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March 3, 2002

Santa Cruz County Sentinel


While the rest of the world tuned in to the Olympics, I made a wobbly debut at my first inline skating event: the Great EsSkate.

On a balmy Friday in Miami, Fla., just a few hours after the sun slipped into a fiery pink horizon, I joined the Great EsSkate for a rolling tour of South Beach, Miami’s trendy neighborhood famous for its nightlife, celebrity sightings and the murder of Italian couture designer Gianni Versace.

The cluster of 600 colorful skaters from all over the country clogged the entrance of the Seville Beach Hotel, our headquarters. Soon we would glide into the urban cityscape.

The Great EsSkate promised a blend of picnics, parties and skating. Beyond that, I did not know what to expect of the three-day inline skate fest.

I adjusted my helmet, secured my kneepads, wrapped my wrist guards and turned on the blinking red bike lights on my belt pouch.

I envied the skaters who had wheels that lit up with fluorescent pink, red and yellow streaks.

I fiddled with the skate buckles on my beloved, rusted Rollerblade Maxxums, wondering how my body would feel after a year’s break from skating and no training for this event.

“Time to roll!” someone shouted into a megaphone. Our mass surged forward into the street. Sirens blared as our police escorts stopped traffic.

The 2002 Great EsSkate was under way.

Organized by a passionate corp of volunteers, the event doubled in size in its second year, largely due to word of mouth in the tight-knit skating community. Event proceeds benefited families coping with spinal muscular atrophy, a potentially fatal disease that attacks muscular systems in newborns and young children.

Going night skating
I was lured across the country by the thought of skating in 70-degree weather and by curiosity: What was the scene in South Beach? Did mere mortals live there or only models?

And what about the future of inline skating? In Santa Cruz, I feared my fellow skaters had disappeared, replaced by kids crazed by scooters and skateboards. At age 32, maybe it was time for me to retire the skates.

On the two-hour night skate, I worried about colliding with someone and creating a pile-up. I fretted I would be the slowest skater.

Focused on avoiding cracks in the pavement, I didn’t see much of the city. Yet I reveled in the group’s energy, whoops, hollers and hand signals to indicate road conditions.

I had never participated in a group skate and felt overwhelmed, but also exhilarated by having hundreds of skaters around me.

The highlight was rolling down Ocean Drive, South Beach’s main drag. The oceanside strip featured wall-to-wall restaurants, bars and an ultra-chic, multi-ethnic crowd strutting their stuff. The sea of diners and pedestrians packing the sidewalks cheered us.

I checked out some of the pastel Art Deco architecture. There are some 800 buildings within a square mile, all built 1928-1942, which showcase the distinctive architectural style.

I knew that a big buffet awaited us back at the Seville’s poolside courtyard. So I kept on skating. At the hotel, we feasted heartily on chicken and pasta, but I longed to sample some of the local Cuban cuisine.

Ocean-view room
I returned to the Saxony Hotel and mulled over my evening while I waited for the ancient elevator to take me up to my beautiful, ocean-view room on the 15th floor.

One thing was clear: I was seriously out of shape for this event. Maybe I should have stayed at home on the couch watching the Winter Olympic Games. Leave the skating to Apolo Anton Ohno.

At least I should have read the fine print on the event brochure: Intermediate level skater meant skate 10 to 12 miles per hour for at least four miles; advanced meant skate 16 miles per hour for at least six miles. Ouch!

The elevator doors opened and I stepped in. At 5-foot-3, I towered above the dozen octogenarians crammed in the elevator. I wedged myself in, sweaty gear and all, and instantly regretted it.

I could hear my Grandmother’s prediction: “Karen, if you stay at the Saxony, you will be the only one there under 102.”

Not to mention that the Saxony was a fully Kosher hotel, catering to ultra-orthodox Jews from around the world. Friday night after sundown was a holy time, the Sabbath. I felt like a sinner.

I had two more days to test my mettle as a skater and see something in the city.

On our second day, we set out at 10 a.m. from Miami Beach, planning to skate 16 miles to Crandon Park for a picnic, skate contests and a nature preserve tour. Fueled by a breakfast of banana and tasty meat and cheese empanadas, I fell into formation with the skaters.

Within the hour, my hips hurt, my back was stiff and I wanted to lie down. Luckily, each day’s skate included rest stops with water, energy drinks and lots of support from the National Skate Patrol, a group of amazingly talented skaters who patrol the events. I am convinced they were born with skates on their feet.

The McCarthur Causeway was almost the end of me. This bun-blasting experience was a challenging uphill skate over a steeply ascending bridge. The gorgeous view of palm trees and one of the largest cruise ships in the world, the Princess, at port in Miami propelled me.

A bad mix
Shortly after we crossed the Miami River, the sky turned dark and we felt sprinkles. Rain and inline skate wheels do not mix.

Our quick-thinking organizers directed us to impromptu shelter under a bridge. We were stranded for an hour by the tropical downpour. I was cold and hungry, eager to get to our buffet lunch.

Then we were given an choice: wait for a school bus to drive us to the park or wait for the rains to subside and skate over the slippery bridge at our own peril.

The majority opted for the bus, but I admired my hard-core friends who decided to skate.

At Crandon Park, the sun came out in time for us to eat, but I was sorry to miss the tour of iguanas, black geese and alligators at the park’s nature preserve.

That night, we removed our skates to sample the club scene at Club Level, one of the area’s hottest nightclubs. Bill Clinton had been there for a presentation on Thursday night, but I wasn’t sure if this was enhancing the club’s cool factor.

I managed to dance to house music until 1 a.m., when the action was really starting.

A 10-mile skate
Though my hip flexors were barely functioning by Day 3, I was determined to join the group for the 10-mile skate to the Miami Beach Festival of Arts. Soon I found myself at the back of the pack, being carefully monitored by the National Skate Patrol to make sure I didn’t drop off all together.

I was entertained by a man in his 60s, skating backward, holding a boom box blasting techno music, sporting a T-shirt reading: “Shut Up and Skate.”

At the art festival, I was thrilled to remove my skates and leave my gear with the sag wagon. I was free to explore the colorful paintings and sample fried plantains, my favorite Cuban fare.

I skated home from the festival and collapsed on the beach, then slipped into the soothing turquoise waters.

In three days, I discovered that South Beach is still a place to see and be seen, to soak up the rich Latin flavors of night life and cuisine.

I learned that the national skate community is still alive and well, with huge delegations of skaters from clubs in Dallas, Philadelphia and Atlanta. And I was not over the hill!

While the Olympic athletes were going for the gold, I had entered my own winter games in Florida, a delegation of one from Santa Cruz.

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