- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 12, 2005

Perhaps you have seen them gliding past you at the mall. Maybe a group of tweens wearing them caught your eye as they spun past on the street.

They are Heelys, thick-soled athletic shoes with a wheel housed in the heel. Wearers can walk part of the way, then roll on by. The hybrid shoes let skating enthusiasts appear to be appropriately shod — but also let them sneak in a glide.

The shoes were invented five years ago by Roger Adams, a California skating enthusiast who wanted something to compete with hot sellers such as Razor scooters and Rollerblades.

The shoes, which retail for $59.99 to $89.99, caught on early in skate-mad places such as Florida and California. They have since become a hit with young people in the Midwest and on the East Coast, says Heelys CEO Mike Staffaroni.

“We’ve just about doubled our sales,” Mr. Staffaroni says. “We sold 800,000 pairs last year. This year, we expect to sell about 1.5 million pairs.”

Who is buying Heelys? Primarily 6- to 14-year-olds, Mr. Staffaroni says. The shoes do, however, come in adult sizes.

To roll on Heelys, wearers lean back on their heels in much the same fashion a skateboarder does. Experienced Heely wearers can go at speeds up to 30 mph and can do spins and turns much like skateboarders. The company even has Team Heelys, a corps of young riders that gives performances at malls and parks.

As in skateboarding and scootering, though, there are the same sort of distractions with Heelys. Many schools in California have banned the shoes on campus, putting them in the same category as skateboards when they say “no wheels at school.”

Mr. Staffaroni says Heely wearers should respect those rules but know that Heelys’ wheels pop out.

“That’s the advantage,” he says. “You can plug up the hole, and the shoes look and perform like quality athletic shoes. My own kids wear them to school, and then when they are out of school, they pop the wheel back in.”

Most Washington-area schools do not have formal policies about the shoes.

“Our policy is no skates at school,” says Kate Harrison, spokeswoman for Montgomery County Public Schools. “Heelys are too new to have a systemwide policy.”

Then there is the risk of injury. Because Heelys are considered by most to be shoes and not skates, many wearers don’t use safety equipment such as helmets or wrist guards.

“All our literature advises people to wear safety gear,” Mr. Staffaroni says, “but these are different from in-line skates in that you are not up as high and you cannot go as fast.”

Mr. Staffaroni says the company has a reported injury rate of about one in every 600,000 pairs.

Neither the nonprofit Safe Kids Worldwide (formerly the National Safe Kids Campaign) nor the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has a large enough body of data on Heelys to make any recommendation as to their safety.

Arnold Ravick, a District podiatrist, says Heelys don’t put wearers at risk for foot problems, either.

“On a limited basis, I don’t see a problem,” he says. “If this is your primary shoe, it’s probably not a good idea because they really aren’t that comfortable.”

Who cares about comfort when you can have cool? Next up for Heelys — more girls’ styles (sparkly laces, feminine styling) and bigger “trick” wheels in some models.

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