There’s a joke about Rockford, Il, that everyone in town is trying to figure out a way to make $50 once. As someone who has married into the community (my wife and I currently live in the Chicago suburbs, but her family has been there her whole life), I can tell you that this joke is hilarious. When we moved into our first apartment in Milwaukee after college, my wife hung a sign on the wall, made of a piece of stained and torn cardboard, which read “Please don’t put no cans. There is no money in there.” She had discovered it while trying to make some extra money from an aluminum deposit box that sat on the south side of town, which someone had apparently already been ripped off by trying to drop off some salvaged beer cans.
Having spent much of the last eight years hanging around the city and learning about it’s history, I’ve realized the joke, like most good jokes, is only funny because of a sad truth.
The Forest City was the second largest in the state of Illinois throughout most of the 20th century. By the late 19th century, its predominantly Swedish born immigrants had turned it into the second-largest furniture manufacturing hub in the United States. In 1917 it became home to the US Army’s Camp Grant, which was one of the largest military training facilities in the country. The city’s economy grew rapidly due to its strong manufacturing base until the middle of the century.
Like many cities throughout the rust belt, the city fell on hard times due to automation and, eventually, the offshoring of manufacturing jobs in the latter half of the 1900s. It lost its title as the 2nd largest city in the state to Aurora in 2003 (which, as everyone knows, is bogus considering Aurora is not even its own metropolitan area. Aurora is, in the words of Wayne Campbell, “a suburb of Chicago”).
But the people of Rockford are proud of their community and its history. They don’t appreciate being dismissed as a forgotten town.
In this way, Rockford and rollerblading have much common. Both came into existence with a lot of promise, only to later be ignored by the country at large. Both are populated with people who predominantly shop at thrift stores (though, in the case of Rockford, this is often a matter of necessity rather than fashion).
They also both share Tracy White.
After a successful blading career and some time spent on the west coast where he was the name behind the LA All Day contest circuit, Tracy recently came back to his home town and he brought his passion for rollerblading as a serious sport with him. He started working for the local park district where he has overseen the completion of multiple public skateparks throughout the city. More importantly, he partnered with Rollerwarehouse to provide skates that can be used for free by the local kids in some of Rockford’s poorest neighborhoods at skate camps that are run weekly by older local bladers from around the area.
Part of his vision for Rockford rollerblading includes a series of contests he has been organizing over the last few years. This year’s contest included the Bearings And Bruises contest at the Flodin Skatepark that was held over the first weekend of October.
The contest was pretty unassuming at first glance; only about 25 people competed across all divisions, spectators were nonexistent, and the prizes were humble compared to some of the larger events in our industry. But when you scratch the surface a little bit, this competition is one that people across the country should take note of, if not as a destination, as an inspiration.
For starters, the contest took place in a park that Tracy had a significant say in the design of. As mentioned above, Tracy is partnering with the city rather than arguing with it, and the skate community there is better for it. The ramps are larger, there is round coping on the boxes, and the lines actually flow. None of this would be possible if he just sat around complaining. While much of our community talks on Facebook about how bad their local park is, Tracy has been working to make sure that there are multiple skateable parks in his hometown. To put this into perspective, nearby Milwaukee has nearly five times the population of Rockford and exactly zero public skateparks within the city limits. Rockford has four.
But it’s not just the venue that sets this competition apart. The community actively embraces this small event. Not only did Tracy acquire the proper permits to hold the event on public property (practically unheard of in our sport), he personally talked with the neighbors in the general vicinity of the park to let them know that there was going to be an event with loud music and a PA system. There were even gift bags for all participants provided by the local Convention And Visitor’s Bureau, complete with lists of nearby dining and entertainment options and a free bag of locally made Mrs. Fisher’s Potato Chips.
While we are digging in to the details, let’s go back to those modest prizes mentioned above. Part of the prize package for this contest included actual medals, just like in the Olympics (though probably worth less). I’m the first to admit that when I saw the medals come out I thought they seemed a bit quaint. That is until we got to the awards for the Elite Division and I realized how thrilled I was to have my name announced for 5th place (it is my last year competing in that division before eligibility for the 30+ Kingpin Division next year), followed by a ping of jealousy I felt upon realizing that places 1-3 were getting medals. I got some free product, so I’m certainly not complaining. In fact, I’m complimenting.
These medals represented something that I forgot about in the last decade at contests hanging out with friends. This was especially clear as I watched the medals handed out to the 9 Year Old and Under Division. I realized that the community was recognizing these kids. Not our community, but theirs. This is probably hard for many people reading this to remember because most people in our industry have been doing this for such a long time, but there was a time for all of us where we hadn’t found our place in rollerblading yet. We wanted to some day feel at home at the skatepark, but we first had to convince ourselves that we belonged there. I remember those days vividly. I remember not only feeling like an outcast, but being one. I was called a “poser” enough in my first years of blading that I didn’t feel comfortable even referring to myself as a rollerblader until I entered my first contest. It might seem strange for some younger bladers reading this to imagine a time when rollerblading was popular enough to be exclusive, but it happened. The only way I found to feel at home in the rollerblading community was to convince the community I already knew as home that I had been accepted somewhere else.
For years people throughout our industry have been talking about the need to “attract kids to our sport”, and whenever I hear those words there is a certain amount of cynicism within me that I have to fight back. It’s the knowledge that those words are coming from salespeople. I’m not arguing that running a company and having good intentions are mutually exclusive. There are countless examples of great skaters who have improved our community with their businesses. But those medals represent something more valuable.
Toward the end of the competition, one of the other local Chicago bladers was telling me that he always attends Tracy’s events because they are so community focused. In other words, he was there for something greater than himself. Standing in the awards ceremony, as a 29 year old with over 19 years on blades, I was briefly reminded of what it felt like to be a kid just wanting to be acknowledged. Tracy knows all of those kids by name. Those medals represent what they can some day get out of skating, not what they will purchase down the road. This event was sharing something with these kids, not selling it.
* * * *
9 & Under Division
1st – Landon Rhodes
2nd – Zach LeClaire
3rd – Jalin Rhodes
4th – Jeremy Jarret
* * * *
1st – Curtis Thornburg
2nd – Anthony Esquivel
3rd – Alec Nauman
4th – Marcos Orta
* * * *
1st – Rory Melehan
2nd – Gabe Talamantes
3rd – Greg Velasquez
4th – Zach Kramer
5th – John Adams
* * * *
Kingpin Division 30+
1st – Tracy White
2nd – Ben Price
3rd – Dan Kinney
4th – Tim Schmidt
Photos and edit by Daniel Kinney