- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

Arlington resident Carol Patch gave up bicycling and jogging in her late 30s upon protests from her deteriorating knees.

Ms. Patch knew knee-replacement surgery might be her only option if the cartilage and bone continued to wear away, so she strapped on a pair of in-line skates and discovered a way to escape surgery.

In-line skating, also known by the trademarked name Rollerblading, provides a low-impact, high-aerobic activity for those tired of hiking and biking their way from point A to point B.

The sport’s safety issues are a concern, since a misstep or errant branch along a trail can mean a painful tumble. In-line skaters who wear the proper gear — pads for knees and elbows, helmet and wrist guards — and who don’t take unnecessary risks can find the sport a welcome way to keep trim.

Ms. Patch, 56, says her knees have troubled her throughout her life. When she first started in-line skating, she didn’t realize what a positive impact the sport would have. The activity provided a wealth of health benefits.

“The short-term solution is strengthening the muscles that hold the knees in place without putting additional stress on the joints. Skating does that very well,” says Ms. Patch, who works with the Virginia-based Skater’s Quest group as an instructor.

Last year, Ms. Patch’s orthopedic surgeon confirmed she didn’t need surgery since her skating workouts stabilized her knees. She likely won’t need the surgery assuming she keeps rolling her way to good health.

Her knees are sturdier these days, and so is the rest of her body.

“It’s improved my balance significantly,” she says. For women her age and older, she says, “a broken hip is a life-shortening event.”

She adds that during the winter, when the elements prevent her from skating her regular three-times-a-week regimen, the pain in her knees intensifies.

In warmer weather, she skates up to 30 miles on the weekend and takes two weekday trips anywhere from 10 to 15 miles.

Anyone who has ever strapped on a pair of in-line skates knows how quickly speed can build up on even the slightest of slopes. Stopping, therefore, is a crucial skill to learn, and learn quickly unless a new skater wants to test out those protective pads.

Skaters can rely on their skates’ brake, affixed to the rear of their skate, to bring themselves to a halt. They also can perform a T-stop, where the skater’s front leg is bent slightly, with the skate pointed straight ahead, and the back skate is held perpendicular to the front. The back skate is dragged behind in the process, slowing the forward momentum.

Other crucial tips to learn include turning, the proper way to fall and skate maintenance. In-line skate wheels wear out quickly and should be rotated dutifully to extend their life span.

But even knowing every skating trick can’t guarantee an injury-free experience.

Dr. J. Andrew Sumner, chairman of Sibley Memorial Hospital’s Department of Emergency Medicine in Northwest, says in-line skaters risk injury to every part of their bodies.

“It varies all the way from a head injury to spraining your ankle. Every body part is at risk,” Dr. Sumner says.

“It can happen even with great equipment and huge [levels of] experience. There’s a certain amount of bad luck involved.”

That doesn’t seem to be so much the case in Northwest, Dr. Sumner says.

“Locally, we have a fairly intelligent patient population that pays attention to the proper protective measures,” says Dr. Sumner, who adds his hospital sees few in-line skating injuries.

Even veteran in-line skaters sometimes leave the protective gear at home. Take a stroll on the trail parallel to the George Washington Parkway and plenty of speeding skaters can be seen streaming by without any protective gear.

Anthony Lee, a 38-year-old competitive speed skater from Glen Burnie, Md., recommends the full helmet/pad protection for beginning skaters but opts to go with just a helmet himself.

Mr. Lee, who coaches the speed-skating team Wheels USA based in Odenton, Md., says skating has helped him stay in great shape at the age of 38 and has had a dramatic impact on others who pick up the sport.

“I’ve coached many people who could barely skate [at first],” he says. “They wanted to learn or have some fun, and they lost lots of weight, something they weren’t looking to do.”

One neophyte skater, in his early 40s when he first started skating, shed 35 pounds thanks to skating.

In-line skaters don’t have to give up their sport as time marches on.

Annandale resident James M. Dillard, who turns 70 in August, proudly calls himself the geezer of Washington Area Roadskaters, or WAR. The nonprofit group offers free skating lessons and organizes social and more competitive skating sessions around the District.

Mr. Dillard started in-line skating five years ago and soon found the exercise challenged him in a way other sports couldn’t.

“Skating requires ultimately more energy than biking. As I tell bikers on the trail, my gears are in my caboose,” Mr. Dillard says.

The potential dangers of the sport don’t scare him.

“It’s more dangerous than biking, although when you have an accident in biking you’re falling farther,” Mr. Dillard says. “I can claim that I’ve broken ribs from both sports.”

He blames his skating accident, which occurred last June, on trying new, five-wheel skates for the first time. Five-wheel models allow in-line skaters to go faster, much like speed ice skaters using a longer blade to compete.

Today, a fully healed Mr. Dillard is gearing up for the longest skate of his life, an 87-mile trek later this year as part of the 23rd annual Athens to Atlanta Road Skate Event.

“Assuming I finish, I’ll be one of the first, if not the first, in my age group,” he says proudly. A source with the race confirms that the oldest man to complete the 87-mile race was 67 years old in 2000, while the oldest woman was 63 in 1999.

Skating gives him an edge against Father Time, he says.

“When you get into my age group, you’re always concerned about your health,” he says.

Skating with WAR does have another perk.

“It’s a lot of fun associating with the younger people. A good many of them are half my age,” he says.

WAR offers free skating lessons in Rock Creek Park on Saturdays from April to October, weather permitting. Visit www.skatedc.org for more details.

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