Rolling on, competitively

Skating: Roller dancing duo aims for the regional championships, which will be held at Laurel Skating Center this summer.

Howard At Play

March 30, 2003|By Nancy Menefee Jackson | Nancy Menefee Jackson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Seeing competitive skaters in 1955 caused Claude Shires, who was 15 then, to become interested in the sport.

Two years later, he started competing, and today, at 64, the Columbia resident is still skating competitively - at a national level in solo figures and team dance events.

He has done it all, from freestyle skating to pairs to dance, in a sport that is similar to ice skating but languishes in the shadows of roller rinks.

"We don't get a lot of recognition because we're not in the Olympics," said Margie Bargmann, manager of Laurel Skating Center, where Shires works and trains.

That lack of exposure keeps the sport from growing, said Shires' dance partner, Susan Mathason, 42, also of Columbia. Like Shires, she became entranced with competitive roller skating when she saw it.

"The rinks are packed, but there's no exposure," she said. She started skating at 7, but she did not begin lessons until she was 19. "I didn't know there was any more to it than going around the rink until I was much older."

Shires and Mathason compete in team dance, in which they must perfect routines to six rhythms, such as the waltz, cha-cha and tango, and each competing pair performs identical steps. They are judged on timing, precision, speed and expression.

Last year, Shires and Mathason were second in the regional championships and finished 14th in the national championships. Both feel the waltzes, both fast and slow, are their strongest event.

"You have to feel the music, and it's hard to find a partner who can feel the music," Shires said, praising Mathason, The two began skating together five years ago, when his former partner left, and he asked Mathason to try some routines with him. Both quickly realized that they were compatible, he said.

Competitions are defined by age brackets, but the younger partner's age determines where they skate, and thus, Shires finds himself competing against much younger skaters in the Esquire Division, for skaters 35 and older.

But he is confident, thanks to a long career marked with solid performances, including finishing 11th in the nationals in pairs and eighth in freestyle when he was 28.

"I couldn't do it now," he said, recalling the jumps and spins. Along with dance, he competes in figures, in which skaters must flawlessly follow the figure-eights and serpentines marked on the rink floor.

Keeping off the ice

Shires never thought about being an ice skater.

"You have to start a little earlier," he said. But he points out that Tara Lipinski was a roller skater before she moved to ice, "and now she's making a million dollars. All we get are plaques and medals."

But along with those plaques and medals, skaters get a lot of good times.

"I like the people. It's just like a family," Shires said, adding that he enjoys going to meets and seeing people he has not seen since the last competition.

Mathason enjoys the people, too, and "the thrill - you feel like you're flying." She also looks forward to dressing in outrageous costumes.

World-class roller skaters can spend $30,000 to $50,000 competing and training, but local skaters "do it on a shoestring," Mathason said.

They melt the rhinestones off old costumes and share motel rooms. Lessons cost $24 to $30 an hour, and they pay $25 a month in dues to the National Capital Dance and Figure Club, as well as for skating sessions.

"I try never to look at the total," Mathason said.

Shires worked as a mechanic in his hometown of Richmond, Va., and he began to work at the skating rinks at night. That turned into a full-time job. Then the Laurel rink hired him to care for seven area rinks.

Divorced with two grown sons, he almost always can be found at a rink, either working or skating.

He skates five days a week for a couple of hours at a time. On Sundays, he spends four hours perfecting figures.

"It takes a lot of practice," he said.

`Good exercise'

Like many older athletes, he is bothered by his knees and has had two knee operations. But he credits being in great shape to skating.

"For a 64-year-old, I look like a teen-ager," he said. "It's good exercise."

Mathason knows firsthand how good an older skater can look. Her husband, Lavelle, is 67 and still skates competitively despite having two artificial knees.

"He's one heck of a skater," she said.

But while she admires her husband's ability, Shires is her skating partner.

"You don't want to skate with the one you love," she said, laughing. "Claude and I are best buddies."

Shires and Mathason are members of the National Capital Dance and Figure Club, and this year, they're pointing for the regional championships at Laurel Skating Center, where the event will be held June 19-22. "We decided to do it because it's usually in North Carolina, and we wanted to give our skating club the advantage of having it close to home," Bargmann said.

At the regionals, Shires plans to compete in team dance, solo dance and figures. And, he said, he plans to win.

Meanwhile, he works at ensuring the future of the sport he loves by helping children learn how to skate. "I like to help the kids," Shires said.

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