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March 18, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
A mass of people swirl around the oval hardwood rink as if they’re trapped in a blender that’s pulsing to the beat of a Black Eyed Peas song. Veteran skaters fly past the flailing arms and legs of the adventurous beginners. Gary DeVore stands above all these skaters, the patriarch of the group.
DeVore has been skating at Empire Roller Rink since he was 18 months old. When he was a kid, the rink was just a place to hang out with friends. Now, half a century later, with five kids and three grandchildren of his own, DeVore’s skating is also a way for him to stay healthy. “I hate going to the gym, so this is my gym,” DeVore, 51, says.
Most of the skaters are younger and seem to be there for a good time, just like DeVore when he was a kid. One teenage boy in a leather jacket shows off his skills by skating backward along the dividing wall. Two birthday parties dominate the tables in the lounge area. Teenagers and college students cling to one another on the slick hardwood or sit in the lounge area while texting, chatting and lacing up skates. Couples hold hands as they skate around the kids, who seem to be falling just for the thrill. The air is full of skaters squealing, talking and laughing — and the faint odor of feet.
Even at the unremarkable height of 5 feet 10 inches, DeVore stands out among the crowd. His arms and legs are skinny and long. His grayish hair gives away his age even if his boyish expression and youthful movements on the rink don’t.
“It’s time for the limbo!” the announcer says as a country song is replaced with a tropical beat. DeVore finishes lacing his skates again and stretches his bird-like legs as he does some warm-up laps around the rink. The floor guard prepares the limbo set. DeVore can go as low as 28 inches and has even successfully navigated 25 inches, but that was about 35 years ago.
Filling an entire wall of the rink, skaters line up. Onlookers cheer, laugh and wince as others fall or barely make it under. DeVore’s one-foot technique brings awe and applause from the crowd every time. However, tonight is not his night. He crashes on the last level in a graceful spill that looks almost like a break dancing move.
A little girl takes the prize, but this doesn’t bother DeVore. He’s still as carefree as ever, skating laps as another little girl about 2 years old scoots around, maybe for the first time, her skilled parents holding onto her overalls so she won’t fall.