They came to Brooklyn from as far away as California, dressed in cutoff shorts, sequins and cowboy hats. It was September 1980 — the last days of disco — and Donna Summer thumped on a boombox in Prospect Park. There, 800 people had gathered to compete in what was billed as the first roller-skating marathon on the East Coast.
Never mind that modern skates, with their two-by-two design patented by James L. Plimpton, a New York City furniture dealer and inventor, had been around since 1863. Suzy Chaffee, a former Olympic alpine skier and something of a celebrity then, was on hand to salute the winners. She wore a shimmering bodysuit and waved from the back of a truck at the end of the course. (“If you’ve got any juice left in you,” she told the crowd at the finish line, “you’re invited to boogie.”)
Giuliano Maddamma, a 22-year-old construction worker from Cleveland, won that year, skating the 26.2-mile course in an hour and 37 minutes.
“Skating was such a New York thing,” Ms. Chaffee said in a recent interview. “It lifted the city.”
Roller skating has long been an integral part of city culture. And even now, as summer slides into fall, groups of skaters convene around town for weekly get-togethers. Last month, they gathered for the Big Apple Roll and made their way from Brooklyn to the Bronx. In late September skaters will be back in Prospect Park for the NYC Skate Marathon. But unlike four decades ago, the equipment is high-tech and the participants are more professional.
The crowds are smaller, too, mostly because many of the city’s rinks built in the 1930s and 1940s have either closed or been demolished to make way for condominiums. But skate professionals say there are signs of renewal. Myles Cotter-Sparrow, a marketing executive for Rollerblade Inc., said he had seen a 10 percent increase in the number of people using skates compared with a year earlier. Actors like Chris Evans (Captain America!) tout the sport. And around the world, skate marathons are big business.
“The sport has redefined itself,” Mr. Cotter-Sparrow said. “Athletes are as fit as any top-level sport.”
For others, roller skating is a wink at a vibrant past. Bob Nichols, 72, has a 1936 poster on the wall of his Midtown apartment of a woman in a red coat and skates, her hand tucked under the arm of a man. “Halloween Roller Skating Carnival,” it reads. “Bring Your Skates.” The poster was created to promote a party on the Central Park Mall.
Then, the park was swollen with roller skaters — children, mostly, and their keepers — who looped around the Great Lawn in summer and in fall before the snow choked the streets with slush. Mr. Nichols said his parents used to skate at the Empire Roller Skating Center in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, when he was young. His sister did, too; she had a pair of skates with wooden wheels.
Mr. Nichols liked skating outdoors. He began in the late 1970s, just as roller skating rebounded with a disco beat. Then, roller disco dominated popular culture with the catchy sounds of Gloria Gaynor, KC and the Sunshine Band and, later, the Bee Gees. It was popular, too, at exclusive clubs like the Roxy, in Chelsea, where Mr. Nichols occasionally skated.
“It was a celebrity thing,” Mr. Nichols said of the club. “I’m a baby boomer person. We were young and in good shape and athletic enough. Either that or people made fools of themselves.”
In 1980, skating entrepreneurs estimated that roller skating had developed into a $6 million to $8 million business in New York, according to The New York Times. People would roller-skate to their doctor’s appointments. Enthusiasts wore their skates for eight hours. “Roller-skating is now transportation plus meditation plus aesthetics,” a skater told The Times.
Roller-skating was so popular, there were magazines devoted to the sport. And in 1983, President Ronald Reagan declared October National Roller-Skating Month. But skaters did not lace up only for fun: Many New Yorkers used their skates to go to work. Ms. Chaffee said she used to glide from her apartment near Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to Central Park before heading south to the garment district, where she had an office.
“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.”