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Babes on Blades
Large women take it to the streets
By Suzan Davis

Reprinted from Radiance, Fall 1996

The squawking sounds of my children made it difficult for me to hear his soft words. I leaned forward, asking him to repeat them. As I did, my nostrils filled with the smell of cleansing powder emanating from my hangnails. I glanced around my kitchen. Shoes and socks recklessly torn off tiny feet were spread on the linoleum. Dolls and toys sat on a counter that had been clear only moments before. Remains of a spilled bag of potato chips were crushed into a trail leading nowhere, everywhere.

"You ought to do this: it'd be good for you." His finger pointed to an ad in an in - line skating magazine, a publication I had previously ignored because its pages are filled with wildly fit people committing acts that defy gravity. The announcement was for a race from Napa to Calistoga, California, twenty - seven miles on in - line skates. This caused me to pause. I imagined that if I looked up, my kitchen would be clean, the children grown and earning money, and I'd be slimmer and taller. The man was Brian Snelson, a representative for K2 Corporation, manufacturer of skis, snowboards, and in - line skates. In - line skates are like roller skates that have four wheels in a row, or in a line. They are sometimes called Rollerblades. Snelson came to talk to me after an article appeared in his hometown Sunday newspaper. The piece told about how my friends and I discovered the fun of skating and rediscovered our childhoods.

Snelson brought me a free pair of yellow - and - black K2 Extreme Workout skates with five wheels. They looked too wild for me. He handed me the box and said, "You're gonna be famous, so you might as well do it on my skates." He explained that I represented a market that skating manufacturers wanted to reach: the older than thirty - five women's market. I did not know what he was talking about, but it felt pretty grand to receive an athletic product when I had never participated in organized sports in my life and was considered overweight.

Though skating had created a whole - new - improved me, I could think of dozens of reasons the Napa race would not be possible. I had been on skates only for a few months. At nearly forty, I had the weight of humanity resting on my shoulders, and quite a bit of that weight had spread over my body. I recalled my initial skating experience. Traveling with my arms outstretched, legs wide apart, I had glided along pavement, powered by a force I could not see. The force had been under my feet, holding up my generous poundage. I had gotten a lot of laughs from the neighbors. My two - and four - year - old daughters, Katelyn and Savannah, caught in the moment, had joined the adults in fits of laughter. A sassy neighbor in his seventies had bellowed from the window of his old pickup truck, "No old ladies on roller skates!" My husband, Dennis, had covered his face with his hand.

"The race is next Saturday," Snelson said, jolting me back to the present.

It was a matter of mind over body. Wait, make that mind over mind: the planning mind, the doubting mind, the practical mind, the worrisome mind versus the dreaming mind, my mind.

Snelson's were the comments of a free man made to an enslaved woman. I had too many roadblocks to overcome: finding a baby - sitter, my physical condition, fear of blisters, to name a few. Napa was one hundred miles away. I wasn't used to traveling beyond the property line, unless it was to skate the two - mile stretch of road in front of my house or make a diaper run by car. Snelson was also suggesting I do something that in the past I would not have considered because I was not at my "ideal weight. Why did that Snelson character think I could do something "real athletes" do? He dealt with athletes on a regular basis. He had to notice I was not built like one. I was built more like two! What did he see in me that I could not?

I started to think about the people who would attend the Napa - to - Calistoga skate race. There probably would be women possessing bodies tighter than rubber bands doing the "big stretch," and men young enough to be my children. These were people from a different world, folks taut, free, hopping high, and coming up from falls as if the concrete had springs. My idea of experiencing a fall involves getting X rays immediately. Five days later I found myself in Napa, signing up at 6 a.m., with Dennis at my side. We had found a baby - sitter and driven out the night before, staying in a motel that had the word budget in its big sign. The word meant just that: a place operating on a budget. More of a warning, rather than a promise. It reinforced my doubts about the whole mission nagging, relentless doubts.

