OFF THE COUCH You name it, some in-line skater will do it: The skates’ popularity has exploded and with it, a number of imaginative new uses for its wearers

YOUR FEET? Clumsy, bulbous blobs. Why not reduce the surface area of your feet to a narrow line? Much better. Now attach wheels.

It’s been nearly 20 years since Rollerblade gave into the irresistible urge to reinvent the wheel or the usage of it, anyway. The International In-line Skating Association has measured 300 percent more skaters in the last six years and nearly an 850 percent in the last 12 years. At last count, which was in 1996, about 28.6 million were thus shod. The wheeled boot even has its own week: National In-line Skate Week runs Saturday through May 23 this year.

In-line skates have attained sophisticated levels that the squat rectangular four-wheeler never achieved. About 35 percent use them as a form of transportation. Aggressive skating springs, turns and grinds from skateboarding. Hockey passes the puck on wheels. Skating soccer-style, dribbling demands tight turns and keen starts and stops. In New York and Boston, basketball players rebound and dunk in high-top in-line skates.

The skaters dance, ski, race or slalom. Rollerblade’s newest models traverse downhill trails for off-road skating. With 6-inch air-filled tires, an “extreme” braking system and solid frame, Blade Cross or all-terrain Coyote can leave man’s pavement for God’s earth.

Basically, if it’s a sport that involves feet, it can accommodate in-line skates. Imagine practicing your drunken-style Chinese boxing while perched on skates or teaching your one-trick polo pony to be able to glide on in-line horseshoes.

If you’re still stuck in the mud with your cleats, consider the IISA’s volley of statistics: Remember those 28.6 million rollermaniacs? Well, in-line skating ranks No. 1 with youth ages 6-17. Not a youth? Don’t fret; they only account for a little more than half of those millions. Feminists can make strides um, glides here as well; it’s one of the few sports where the gender breakdown is equal. The National Sporting Goods Association ranks it No. 12 in sports participation, more than aerobics (13), golf (14), jogging (15) and baseball (22). California leads all states in skating participation.

A 1991 Rollerblade-funded study found the activity burned more calories and built hamstring muscles better than bicycling. It has less impact than running. That, of course, is just simple interval skating, not the dance, ski or basketball variety.

Accident rates? Well, one out of 25 in-line skaters make a recovery stop at the hospital. The Consumer Product Safety Commission said the most common injuries affect the wrist and lower arm, then the face and chin. Fractures constituted 40.8 percent of all injuries.

While intermediate-level skaters suffered their share, mainly beginners take the brunt. Hazardous road conditions, poor visibility and fatigue afflict all skaters. Donning safety gear, learning how to stop, and skating within one’s ability can prevent many aches and breaks.

Lessons: East Bay Regional Park District (510-636-1684). Also, city parks and recreation departments and YMCAs teach skating, roller hockey and other in-line adaptations. Camp Santa Rosa, run by Jill Schultz (daughter of “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schultz), offers multiday, multidiscipline camps (800-959-3385). For more hard-core activities, check www.rollersoccer.com or 888-475-7727 for Golden Gate Park practice times for roller soccer.

Where to practice: Liz Miller’s “California In-line Skating” (Foghorn Press, $19.95) lists statewide locales. Around here, though, check out The Dock State Park, 110 L St., Ste. A, Antioch, 925-778-4785; Gleaming the Creek Skatepark, Heather Farm Park on San Carlos Drive, Walnut Creek, 925-256-3539; and Miller-Knox Regional Park on Dornan Drive, Richmond.

Events: Too big for its Golden Gate confines, the “park” in Kristi Yamaguchi’s Skates in the Park now refers to Great America. Olympic gold and silver medalists and thousands of race and recreational participants will be ready to roll 8 a.m.-2 p.m. May 24.

Vera HC Chan writes “Off the Couch” once a month. Send suggestions to her c/o the Times, P.O. Box 8099, Walnut Creek, CA 94596-8099, or call her at 925-977-8428.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times

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