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From Inline Skates To Ice Skates To The Olympics

At the winter Olympics in Sochi, the U.S. has collected no medals so far in speedskating, an uncharacteristic result. The Americans' best remaining hope for hardware rests with short track speedskaterJ.R. Celskiand the men's relay team.

Celski began his career at a skating rink in Federal Way, Wash. - the same one where his former speedskating idol ApoloOhno started. But it's a roller rink, not an ice skating rink -  a place where Olympians are born and which they later have to leave to achieve their Olympic dreams.

The roller skating center is called Pattison's West. It has the requisite colored lights, music and disco ball shimmering over an expansive hardwood floor. But the pedigree of its rollerblade racing team separates this place from other Northwest roller rinks.

"That's J.R., who started skating for me when he was three years old," says rink owner and coach Mike Pattison, as he points to an autographed picture of J.R. Celski. Celski is the top medal hopeful on this year's U.S. Olympic short track speedskating team.

Next to the current Olympian on Pattison's office wall is a mounted, autographed Sports Illustrated cover of three-time Olympian ApoloOhno.

"I remember Apolo," Pattison says. "He wanted on the team really bad."

Apolo raced for five years on Coach Pattison's speed team. Celski stuck with it for nine years.

In fact, nearly the entire U.S. Olympic short track ice speedskating team in Sochistarted their careers on rollerblades. Or, as they call it, inline racing.

At the Winter Games, U.S. speedskater Jessica Smith explained why a 16-time inline national champion like herself would switch to ice.

"Unfortunately, the sport of inline speed skating is not in the Olympics in the Summer Games," Smith says. "So yeah, I made the switch into short track speedskating to follow my dream of becoming an Olympian. And here I am today in Sochi."

For his part, Apolo Ohno caught the Olympic bug watching the 1994 Winter Games on TV. Then J.R. Celski watched Ohno in action at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and decided he wanted to do that too. Now at Pattison's Federal Way skating rink, it's happening again.

"J.R. and Apolo came from here," says 10-year-old Julian Rimbey. "I want to be in the Olympics because they are my inspiration too."

Julian says he wants to start ice speed skating lessons next season. "I think it's going to be a little hard at first, but I think I'll get the hang of it."

Watching the young rollerbladers practice their starts and zip around an oval marked with cones, you immediately notice how similar speed skating on ice and on hardwood looks.

But not everyone here is ready to throw away their wheels in favor of blades, not by any means. Nine-year-olds Autumn Herman and Sidra Reich explain.

"Ice skating is way cold; roller skating not so cold," Autumn says.

"I've tried ice skating. I don't think it is as fun because when you fall you get really cold," Sidra says. "Sometimes if somebody falls over you, they'll hit the blade on you."

A coach for an ice speedskating club in Bellingham says he expects a surge in newcomers generated by the Winter Olympics.

"We'll end up with about a twenty percent bump in participation," predicts the Whatcom Speed Skating Club's Jed Clark.

Roller skate center owner Mike Pattison says he's sorry to see racers defect to the ice rink - in neighboring Tacomain his case - but doesn't begrudge them for following their Olympic dreams.

Parent Paul Rimbey says a perfect solution would be to get inline speed skating into the Summer Olympics. "I mean you have some other sports in the Olympics that you would think by watching those other sports - I don't want to say (what) other sports - why wouldn't we make it?"

A related event, roller hockey, was included as a demonstration sport at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. But no roller sports have even made the short list for consideration since then.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.