MAY, 1987

SFChron597.jpg (192183 bytes)                                                                                                                                                                                        photos by Liz Hafalia / the Chronicle
David Miles led a procession around an obstacle course of pine cones in Golden Gate Park


Skating may be on the comeback trail. It's fun. It's crazy. And it definitely works up a sweat.

Balancing the vertical human body on ball bearings is one of the weirdest concepts in sports. This was evident to me at age 6. Most of us growing up in the 1940s, '50s and early '60s sooner or later had to encounter and survive - almost as a rite of passage - metal skates with steel wheels that clipped onto the soles of your shoes.

These skates would shake, rattle and roll until they hit a pebble, at which point the wheels would seize and send the hapless skater pitching forward onto the cement. My first day of skating, I performed a rapid succession of impact tests on my elbow, forehead and tailbone, at which point I bade skating an unfond but quite firm farewell.

So why did I, a few days ago, find myself standing in Golden Gate Park with skates bound to my feet? Because I was curious about the current state of skate. Reportedly, the advent of soft plastic wheels had smoothed out many of the problems.

Also, skating promoters consider the sport currently underrated as a path to fitness. "The American Heart Association, group after group, recommends it as healthy exercise," says roller rink operator Tom Martinsen. "It's a real lower body workout; it helps you be aerobically fit, and it definitely develops balance and coordination,"

In Los Angeles, the national cradle of nouveau ways to sweat, skating along the miles of pedways fronting the beach is virtually a local mania - and has spawned its own culture. Manufacturers have entered the picture as well, with a host of new exercise products that use variations of roller skating,

Can you skate for shape? Maybe. But what got me to Golden Gate Park to resurrect my childhood memories was a skater named Dave (D.) Miles - a habitue of the Park - who makes roller skating look as much like a joyful art form as a form of exercise. 

Miles was doing ballet. pirouettes as I pulled up to our rendevous point, a closed-off block of Sixth Avenue. As I took off my shoes he did a series of disco kicks to the music of a nearby boom box. As I tied on my rental skates, he sank down onto one skate in a sort of half-lotus position and scooted along with the side of his face held about an inch above the pavement..

,Miles isn't shy about his ability. 1 can do better than anybody I know,on wheels. Nobody's going to take me going_uphill or long distance. I used to do the Cow Palace to Golden Gate Park in, 40 minutes every day," Despite such boasts, and obvious level of fitness he's achieved through skating, Miles does not come off like an arrogant, counterculture sports hero. If anything, he is the reverse - a gentle, charsmatic, figure who's done much to nurture safe skating.

His friends call him "the mayor of ' Golden Gate

SFChron5-1997Mel.jpg (117990 bytes)  Miles and 2 year old daughter Melanie swirled ad danced
Park," Since the late 1970's, when he arrived on the scene, he's worked to protect the interests park skaters as coordinator of the volunteer skate patrol. Even now he offers a free ski clinic every Sunday

from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and John F. Kennedy Drive.

"My, you are a beginner aren't ,you?" Miles said, as he escorted me from the sidewalk to the pavement. I was wearing wrist braces, big knee pads and elbow pads. I was as shaky on my skates as a pillar of Jello the height of Coit Tower. It was hard to be1ieve, but Miles' knowledge of skating movement and crisp intruction had me gliding forward and backward on my own in minutes.

"Stay, with those basic moves now, practice them for a week, and you'll be on your way," he said.

Actually, 1 was on my way faster than that. When I faced north, I could see my shadow. I wanted that shadow to move with the easy, swinging grace I'd seen in the bright weekend parade of park skaters. An as 1 willed their image into my shadow I felt the rhythm and balance of the movements begin to make sense. Unfortunately, when I turned back into the sunlight, my dancing shadow vanished, and my skates zoomed out from under me as if I'd done a flying jump onto a pair of banana peels.

Ah, well. I was protected by my gear and going slow, as per Miles' recommendations. A bit of bruise dues wasn't much to pay if I could really join a parade. I had always thought I'd only be able to watch. "If I can do this," I scribbled in a notebook, "anybody can."

According to Dave Hoby, proprietor of Magic Skates on Balboa Street lone of the last two skate rental shops left_in the city, the hot skate scene days in San Francisco

were the years 1978-80, when up to 30 skate rental trucks would pull up to the park to do business, and more than 8000 skaters flooded the blocked-off streets and sidewalks. Alarmed by traffic and pedestrian problems, city officials banned skaters from some park areas, and truck vendors from adjacent streets.