Denied participation to most sports during my high school years, now I stood with athletes surrounding me. I shook my head in disbelief. The other skaters were dressed in brightly colored, skin - tight outfits that had not one wrinkle from neck to knee. I was wearing maternity shorts from three summers before. I put on my shirt that shows a sassy woman on in - line skates, boasting, "Caution! Babes on Blades" in honor of the club I had not yet officially formed. I had designed the shirt for my skating friends and myself. I felt brave to wear it. Did anyone else here sag under the arms? My self - image didn't fit this picture. Perhaps I needed to change it. Time to skate! A dazzling array of colorful humanity took off. These people were in it for speed. I was just in it. I gathered up my self - doubts and started to plod along. I watched about eighty skaters as they swept around curves on the winding road ahead. They were gone! It was now just the "back - of - the - pack" skaters: those along for the "fun" of it even though they were not fast or fancy.

After a time, I realized I was with them: a new - to - me breed of people who show up, get out there, and take risks. It was a bit of a thrill. My skates fell into a rhythm. The soothing sound of my wheels rose up from the pavement. The distance ahead was overwhelming, so I took notice of the scenery. Thousands of rows of grapes led to winery after winery. I had never been to Napa. This was the first of many times my skates would lead me to places I had not visited, introducing me to new people, new experiences, and a new me.

The asphalt unfolded smoothly. I was afraid of hills, running out of water, tripping on road kill, getting hit by a car. You name it and it would eventually fall into my "fear think." I consider myself an expert in worrying about that which other people forget to lose sleep over. An example: What happens if we need to go to the bathroom? I skated. And skated. And skated some more.

I knew I was skating farther than ever before. At times, skaters would pass me, and at other times, I would come across one and pass him or her. The long list of anxieties melted as I glided forward.

There was Dennis, up the road, with the camera. He had been driving our van ahead for moral support. Holding up four fingers, he wore a huge smile. I knew what he meant: four more miles! I was going to make it! "Four miles to go!" I verified, with a victorious shout.

"No. Twenty - three miles to go. You've gone four."

Twenty - three miles later, I crossed the finish line, passing a group of wildly cheering people. I knew they were blown away by my life - affirming accomplishment. They were. They were also glad to finally see the last skaters, so they could pack up and join the rest of the group of 109 at the park for lunch.

I was ecstatic! I had done it! I had put on my skates and conquered the great unknown. I had done Napa to Calistoga. Several of us skated together through the town of Calistoga to reach the park. Townspeople paused to observe us. I was proud to be among these skaters. I felt renewed.

Later that evening, glowing with supercharged self - confidence, I skated fifteen miles in my own neighborhood. I had journeyed beyond my own thinking. I felt like the confident woman on my T - shirt. I was indeed a "Babe on Blades."

After that day, I reflected on the first few times I had skated with my friends Nancy and Stephanie. The third time out, we had decided it was so much fun that we would skate across the country. Just like that. We may have been high on fresh air, but I called RVIA the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association and asked if they would lend us an RV so we could have a "hotel on wheels" and bring our families. My parents and I had been lobbyists for RVIA years before. I knew it would be good exposure for both in - line skating for middle - aged adults and the recreation vehicle industry. I dialed the phone with confidence.

The man on the other end asked me a question that changed my life. "How do I know you'll get any publicity? Send me a press release."

I quickly wrote one, and sent it off to him and several newspapers. It addressed the unexpected discovery of the child within when the skates went on. It read as follows:

Having an overwhelming need to feel the wind against their dish - pan hands, three mothers, whose children range in age from two to twenty - two, swiped their daughters' in - line skates one day and escaped to the street. Accepting the challenge of staying up, wobbling zestfully, this unlikely group of out - of - shape, unspectacular, nonathletes were shocked at what they discovered. It was big fun. And they could do it! And they've kept on doing it.

After many years of high - speed diaper changes, tackling all manner of stains, and picking laundry off just about everything, these middle - aged women realized there was something missing in their lives, but could not figure out what it was. They no longer saw themselves as "sweet young things," more like caged animals with no place to run. The gym was too inconvenient and expensive. Besides, when one signed up, she went three times and quit: After seeing her reflection in a mirror with dazzling Spandex clad lassies hopping and popping around her, she went home feeling defeated. Another mom threw herself into a strict diet, only to find her thoughts constantly on food, which resulted in rampages that scattered the family in all directions as they sought to escape her snapping dish towel. Another mom worked full time in an office, only to come home to her other full - time job her family. She, too, needed a way to relieve stress. But how?

