New Yorkers and Their Skates, From Discos to Commutes

They got here to Brooklyn from as far-off as California, wearing cutoff shorts, sequins and cowboy hats. It was September 1980 — the final days of disco — and Donna Summer thumped on a boombox in Prospect Park. There, 800 folks had gathered to compete in what was billed as the primary roller-skating marathon on the East Coast.

“Skating was such a New York thing,” Ms. Chaffee said in a recent interview. “It lifted the city.”

“It was great exercise,” she said.

The death of disco in the 1980s dealt a blow to roller skating. But by then, two brothers from Minneapolis, Scott and Brennan Olson, had come up with a new design for an in-line skate that gave users more control and flexibility. (They named the company Rollerblade.) By the mid-1990s, New York’s parks were bustling again, this time with in-line skaters and dancers who performed tricks for eager spectators.

But city officials saw the free-spirited dancers with their loud boomboxes and volunteer D.J.s who played music on weekends as a nuisance. So, they tried to eject them. (The city had sought to limit roller skaters in Central Park going back to the 1880s.) Mr. Nichols, along with a fellow skater, Lezly Ziering, founded the Central Park Dance Skaters Association and negotiated with the mayor’s office to establish hours and regulations so they and others could perform.

According to Mr. Cotter-Sparrow, costumed disco extravaganzas like the one in Prospect Park in 1980 gave way to today’s sometimes grueling professional races in which world-class athletes compete. Among the biggest are in Paris and Berlin, where thousands compete for prize money in a race sponsored by BMW and Adidas. And in Georgia next month, 58 participants are expected to skate 87 miles from Athens to Atlanta.

Now, as then, outdoor skate culture maintains a certain camaraderie. “The strategy is not to elbow someone to victory,” Mr. Cotter-Sparrow said. “It is to outstrategize your opponents by using energy.” Marathon skaters race in close-knit packs, often warning fellow skaters of hazards so they don’t take the pack down.

Mr. Cotter-Sparrow recalled a 2017 race in Duluth, Minn., in which a skater slid in front of him on wet pavement. “I jumped over him,” he said. “You’ll hear someone shout, ‘Wet line!’”

“There is subtle communication among skaters,” he added. “They are like Canadian geese: They draft off each other. Or like a school of fish. They have synchronicity.”

That is what is appealing to Ms. Chaffee, then and now. She still promotes the sport even though it has lost of its disco flair from the 1980s.

“I couldn’t be happier,” she said. “Those were fun days.”

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