Thanks to social media, good weather and, yes, COVID-19, more people are discovering the joy of life on eight wheels

The thing about skating rinks is they smell exactly like you remember them: a mix of popcorn, shoe cleaner and old, wood flooring. The smell is instantly recognizable, even if you haven’t been to a rink in more than two decades.

In mid-August at this particular rink, United Skates of America on Refugee Road, there’s a solid lunchtime crowd that consists mainly of a large group of kids from St. Stephen's Community House and their adult chaperones.

Like a host of other outdoor activities (Remember trying to buy a bike two months ago?), roller skating has seen a resurgence thanks to COVID-19. Brands like Moxi, Impala and C7 are selling out of new skates as soon as they get a restock.

And then there’s social media, specifically TikTok and Instagram, which is home to a variety of  skaters with growing followers lists. Not only have these viral skaters contributed to the sport’s surging popularity (@spicyivey, @fat_girl_has_moxi, @anaocto, @the_good_guy91 and @rollertravisreynolds are just a few of them), they’re also illustrating the diversity of roller skating. It’s important to note though, that roller skating, like everything else, is having a reckoning with racism as skaters of color speak out about whitewashing and silencing Black voices.  

“I feel like roller skating is kind of a Black thing,” said Ashley Perry, who comes from a roller skating family and first laced them up at age 4. “It was just what we did, and I always wanted my birthday party to be at [the skating rink] up in Medina where I'm from. It's always been a part of my life.”

Skating hasn't been a part of Andy's life since he rollerbladed off of the boardwalk in Virginia Beach back in college. Sign up for our daily newsletter

Perry is one of the founders of Damn Girl, a monthly disco-funk dance night at Skully’s. About two years ago, the group also started hosting monthly skate nights — complete with themes, BYOB and a photo booth — at Skate Zone 71. (All Damn Girl events are currently canceled until further notice due to COVID-19.)

Like many people, Ebony Nolan has memories of going to the roller rink as a kid, but up until recently, it had been years since she’d put on a pair of skates. Last month, Nolan bought her first pair of skates at the age of 41. She is currently taking part in #365daysofskate and is sharing her skating journey on Instagram at @ynobe_rollsquad. 

"It's pushed me to do it more,” Nolan said of documenting her progress on social media. “Since I started sharing my journey, I had a friend that already had started skating maybe a couple years ago, so she reached out to me and was like, 'Hey, we can get together. I can help you learn some things.' I was able to reconnect with her. She introduced me to a whole community that I didn't even know existed in Columbus, so that was definitely nice.”

Local skating group the Crunch Ramp Supremes started in February 2019 as eight friends getting together at Skate Naked skate park. For about a year, they were often the only roller skaters, and the only women, at the park, said Jules Toback. They were usually surrounded by skateboarders and a surprisingly terrifying contingent of children on scooters.

“Let me just tell you, they are reckless,” Toback said of the scooter kids. "It's horrifying to be around.”

In those early days, the group definitely got a few bemused looks when the members showed up at the park in roller skates. “It definitely has a tendency to get a little bit of a head turn,” Toback said. “People are not used to seeing roller skaters on ramps, in general. Typically, you think roller skates, you think the rink. So for [us] to be dropping into ramps like that, people are like, 'Whoa, you can do that?'”

But then, COVID-19 hit, and the Crunch Ramp Supremes — which is open to any skater or blader, regardless of skill level — started seeing a lot more people at its meetups. About 50 people are in its meetup group, and typically 10 to 12 come out for weekly trail rides and gatherings, making it easy to social distance.

“I think I saw maybe two other roller skaters in the first year that we were at Skate Naked, to, all the sudden, I would be skating Downtown, and I would randomly see other roller skaters in parking lots learning,” said Kate Davis. “I have never seen this many skaters around before.”

TikTok and COVID-19 aside, it’s not difficult to understand roller skating’s growing popularity. It takes time to learn, which is perfect for those who are looking to get our mind off the current state of the world. (And aren’t we all?) It’s nostalgic. (Remember the smell?) And, most importantly during a not-so-great year, it’s fun.

“I just feel like I probably like to look cute on the floor and just skate around and just dance with my friends,” Perry said with a laugh. “You get a good exercise. You get to listen to good music. You get to just hang out with your friends. Those are three of my favorite things, so it's nice to be able to always do that.”

For Nolan, skating also offered a mental health a boost in these days of doom scrolling.

“Even if coronavirus didn't come, there are so many other things that are just uncertain right now,” Nolan said. “Instead of just sitting here watching the news, watching our country deteriorate, I need to do something else to keep my mind off things and have ... something positive to focus on.”