Then these three women discovered "the blades." They planned to do it only once, but immediately realized that once was not enough. The physical benefits are remarkable and unexpected. These skaters feel calmer in calamity, their bodies are firming up, and they all experience a new sense of confidence as they deal with the events of the day and even with situations that not long ago made them cower and retreat. They used to be too tired for confrontation. Not any more. Skating gives them energy that continues long after the skates are off. Chores are tackled with gusto, the children are scolded less, and their husbands are feeling lucky tonight.

When one suggested having T - shirts made that said "Moms on Blades," another retorted, "I feel so good, I feel like a babe." Thus a shirt was designed with a confident woman inside a yellow triangle that states "Caution Babe on Blades."

These blading babes hope to convey to others the benefits of this unlikely but healthy alternative to a midlife crisis. They wish to show other moms, plus dads, that they, too, have playgrounds as close as the end of their driveway. They will promote this by skating across the country. Never pretending to be spectacular athletes, they plan to soak their feet along the way in a recreation vehicle that will transport the Babes over, frankly, the rough spots. The Babes seek sponsorship. This venture won't be cheap or easy, but neither are the "Babes on Blades."

Within a week, the three of us were featured, with pictures, in a widely circulated newspaper insert called "Neighbors." I hoped it would generate sponsors to help us get on our way. What happened was quite different. The papers that got the press release either ran a story on us or simply printed the release as written, with a picture. With each bit of publicity, I would get calls asking how to join the club. There was no club to join.

Four weeks after the Napa race, Dennis asked me what I wanted to do for my fortieth birthday, which was looming like a dark cloud on a sunny day. I pictured a dozen black roses and a cake with a tombstone candle lurking in the frosting. "I want to skate," I answered.

"Then do it," he said. "Have a skating party."

Because Nancy and Steph didn't skate much anymore, I wondered how I would find people to accompany me. Dennis, calling on his sixteen years of experience as a state senator in Indiana, recommended, "Do what you do best. Invite the whole world and introduce yourself to whoever shows up. After all, that's how I met you in the first place!" (I won't get into that story here!)

So I put out press releases inviting the public to join me as I "faced the official ending of my youth, sex appeal, and who - knows - what" by skating my age with me one kilometer at a time. I asked if K2 Corporation would provide us with the free use of skates and safety equipment for folks who didn't have their own. They did. Three weeks after Dennis's skating party suggestion, one hundred people I didn't know and a handful of friends showed up a 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning, when most decent people are asleep.

The Babes on Blades became an official in - line skating club that day. New members got a shirt, a newsletter, and a piece of birthday cake. Eight people signed up. Two hundred fifty others followed within six months. I began making regular television, radio, and paid guest appearances at special events and expositions, promoting self - esteem through this physical outlet for women, men, and children. I became the writer of a syndicated column about in - line skating that currently appears in newspapers and sports magazines as well as national and international publications. My articles are about the thrills of participating in skating escapades and even races, be it alone, with another person, or as part of a large group. Only one person can win each race, but the rest of us can feel like winners for getting off our couches and into the streets, where we belong. Those who think skating is for kids are right: it's for the lost kid in each of us.

I traveled many emotional miles and years to get across that first finish line. From early childhood,I remember putting my life "on hold" until I was at "goal weight." My teens were spent refusing invitations with endless and urgent excuses. The real one"I am too fat"was never uttered. I was waiting to be slim. Imprisoned by loneliness while other kids got together and had a ball was the penalty for being fat. My parents, sibling, television commercials, and magazine covers told me I was fat. To me, that meant I deserved to suffer, and I did.

I went on a diet that lasted decades. I was either being "good" (hungry) or "bad" (eating too much cottage cheese and pineapple or worse). My character was defined by the contents of my plate and by the scale on my bathroom floor, which I visited constantly. Continuous pouncing shortened the life span of more than one. It was a "you're - okay - or - you're - not" meter. For years, I watched the world through my bedroom window. I was "in hiding" when my weight was too high. Other people went to movies, to rock concerts, out to dinner, on bike rides, and on dates. They were "normal." I was not. Waiting to get small in an eleven - by - eleven - foot room took a long time. It took my whole youth. It took my whole spirit.

When I ran into someone I had not seen in a while, my mind would race. What had I weighed the last time I had seen him? Had I weighed twenty pounds less? Fifty? One hundred? Will she make a comment about my weight to my face or, worse, to my family? I knew I hurt my mother deeply because of my pounds. My weight was the only issue that separated us. I never asked her why she, the person who loved me the most, judged me so harshly on this one subject. Once when I was up ten pounds from a "successful" starvation diet that had gotten me down to 90 pounds at age twenty, my mom and dad referred to me in past - tense terms, saying, "Suzan used to be so pretty." The response: "Yes, she was."