By moving into a nearby shop, Hoby was one of the few who managed to land on his feet. He still rents skates and pads year-round, though he does locksmith work as well to make ends meet. He hopes soon to move into a larger space on Fulton, closer to the park. "As a fad, skating has come and gone in this country in a series of waves," Hoby says. "We leveled out for a while, now things are picking up again."

The first wave was a ripple of interest in England, when a fun-loving chap named Joseph Merlin impressed onlookers with the gliding magic of a pair of straight-running roller skates in 1760.

One century later, American James Plimpton kicked off the next wave by devising a skate with washers and a rubber ball between the wheels and footplate - a skate that could turn. In the grand tradition of American business, Plimpton used his patents to create a monopoly of worldwide franchised skating rinks. In another grand tradition of American business, Plimpton's patents were encroached upon, and imitators soon became fierce competitors.

I found traces of skating's next big wave at the Rolladium in San Mateo. A - large rink with a classic wooden floor, the Rolladium was raised in the late 1930's to serve a skating boom that came of age during and after World War II.

"This place is a piece of skating history," says owner-operator Tom Martinsen, "There's even postcards and photos of the Rolladium at the museum of roller skating,"

Behind a front door emblazoned with a list of regulations designed to promote a family atmosphere was evidence of skating's current wide appeal - a crew of skaters spanning the generations.

"The skating bug bit me when I was 15," Marjorie Dwyer of Daly City tells me. "I'm 66 now. I started on a rink in Long Island, near an Army base. I used to have to divide each tune several times so I could skate with all the.fellows that wanted to go. Back then, there was a roller rink in every town."

Sparkling with health and energy, Dwyer is a testament to the long-term fitness benefits of skating - particularly since a biking accident 10 years ago had doctors telling her she'd never walk again- She rehabilitated herself through swimming, and finally through a return to her first love,- skating.

"It's very healthy:' Dwyer says. "Older people don't have to sit around in rocking chairs. The doctors had me with my feet propped up all day. I said to myself, this isn't living; I think I'm better off taking a risk." And Dwyer sailed off onto the roller rink, skating backward with the grace formed by all her years as a dance skater.

Dance skating is just one of the current roller skate disciplines; others are figure skating, speed skating, skate hockey, and freestyle or artistic skating. This last is the specialty of the Rolladium. Two of the hot youngsters that Martinsen coaches, Jessica Barnett, 15, and Chris Vandeventer, 13. demonstrated some of their skills with an amazing series of leaps and spins. Though they've already won in national competitions, tbeir eventual goal is to compete in the Olympics.

This will be a bit of a trick since roller skating isn't currently contested in the Olympics. But, Martinsen says; it very well may be by 1992. "We'll be an exhibition sport in 1988," he says. "Which means we'll have a foot in the door. So people can discover how much fun it is to watch."

In fact, people who want to observe the achievements of the sport will have an earlier opportunity. The Rolladium will host the Bay Area championships next Sunday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., with spectator admission running $2.50 for the day:

People who want to try it themselves can check it out even earlier than that, by taking lessons at one of the score of rinks scattered around Northern California.

"Keep your knees bent," Martinsen advised, adding to the tips tDave Miles had given me. "Keep your feet together, and your weight centered and slightly forward. If you start to fall, just relax, drop and try to roll with it"

Deriving confidence from the smooth rink floor, I soon was skating through turns. The rink deejay shifted from the classic goofy organ music to driving rock videos. Riding the rhythms, my skates picked up speed, and I started to sense parallels with the movements of downhill and cross-country skiing.

To me, the biggest and most attractive parallel is the way a roller skater can make use of the out-ofdoors. And you don't need to drive to the mountains to do it - the workaday world of city asphalt becomes your playground.

In Golden Gate Park, D. Miles I has a dream. He'd like to see the park implement its long delayed plan to turn the Sixth Avenue cutoff into a circular skate arena. Beyond that, he'd like to see the city turn an unused wharf into a urban rink, and hire him to run the programs he's done for years for free.

"Everbody tells city kids don't do drugs,' but what can they do? Skate. On a wonderful day like today, the sun is shining, you 've got your radio, and you're dancing. Eyerybody is smiling at you. It's a good feeling of free-spiritedness, the feeling we all like to have. I.can't quite put it into words, but when I'm on skates, it.all comes out.

A CAll for Funds

Though the design for the skate area at the junction. Of Sixth Avenue and John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park is almost complete, no funds are available to construct it.

According to Deborah Learner of the city Recreation Parks Department, the situation is custom-made for a donor. The design may include an enrance arch on Fulton Street with a dedication plaque.

Potential park benefactors, and those who wish to provide further input on the skate area design, should write Learner at the Jtecreation and Park Department, Planning, McLaren Lodge, ' San Francisco 94117; or phone 415-558-3182