'Roller Skiing' Summer Training for Winter Athletes

Jul 5, 2012

Athletes all over the country are competing to secure their places on the Summer Olympics team. At the same time, Winter Olympians are doing what they can to stay in shape. For cross-country skiers, that means roller skiing. New Hampshire Public Radio's Sam Evans-Brown reports roller skiing has become a competition sport in its own right.

The words roller skiing bring a picture to your mind, and that picture is almost certainly not what roller skiing actually looks like. Here's Olympic cross-country skier Andy Newell.

NEWELL: I'd basically describe it as roller blading with poles. And that kills me to say that because it sounds super-lame but that's basically what it is.

There are some differences. Roller skis are a little longer than roller blades, have only two wheels are only attached to the skiers foot at the tip of the ski boot so they can get a better push. 

Driving down the pine tree-lined roads of Craftsbury, Vermont, it's not uncommon to see a stream of roller skiers clattering along the side of the road. If it seems like something you might want to try, consider another fun feature of roller skis - no brakes.

NEWELL: If you are new coming down a hill, you have to either bail into a ditch or, like, somehow slow down. So, when you're skiing, like, a new road for the first time, it's kind of a sense of excitement and, like, you don't know what's coming around the corner, so it's like a little bit of sketchiness involved too, which can be fun.

Newell says he's never been seriously hurt, but like most racers, he's had some near-misses.

NEWELL: I've been clipped by cars a couple of times, including a eight-wheel bus, like a full-on tour bus clipped me one time, which is sketchy.

Like he said, fun. Mostly, though, it's a training tool. In winter, New England has great trails for skiers, but when summer rolls around, racers have to slap on roller skis and put on extra-hard carbide tips onto their poles that will bite into the pavement.

Here in Craftsbury, a big group of the best Nordic skiers in the country meet up to train by laboring up and rocketing down a steep hill almost a mile long. Ski racers like these spend so much of their time on roller skis that across the pond in Europe, they've created a whole roller ski world cup. In Norway, over 80 percent of the country's TVs are tuned into the broadcast of top flight Nordic races. And now, even roller ski races are getting TV play.

It's serious business - so serious the International Ski Federation even has a roller ski subcommittee. Its chair, Ozkan Koyuncu, is a big believer in roller skiing. He says snow is getting harder to come by in many parts of the world, so roller skiing could be the future of the sport.

OZKAN KOYUNCU: I don't know when - 15, 20 or 10 years or more, I don't know - but I believe that roller skiing will be in the program of Summer Olympics.

Most American skiers aren't quite so convinced. Back in Vermont, Andrew Johnson, a former Olympian and assistant cross-country ski coach at the University of Vermont, says lots of skiers don't even like roller skiing that much. They just do it because it's what you have to do to stay in shape.

ANDREW JOHNSON: You know, somebody comes up and they see it for the first time and they're like, oh man, that looks like so much fun. Where can I get some of those? And, to me, it's not that much fun.

But who knows? If you watch enough of those races in Europe, you too might start to believe that roller skiing could be the next Summer Olympic sport.