[intro-text size=”25px”]I offered to cover this story on a whim and to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. I assumed that it was some local skaters from the area getting together for an impromptu street contest for fun. I couldn’t have been more wrong.[/intro-text]

I should have been tipped off by the level of organization, the expected attendance, or the several thousand dollars in cash prizes, but still assumed that it was just a small event. You know, people like to exaggerate and brag, and I’m often skeptical.

But brag they should. The “King of Cleveland” blading contest blew me away. Not only did attendance exceed all expectations its guest list included, to my surprise, professional rollerbladers from as far as Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and Alabama- just to name a few. I asked one of the organizers, Jimmy, about it, and he confirmed, “Most of the guys you see landing tricks regularly don’t pay for skates.”

The contest was broken up into six spots, none of which were made known until the day of the contest. The first was at the Jane Addams Business Center on Tri-C’s Metro Campus, where the skaters met before noon and proceeded to nonchalantly use a belt sander to smooth the edge of a bench they wanted to grind. Beers were passed around as the already large crowd continued to swell. Jimmy, playing the part of hype-man, shouted commentary through a megaphone while Brandon and Brent, his co-organizers, scrambled around making sure everything was happening on schedule.

Now, I’m not a rollerblader, so my commentary on the display of skating I saw is inherently limited. Rather than embarrass myself by attempting to use slang and terminology that I’ve never heard before, I’m going to let the pictures speak for themselves. All I know is that the skaters and their tricks were creative, athletic, fluid, and I’ve never seen anything like it. It didn’t take long before I was cheering along with the rest of the crowd.

After about an hour, Brandon announced that time had run out at that spot and it was time to move to the next. The group relocated to a church a couple of blocks away, but they got kicked out before I even got there. I was bummed to hear that the brief performance at that spot was one of the best of the day, so I made damn sure that I wasn’t going to miss another. Which was a good plan, because the next spot was on the West 49th freeway overpass.

It was around this point that I started realizing the amount of effort that had actually gone into this thing. As I asked around, I learned that they had been planning the event since early Spring and had staged fundraising contests and cookouts (all of which were attended by pros) leading up to the big day. They advertised through social media, word of mouth,  It was a really impressive grassroots effort, and a necessary one to maintain visibility for the sport.

While it was popular in the 90’s, rollerblading has become a bit of a fringe activity compared to its counterparts like BMX and skateboarding. So, it’s up to the fans of the sport themselves to create their own audience and garner the attention that the media lavishes upon other activities. “We don’t really have a very large scene, so it’s kind of one those things where maybe we’re just trying to be more seen so we get out in front of the public, as opposed to just staying in the skatepark,” Jimmy explained, “Without the competitions, we wouldn’t get together, and without that, we wouldn’t get younger people in.”

Different groups have come together to rally behind the sport through social media like ‘Ohio Roll’ on Facebook, and the BladeCle hashtag on Twitter. Other states have similar organizations, like ‘Black Skaters United’, which aims to encourage the sport’s popularity in the black community. All of the skaters spoke enthusiastically about the various competitions that they had put on around the country, recounting stories and friends from the events.

The competition continued on the overpass for a while, until it was finally broken up by the police. Brandon ended the session by shouting the code word “Johnny Football” and went to talk to the officers, who were very cordial; they simply asked them to move on so traffic would not be obstructed. The skaters thanked them for not ticketing them as they passed the squad car, and the officers nodded and waved, saying “Have fun.” The police were much nicer than the owners of the North Italian Club, the next spot, who angrily demanded that the skaters leave immediately. That was a bummer, because the skating there was pretty awesome.

After that, it started raining. It could have been (and was expected to be) much worse; forecasts had predicted all day thunderstorms, so the brief downpour that ensued was hardly lamented. Jimmy shrugged it off, “It’s one of those things. We picked September, it’s going to rain.” Besides, it gave everyone a chance to sit down and grab a beer and some food at the ABC Tavern, where most of the group waited out the storm. It was a jovial scene: photographers showed off their shots, skaters talked shop, and the organizers got to take a hard earned break.

After about an hour, the rain slowed and the now restless skaters converged on Ohio City’s Lincoln High School, the next spot of the competition. Two long steel rails, spanning the entire parking lot, were skated hard for the next two hours with residents from the neighborhood coming to check out the scene. Again, the police arrived. Apparently they had figured out that this was going to be a regular occurrence and told Brandon that this would be the last spot of the day; however, they could stay and skate for another hour. They left, wishing everyone well and receiving another wave of appreciative gratitude from the skaters.

By then, it was after six. I finally got to pin down Brandon, who hadn’t stopped rushing about all day, and asked him how he thought it went, “I think that it went really well, exceptionally well. I’m not bummed out that we didn’t get to do the final spot, I think that it was still a full and complete contest, and I think that the judging is going to be very interesting.”

In the end, Philip took home the $1,000 prize, with Naylor, Alex, and Bruno taking home $500, $300, and $150 respectively. Best trick went to Rappa, and the downhill race the night before was won by Carson. Everyone, skaters and organizers alike, clearly had a blast and were already talking about next season’s competitions. I was incredibly impressed by the dedication and passion these guys showed in their skating, planning, and the overall sense of group solidarity. These skaters were proud of their sport and their talent, and they wanted nothing but to show their love for rollerblading with anyone who wanted to be a part. “You do what you want to do in life,” Jimmy mused, “you make time for what you want to make time for.” I think it’s safe to say that everyone there was happy that they made time for the King of Cleveland.

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