New home proves nice fit for roller skating championships

The national championship of roller skating has been around for over 50 years, and nearly every other year the skaters take their turn in Lincoln.

But 2016’s return trip came with many firsts for the long-time competitors. The first championships away from the Pershing Center. The first time five different disciplines came together under one roof. The first time in recent years the numbers of athletes competing increased.

Still one thing is for certain: Lincoln remains home to the skaters from around the country.

Just under 6,000 USA Roller Sports National Championships athletes, as well as coaches, officials and supporters, kept Speedway Village busy for nearly a month.

Figure skating wrapped up the events on Saturday with skaters ages 3 to 80 hitting the floor in the most extravagant of outfits — some velvet, many covered in rhinestones.

Lona Dennis, a skater since 1968 and now a coach and judge, said the biggest differences between last week’s figure skating and ice skating obviously involves the surface, but also recognition of the sport.

Figure skaters on wheels don’t get their shot in the Olympics, so the first week of August in Lincoln is their time to shine.

Dennis first competed at nationals in 1973 at the Pershing Center. Dawn Cunko, a skater from California, shared memories of 22 years taking turns at Pershing as well.

“Pershing was like an old shoe, you know?” Cunko said. “A lot of memories, it was comfortable, we knew where everything was — but it was old.”

With Pershing set to close in 2014, Lincoln’s Convention and Visitors Bureau set out to find a new home for the skaters in Lincoln. But where?.

“We couldn’t even begin to populate the Pinnacle Bank Arena,” Danny Brown, president of USA Roller Sports, said. “And going to the Ice Box was not even close to what we needed. CVB thought Speedway Village had potential, and I saw it, too.”

It wasn’t until the competitors hit the floor that they saw eye to eye with Brown and other USA Roller Sports staff.

The building, normally covered by turf, could accommodate not only the competition roller skating floor, but for the first time there were two rinks — side by side — so skaters could use one to train before competing.

When competing at Pershing, skaters would have to shuttle to rinks set up around town to practice. With the extra rink, coaches didn’t need to worry about missing out on performances.

“For the first time we’re all together in the same building, and it’s beautiful,” Dennis said.

For many of the athletes, the month is about the “big skating family” they get to see once a year. Brown thinks the intimacy of Speedway Village only heightened their reunion.

“They expected something so much less, and we got so much more than we ever, ever dreamed of,” he said. “We’ve always been treated very well by the convention and visitor’s bureau, but this year they really stepped it up.”

And in many ways, Brown said the skating community benefits the city of Lincoln, in return. Lincoln’s hotel management recognizes skaters’ faces over time, figure skater Twila Robinson, 57, said.

Downtown hotels, including Embassy Suites, the Cornhusker Marriott, Hilton Garden Inn and Holiday Inn, drew skaters throughout the month. Brown said some families will book rooms from three days to two weeks, depending on schedules. The overnight stays, combined with the traffic at downtown restaurants, add up.

“We bring a tremendous amount of tourism dollars here,” Brown said. “When we have this many athletes, there’s millions of dollars of economic impact.”

B. Paul Tunakan, the Cornhusker’s director of sales and marketing, said the hotel handled 85 athletes staying an average of five to seven nights, the longest being a 12-night stay.

“They definitely bring some good business,” Tunakan said. “But they also bring a different crowd. Because they’re competing, they’re very excited about what they’re doing. It’s a different attitude.”

Brown estimates that the economic impact this year was greater than other years with a 20 percent increase in athletes competing — mostly in the younger divisions.

The event is to return to Lincoln next year, where participation numbers have always been high.

“You know, over the years, we get some people that go, ‘Aw, we’re going to Lincoln again?’ with a little disdain and a little frustration, but when they get here, it’s home,” Brown said.

“It’s familiar. You know where you’re going and they still have a great experience.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or lesparrago@journalstar.com

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