I was standing right there. I felt full of shame for letting my parents down and not being the best I could be. I could not understand why I wanted food so badly, when it hurt me in so many ways.

During my college years, my marvelous Aunt Carol became ill with cancer. I threw myself into a strict diet so that I could make an appearance at the hospital to see her without embarrassing myself or my family. I didn't want my cousins or others to make mention of my being overweight. Food became my greatest enemy. I was torn by guilt with every bite I took. I was pressed for time. Hurry! Hurry! Get the weight off! would endlessly ring in my ears. While semifasting, it is hard to think of little else but food. The only real relief from the mounting pressure was to eat. I often caved in late at night. Just this one last time. This once. I'll be good tomorrow, I promised myself, Jesus Christ, and God, and I meant it.

Aunt Carol, my godmother, asked for me again and again from her hospital bed. I was away at college, starving and then "blowing it." Many days ended with, "Tomorrow, I'll do better. Soon I'll be slim enough to visit Aunt Carol." Finally, I put on a scratchy wool dress and nylons too small for me. I was sweating. My legs rubbed uncomfortably against each other. Water dripped off my forehead. It was 100 degrees outside that August day, but this was the only dress that fit and covered the arms that I believed were too chubby for summer fashions.

The phone rang just as I stepped out of the house into the steaming heat. It was Carol's mother, my darling Grandmother Gladys. Carol had died. Like many cancer patients, unable to eat, she had starved to death.

Aunt Carol's life ended before I could put my hand over hers and tell her how much I loved her. She had no daughter, only sons. She had treated me like the girl - child she never had. For some unexplainable reason, she loved me no matter what I weighed. This amazed me. She would even let me eat "nondiet" sandwiches when we'd go out. She would offer dessert. She did not care about my weight or what I ate. She died without hearing the words that were in my heart. I was too busy putting my life, and hers, on hold until I could surface without shame. Ironically, judging from pictures taken back then, I weighed only about 140 to 150 pounds, about 100 percent smaller than I felt. After Aunt Carol's death, I "dieted" myself to 222 pounds by my next birthday.

In my thirties, I tried a new approach to my weight obsession. The scale no longer was the jump - start to my day, good or bad. I threw it out, along with my old thinking. I prayed for the willingness to change. I didn't know how, so I asked God for help. I was not very religious, but I was ready for something unique: a power greater than myself. God's help came when someone told me that there was a different way to look at things. Such a wild concept had never occurred to me before that moment.

That someone was Claudine. We met on a trip to Egypt shortly before I turned thirty, when we were placed together as roommates. In Egypt, without the prying and judging eyes of my family, I ate with abandon, sampling exotic dishes, including "naughty foods" sweetened with honey and called names I couldn't pronounce. People seemed to like me anyway. Wherever our group went, the merchants, for some reason, took to me. At times, our members would split up. The ones who followed my shopping path would often be asked by store owners, "You know Suzy?" A decade later, the friends I made on this trip still tell those stories. Why were so many people nice to me when I had eaten dessert the night before? Didn't they know I was "bad"?

About a year after the Egyptian trip, I visited Claudine, who was in town at her parents' house. I apologized to her folks for wearing overalls. I told them they made me look fat, assuming they talked about my weight once I left the room. That was what my family did.

To my apology, their brows raised, and Claudine said the strangest thing I had ever heard:"Suzy, we don't give a dang what you weigh."

What a shock! Didn't the world revolve around my weight? I had invested thirty years of my life worrying about what other people, many whom I did not like, thought about my weight! It was how I was judged. I had a big investment in this. It was who I was. All of those years of hiding myself for naught! The unexpected acceptance of my weight by the entire Fall family forced me to consider accepting myself "as is."

Time passed and I married Dennis, who did not care if I was fat or thin. At least he made that claim. I gave him the chance to prove his sincerity when I gained seventy five pounds during my first pregnancy. He held firm and true, though his golden, shaggy eyebrows twitched a bit when the nurse announced my weight increase during each prenatal visit.

