The Roller Rink Where Olympians Are Born

Feb 19, 2014

At the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the U.S. has collected no medals so far in speedskating, an uncharacteristic result.

The Americans’ best remaining hope for hardware rests with short track speedskater J.R. Celski and the men’s relay team. Celski began his career at a skating rink in the Seattle suburb of Federal Way, the same city where his former speedskating idol Apolo Ohno got his start.

The thing is, it’s a roller rink, not an ice skating rink. From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Tom Banse of Northwest News Network pays a visit to the place where Olympians are born, but have to leave to achieve their Olympic dreams.


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At the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the U.S. has collected no medals so far in speedskating. The Americans' best remaining hope for a spot on the podium rests with short track speedskater J.R. Celski and the men's relay team. Celski began his career at a skating rink in Federal Way, Washington, the very same one where his former speedskating idol, Apollo Ono, got his start. The thing is it is a roller rink, not an ice skating rink. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Tom Banse reports.

TOM BANSE, BYLINE: The roller skating center is called Pattison's West. It has the requisite colored lights, music and disco ball shimmering over an expansive hardwood floor. But the pedigree of its rollerblade racing team separates this place from most other roller rinks.

MIKE PATTISON: That's J.R., who started skating for me when he was 3 years old.

BANSE: Rink owner and coach Mike Pattison points to an autographed picture of J.R. Celski, the top medal hopeful on this year's U.S. Olympics short track speedskating team. Next to that on the office wall, a mounted, autographed Sports Illustrated cover of three-time Olympian Apollo Ono.

PATTISON: Yeah, I remember - yeah. Apollo, he came here and he wanted on the team really bad.

BANSE: Ono raced for five years on Coach Pattison's speed team. Celski stuck with it for nine years. In fact, nearly the entire U.S. Olympics short track ice speedskating team in Sochi started their careers on rollerblades or, as they call it, inline racing. At the Winter Games, U.S. speedskater Jessica Smith explained why a 16-time inline national champion like herself would switch to ice.

JESSICA SMITH: Unfortunately, the sport of inline speedskating is not in the Olympics in the Summer Games. And so, yeah, I made the switch into short track speedskating to follow my dream of becoming an Olympian. And here I am today in Sochi.

BANSE: Apollo Ono caught the Olympic bug watching the 1994 Winter Games. Then J.R. Celski watched Ono in action at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and decided he wanted to do that too. Now, at the Pattison skating rink, it's happening again.

JULIAN RIMBEY: J.R. and Apollo came from here. And I want to be in the Olympics because they're kind of my inspiration too.

BANSE: Ten-year-old Julian Rimbey says he wants to start ice speedskating lessons next season.

RIMBEY: I think it's going to be a little hard at first, but I think I'll get the hang of it.



PATTISON: Good. Go, go, go.

BANSE: Watching the young roller-bladers practice their starts and zip around an oval mark with cones, you immediately notice how similar speedskating on ice and on hardwood looks. But not everyone here is ready to throw away their wheels in favor of blades, not by any means. Nine-year-olds Autumn Herman and Sidra Reich told me why.

AUTUMN HERMAN: In - for ice skating, it's way cold. In roller skating not so cold.

BANSE: That's a reason to stay with what you started.

SIDRA REICH: Yeah. I've tried ice skating. It - I don't think it's as fun, because when you fall, you get really cold. And sometimes if somebody falls over you, they'll hit the blade on you.

BANSE: A coach for an ice speedskating club in Bellingham, Washington, says he expects a 20 percent bump in participation generated by the Winter Olympics. Roller skate center owner Mike Pattison says he's sorry to see racers defect to the ice rink, but he doesn't begrudge them for following their Olympic dreams. Parent Paul Rimbey says a perfect solution would be to get inline speed skating into the Summer Olympics.

PAUL RIMBEY: I mean, you have some other sports in the Olympics that you would think by watching those other sports - I don't want to say any sports - but why wouldn't we make it?

BANSE: A related event, roller hockey, was included as a demonstration sport at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. But no roller sports have even made the short list for consideration since then. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Tom Banse in Federal Way, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.