Bloomington man rediscovers roller skates

Susan Kantor

AP

Susan Kantor

By Scott Richardson

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – There’s a little boy still living inside the grown-up Gary Blank as he zooms along on roller skates at 20 mph on Constitution Trail.

It’s the lad who tied on his uncle’s hand-me-down roller skates with the outdated wooden wheels back in the 1970s and ’80s and raced around the wooden track at Orbit Roller Rink in Palatine, where he grew up. The rink staff tried to shout, “Slow down!” over recorded organ music blasting in the background.

“I was already a speedster back then,” laughed Blank, 34, a computer network administrator at BOPI, a printing company in Bloomington. “Then I outgrew the skates. I was really bummed out.”

Today, Blank puts on high-end speed skates, bends at the waist and puts his hands behind his back like the speed skaters who compete at the Olympics. He races along the Twin Cities’ linear park several times a week.

Blank cross-trains on ice skates at the Pepsi Ice Rink at Bloomington’s U.S. Cellular Coliseum and rides bicycles.

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    He travels about 100 miles on skates during a normal seven-day training period, which includes rest days. The workouts are designed to get him ready to compete in several marathon races this year with Team Rainbo, a professional racing squad based in Chicago.

    Blank has skated full circle. Last winter, he made several trips back to Palatine to train with Team Rainbo on the Olympic-sized rink at the Orbit. But, there’s a difference this time – no one shouts he’s going too fast.

    Blank is nostalgic over the loss of other large roller rinks like the Axle, also known as the Hub, in Niles. When he went there in the old days, Duran Duran blasted over loudspeakers while music videos played. The giant track was 400 meters. That’s the size of most running tracks at schools.

    “It’s gone. All the big roller rinks are gone,” Blank said. “The Orbit is the only one left (nearby) that’s Olympic-sized. It’s a change in time with Generation X sitting in front of the computer and playing video games. That’s the buzz today, America’s kids are obese. I wonder why. They don’t get out and do anything, and they’re eating junk food.”

    Blank set his own skates aside for a drum set and a band in high school. He “dabbled” again with inline skates in college. But, he admits he had a serious bout with heft himself. Several years ago, he was up to about 200 pounds, well above his “fighting weight” of about 165. He dropped 60 pounds in six months using his own diet, riding bicycles and skating with fitness skates. It’s a style with boots that reach higher on the legs to offer ankle support.

    “I wanted to bottom out, start with a clean slate. It (rapid weight loss) really made a lot of people worried, but that was part of my game plan. Start with a good diet, adding muscle … and that’s what I’ve been doing in the last seven years. I’m basically a work in progress,” he said.

    A transformation came when he watched Olympic speed skaters on television. He studied their form and saw how much more efficient they were. He realized he was wasting a lot of energy and power using fitness skates that required a more upright, wind-resistant position.

    “It (speed skating) is a much different stride. Olympic skaters get down in a tuck position, down low, arms behind you.”