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how roller skating became the sport of the year!

Few hobbies have captured the mainstream imagination in 2020 quite like roller skating. Jihee Junn explores the many reasons why. 

Just down the road from Auckland’s Glenfield mall is the ActivZone Indoor Sports Arena, an inconspicuous-looking building which, many years ago, used to be a Chipmunks play centre. These days though, it’s the self-proclaimed “home of skating on the North Shore” where a large, grey oval rink – along with about a dozen ping pong tables – now occupy its central hall.

When I visit the arena on a late Monday morning, a beginners roller skating class for adults is about to start. It’s a small group of 10, but that’s because it’s mid-September and strict gathering limits are still in place. On any other day, according to Macarena Carrascosa, such a class would typically be double, even the triple, the size. 

“The fact that I’m turning people down because I can’t fit them on the rink is just crazy,” says Carrascosa, a former competitive roller skater-turned-recreational coach. “In 2018, when I first started doing my adult classes on a Friday night, I used to get like six people. But at the end of last year, it really picked up and I was getting like 30 people every night. Then, at the start of this year, it just blew up.” 

Pastel Rainbow Impalas - (PHOTO: SONYA NAGELS)

While coaching has long been a part of Carrascosa’s career, recreational skating is something she only started teaching in 2018 when she noticed its popularity among new adult skaters start to pick up. “I realised there were a lot of people wanting to start skating who were older. They kept coming to our classes but then just leaving because it was all kids [at the time].” Now, all her classes are primarily aimed at adults who just want to skate for a bit of fun, with students coming in from as far south as Ōtara and as far north as Whangaparaoa.

“In New Zealand, there’s only really club (artistic roller skating) and derby. There’s nothing that’s a little bit of everything, which is what I’m aiming for,” she says. “All my classes are recreational skating. They’re not for competition – they’re just for the sake of learning new things.”

Right now, recreational roller skating is back in a big way. While its popularity has been steadily growing over the years, the last few months has seen an explosion in growth. From March to May this year, web searches for roller skates skyrocketed to a five year high worldwide, particularly in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Not surprisingly, skate companies have seen an enormous surge in demand with brands like Impala selling at astronomical rates and the ever-popular Moxi having to open a whole new factory just to try and keep up. 

In New Zealand, Wellington-based skater Tania Beckett, who runs online retailer Aotearoller, says she still has customers waiting for their Moxi skates to arrive since April this year, adding that outdoor wheels and certain helmets and padding have completely sold out as well.

“With supply struggling to meet demand, it’s making it increasingly difficult to run a small business,” says Beckett, who also goes by her roller derby name, Tino. “I’m faced with the possibility that if things don’t change I might not have anything to sell. It’s fantastic, but I only wish the gear was constantly available to sell so we can get more skates on feet.”

While the mainstream resurgence of roller skating throughout history is hardly new, it’s most recent revival has been widely attributed to 2020’s defining event: the Covid-19 pandemic. Stuck at home with little to do, people started picking up roller skating as an excuse to go outside and get moving in a way that didn’t involve running or squats. Conveniently, it’s also an activity well-suited for today’s socially distant era, especially since many large public spaces emptying out. And unlike a lot of individual sports like tennis, golf or swimming, roller skating doesn’t necessarily need a dedicated facility – anywhere with a smooth, flat surface can basically be turned into a rink.

Nostalgia has also played somewhat of a role in its rise. Not only are cultural trends from the 70s and 80s back in vogue (see: flared pants, disco pop, the mullet), but those eras also hark back to a seemingly less complicated time when smartphones, Covid-19 and a President Donald Trump didn’t exist. Indulging in nostalgia can feel comforting and reassuring, especially when it’s something like roller skating which is generally considered just a fun, wholesome thing to do.

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