Inline skating

by Pavel Hajek, 12/10/2014

“No, no, no. It’s not right. No ‘kanji’ there. You’re skating like a European. You have to feel it. Dashi. “ This is what I’ve been hearing almost every Saturday for the past two years from the Korean friend who has patiently trying to teach me the Korean style of freestyle skating. I’m from Europe and  ‘kanji’ is a word for the ‘Korean style or the Korean feeling for a style’ while ‘dashi’ means ‘again’. Sometimes it’s a little frustrating but that’s the reason I came to Korea in the first place.  I wanted to meet Korean skaters whose skating style is so different from anything  I had experienced in Europe.

When I first came to Korea, I didn’t speak the language, knew nothing about the country, almost nothing about the skating scene in Seoul and definitely wouldn’t have believed anyone who would have told me that one day I’d be writing an article about skating in Seoul. Over two years have passed and here I am sitting by the Han River writing this. I now know a lot more about the inline skating scene in Seoul -  speaking the language helps a lot. I’ve acquired some level of ‘kanji’ and I’ve even started to teach inline skating here.

I’ve been skating ever since I can remember. I started, as most teenagers do, with aggressive and street skating - jumping over benches, down the stairs and grinding over rails. As I grew older and my body started to hurt more when I fell or broke something, I went for less demanding stuff and was just enjoying easy skating for fun. However, I again found my passion for skating when I discovered ‘freestyle slalom’, a highly technical type of inline skating that many compare to figure skating on ice. This fairly new discipline in the roller sports family requires skaters to perform various tricks in a row of small plastic cones evenly distributed on the ground. There are many tricks one can learn and perform and the skaters connect them freely to create unique skating experiences and that’s where style comes in. In Europe,  the stress is mainly on the technical difficulty but here in Korea, a nation of singers and dancers, the emphasis lies heavily on the visual image of the skater, the artistic performance and the general impression the viewer should get. And in my opinion, there’s no style like the Korean style.

Before coming to Seoul,  I had watched a lot of YouTube videos from competitions or practice sessions and I thought Korea was a nation of skaters as the parks were always seemed full of them and competitions had a huge audience. How big was my surprise when I found out it wasn’t so! In Seoul, there are dozens of skating rinks and hundreds of kilometers of bikeways suitable for skating but there are two main epicenters for skating both freestyle and casual fitness - Olympic Park and Yeouido Park. Soon after my arrival, I found myself standing in the haven for every Korean skater - the Freewave inline skates shop that is conveniently located on the edge of Olympic Park. The owner, nicknamed Captain Young is one of the founding members and a guru of the local skating scene. It was Saturday, the day two of the clubs hold their regular meetings, and he introduced me to the skaters. I was expecting hundreds of skaters but there were just a few of them there. My style was terrible but there I was skating with the Korean national team members and all the biggest Korean skating stars. Nevertheless,  I enjoyed the evening and accepted their dinner invitation. The English speaking skaters took me under their wing and somehow the dinner stretched all the way to the early morning hours.

I became a member of one of the Olympic Park clubs and over many dinners I’ve learned that as with everything in Korea, inline skating has been subjected to heavy fashion and trend swings. About ten years ago,  the media were giving inline skaters a lot of attention and skating was in. This fruitful atmosphere spawned skating clubs, newcomers were plenty and everybody was skating everyday. Over the years however the media lost interest, the fashion and the trends moved to other fields such as skateboarding, cycling, skiing, and people simply put their skates away. Some skaters got married, pursued their careers or simply left the scene for other reasons. Nowadays most view the inline skating scene as a hollow pyramid, on the top of which there are the national team members and few other old timers with high skills acquired over a long time, with nothing in the middle and with the bottom slowly filling up with newcomers who often lose interest after a while as the gap between them and the top seems unsurmountable. That situation may have have started to change this year due to the work of the skating community of which I’m now proudly a part of. Lot’s of festivals and competitions for beginners, free skating lessons and attention given also to people, who have no interest in freestyle or speed skating but just want to enjoy their weekend afternoons by the Han on skates are all leading to quite optimistic prospects.

My students include people who come to Olympic Park to relieve their working stress and stretch a little.  One is an executive from a construction company who is learning to skate backwards because he thinks (and rightly so) that it looks cool, while another is a software programmer I have taught to jump and who is now all over the park.  I’m expecting a couple of newcomers today who just want to learn to skate holding hands without falling.  And maybe some other skaters will come, some with their kids, bringing something to nibble on and we’ll enjoy the evening all the way to the park’s closing at midnight.

One of the festival on YouTube

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