The first time I did a speed trial was about a week after I started skating last winter, back in Chicago. It was at a skate clinic with the Windy City Rollers and while a coach urged me on, I made 20 laps in five minutes. Disappointed, I watched much more skilled skaters around me lap me again and again. Afterward a kind, more seasoned skater told me not to worry.
“You held your own,” she said. “Once you master crossovers, you’ll be faster than me.”
Once I master what now? I thought to myself. While I smiled and thanked her, back then I didn’t know what she was talking about. But later, when our coach first showed our team of newbies what crossovers could do, my mind was blown. I wanted to pull off this killer move that looked awesome and gave your wheels some wings, but it looked impossible.
I was able to wrap my brain around putting one skate in front of the other, but I was still unable to convince myself to pick up that opposite foot and plant it next to the crossing one and push. It just really takes a lot to trick yourself into believing crossing your feet while moving in roller skates is a good thing to do. I practiced other moves with my new teammates but crossovers were still a big hang-up for me.
Lucky for me, there was Steve.
Steve taught a speed skating class several times a week at Orbit Skate Center, a rink then near my old office. I’d known about this class for a long time, and on one fateful Monday last winter I packed my skates and my gear and took them with me to work.
I showed up to the rink a little early. I carted my rolling suitcase containing my skates and parked myself at a cafeteria table. As a birthday party full of kids cleared out, a guy came up to me and asked if I was there for the speed class. I said I was, and we introduced ourselves. Steve was 32 and said he’d been skating since he was 9 — not speed skating the whole time, but he’s been coaching people in it for more than 10 years.
When I walked onto the rink in gym shoes, I was one of four adults: Me, Steve, a woman maybe a few years older than me, and a man older than Steve. The rest were a handful of children. I felt a little disappointed, because the last time I’d skated at Orbit, I’d struggled to dodge kids and felt anxious about knocking into them. I shrugged it off. We ran some laps, did some stretches, and then laced up.
Immediately it became clear to me that those kids all skated much faster than me, by far. And they were all doing crossovers, without a second thought to how terrifying each one was to me as an observer.
We did some drills as a group, and Steve simultaneously took it easy on me while also improving my form and giving me instruction with each attempt. He was a good teacher and could see that I was starting out in roller derby and that I didn’t quite have the hang of crossovers yet.
After class, he offered to stay to help me and one of the kids, one-on-one. He had me skate on one foot for as long as I could while he did a drill with the boy, and after the boy left, he asked me if I wanted to give crossovers a try. It was past 10 p.m. by then and I had a 30-minute drive home, but the answer was still yes, of course.
We made a lap, and when I still faltered, he took a new approach. He had me stand mid-rink, on a foot-tall green, painted line that stretched from end to end of the floor. He had me walk sideways along the line, putting my right foot across the left, over and over. My feet got used to the motion after a sideways pass across the rink like that, and then we skated another lap.
I crossed my right foot over my left and stepped into it all the way, just like I had on the line — only I was moving in a circle, fast. The move made me go faster. I lifted my arms in celebration, and nearly fell over. I crossed over again and again, skating faster than I could quite handle and feeling invincible. I high-fived Steve.
They told us at practice that crossovers are basically mind over matter. Once you get over the mental hurdle of how insane it is, you can reap the physical rewards and go hella fast.
Sure, they seem scary at first, but dang, are they worth it.
By Meryl Williams
Meryl Williams is a Chicago journalist who now lives in Portland. Sign up for her awesome TinyLetter, where you can learn more about her upcoming memoir on skating.