This article was originally published on the National Post website.
At some point last fall, the lure of competition drew Kailah Macri out of retirement and back onto skates, back to Scooter’s Roller Palace, a suburban roller rink with glow-in-the-dark carpeting and a disco ball that was spinning solemnly by the empty snack bar one afternoon this week.
Finding places to practise has not always been easy. She has skated in an airplane hangar, on the floor of a warehouse and in a municipal storage shed. Her father is the manager of a Toronto arena; it would have been easier if she were just a regular figure skater, instead.
“I don’t really like the cold too much,” she said. “So I prefer this.”
Macri is still a figure skater, albeit one working on roller skates rather than blades.
Roller figure skating is a full medal event at the Pan American Games, which will beheld this summer in Toronto. As on the ice, skaters perform choreographed routines, both long and short programs, and they execute many of the same jumps, spins and moves.
Seven years before winning gold at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Tara Lipinski, the figure skater from Philadelphia, won a U.S. title in roller-skating. She would latertell the Philadelphia Inquirer it was, “one of my favorite things ever.”
“Most people, as soon as I say roller skating, they think roller derby, or disco on skates,” Macri said. “You have to explain to them, ‘it’s exactly like ice skating, except on roller skates.’”
The combinations are a little different then they are on ice, she said. Entering the spins on the floor requires a bit more speed, too. There are also things she can do with roller skates that cannot be done on ice, like spins on her heels.
Each skate has four wheels, but are more specialized than the ones for rent on the wall at Scooter’s, one of her practice facilities. Generally, she will skate in two-hour blocs, three times a week.
Macri, 24, is in her final semester as a kinesiology student at York University. She plans to become a doctor — maybe pediatrics, maybe cardiology — and retired from her sport after finishing fifth at the Pan Am Games four years ago in Mexico.
The lure of competing at home was too strong. Canada has space to send one woman and one man to the Games this summer. Only one of those spaces will likely be filled, Macri said, because “we don’t have any males in Canada, right now, who are at the level to skate it.”
Roller skating is not as popular as it once was.
“Especially here in Canada,” said Macri’s father, Tim. “It’s dying out.”
For a long time, Tim Macri and his wife, Debbie Stewart, had two daughters competing at a high level. Access to high-level coaching was an issue, as was access to roller rinks, with so many having been shuttered.
Eventually, the family was driving 300 kilometres three times a week, going from their home in Whitby, Ont., to a roller rink in Cambridge. When the need for more coaching grew, they would start driving to Toledo, Ohio, every second weekend.
At one point, Tim Macri found a municipal shed in Scarborough the city of Toronto used to store some of its lawnmowers and snow blowers. With the machinery parked along the walls, there was enough space to practise.
“There was all grease and oil,” he said. “So I’d go in and sweep it up and dry it off and clean it up, so the girls could skate.”
Between the travel, the competitions and the floor time, he estimated it cost the family about $20,000 a year for seven years. By the time Kailah Macri appeared at the Pan Am Games in Mexico, the overall investment was around $140,000.
“A lot of people would say to us, ‘you’re nuts,’ ” Tim said.
“And they have,” Debbie said with a laugh.
Mary Anne Themann, a coach at Scooter’s and an executive at Roller Sports Canada, the national governing body, said there are only about 50 competitive club members across the country. The problem is not getting children out to try roller skating, she said, it is in convincing them to graduate into the competitive realm.
The Pan Am Games offer hope.
“What we’re very hopeful for is that other people now will be able to see what roller figure skating is all about,” she said. “And as a result of that, maybe have some interest in coming out to our rink and learning how to skate, and not just skating around for fun.”
“For the recognition, here in Canada, it’s fantastic,” said Tim Macri. “Hoping that a lot of the younger skaters get a chance to see the sport at the elite level and understand that there’s somewhere to go.”