Time passed, and I had another child, plus the three stepchildren I acquired from Dennis. Seven members of my own family died within eighteen months, including both of my parents and my Grandmother Gladys. Somehow, along the way, my own spirit got put aside and forgotten. The mundane and tiring became routine. My essence was neglected. The demands of family and duty took priority over the nurturing of self. I was lost without going any place new.

Then came the day when Nancy strolled over and invited me to skate with her. Thanks to a comment made by Dennis, I took her up on her offer. Dennis had asked, "Why do you look so tired all the time? All you do is watch children." I felt devalued by having given up a job title to be a full - time mom, even though I found answering the cries of children a thousand times more difficult and more important than answering phones. Dennis's comment ticked me off. I was out the door.

This act of defiance, coupled with feeling like a foolish adult and a bold youth all at the same time, started to create positive changes in my being. Similar upbeat changes occurred in my skating companions, too. As others joined me, I noticed a positive metamorphosis in woman after woman. Something important was happening inside, stirred up by the act of getting out in the fresh air and sometimes just getting fresh. Once the club got started, it became clear it was a marvelous way for all women, including large women, to exercise, have a laugh, and feel like a "Babe." Many of us were in our forties and fifties. Some were starting life over after a divorce or retirement.

The club opened up to male children when a "weekend dad," Frank Marsh, told me that his two little boys, Renny, seven, and Dustin, nine, kept asking why they couldn't join their sister, Nicholette, eleven. Nicholette was then the club's only child member. By then we had been in many newspapers, and while their sister got to be in some pictures, her brothers had to watch from the sidelines, just because they were boys. Frank said, "I just can't think of a way to explain to them why you won't let them in the club." I pictured their faces, so cute and full of excitement about skating with the whole family. From that moment, the club was open to everyone. People of all shapes and sizes came forward. Ah, make that skated forward. Eighty men and boys joined this "women's" in - line skating club in the next eight weeks. Heck, if men and boys want to wear a shirt that says "Babes on Blades," let them. They are the kind of people I want to know. We call men "He - Babes" and children "Wee - Babes." I saw the self - esteem soar in person after person who joined, including the fat children we count among our members.

I asked Babe Mark Richard, "Why do you want to join a club called Babes on Blades?" He announced, "Where there are Babes, there is Mark." Mark gives lessons every Saturday to people who learn about the club and come from miles around. Babe Dar assists new skaters, especially larger women, along with Babe Sandy, fifty - five, who wears a flower in her helmet, refusing to compromise fashion for safety. All members wear helmets and protective gear because, "we are worth it." Babes Mike, Gary, and Brian help intermediate and advanced - beginner skaters on their trail runs. For women newcomers who feel self - conscious, Babes Deb, Marsha, and Kathy come to the call. The call of the wild, the wild within!

When I lost my mother, I lost a part of myself. I never resolved with her the issue that separated us: weight. She died when I was thirty - five. I had never asked her why so much importance was attached to my weight. I always wanted to, but was afraid to inquire. This is a part of my life that will forever be incomplete.

Besides grief, with my mother's passing, I suddenly felt old, very old. Almost four years after her death, sailing down the road on skates made me feel like a child again. I could not help thinking of my mom. I quit smoking on the fourth anniversary of her death, exactly four years after I had started the habit, and I skated mileage equal to the length and width of California in honor of the mother I had lost to breast cancer. During those endless hours of skating, I promised the both of us that I would make a difference to at least sixty - five people I did not know: one for every year of my mother's life.

I began to draw from my savings (my security blanket), risking what made me feel safe in order to finance my new venture. I abandoned my comfort zone to reach out to the public to lure them into trying something that could make them physically fit, feel better emotionally, and somehow release the spirit within that seeks expression, not repression, as mine had for so many decades.

What a joy my life is today! I see others reclaiming their own personal power, lost over the years for a long list of reasons, now miraculously found, right there along the asphalt. Each day holds new promise, as I observe women and men discover what I learned by participating in the Napa - to - Calistoga race the biggest obstacle we have to face is our own old thinking.

Throw on a pair of skates and in a short time you, too, can feel so good, you will feel like a babe. You will be a babe. And you deserve it. I can say that with all my might, because at last I feel I deserve it, too.�

SUZAN DAVIS is an International In - line Skating Association - certified instructor who is a mother, writes a syndicated column about in - line skating and articles on fitness and self - esteem, makes public appearances promoting the same, and swears that life begins at forty. She lives in Loomis, California.

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