on skating

* To find a roller rink near you, visit the Web site www.rollerskating. org.

* To learn more about competitive roller-skating, visit the Web site www.usarollersports.org.

* To watch Susan Brown and Larry Cook compete: The 18th Valley Invitational competition is scheduled March 12-15 at the Valley Skating Center, 590 Galiffa Drive, Donora, Pa. For more information: 724-379-6700; www.valleyskate.com.

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