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Elite athletes to rioting teens: Roller-skating in Delaware

September 22, 2018

OGLETOWN, Del. (AP) — The history of roller-skating in Delaware is an unusual one, closely tied to a single family’s legacy in the First State and marred by a series of gang fights and brawls at rinks originally built to train world-class athletes how to skate.

It all started with Charles Wahlig, whose family still owns the Christiana Skating Center in Ogletown, as well as a rink in Dover. His son Cort Wahlig announced this week that the Newark-area business will be closed on Saturday nights until staff can be sure it’s a safe place for customers following a brawl last weekend involving at least 100 kids.

One person was injured, police said. Cort Wahlig didn’t immediately respond to a request for further comment.

It’s a hard fall from grace for a facility that once trained champion roller-skaters and has been open for more than 50 years.

Charles Wahlig, who had won gold medals for roller-skating himself and dreamed of it being made an Olympic sport, wanted to share his love of skating and at one time owned most of Delaware’s major rinks, in Ogletown, Elsmere, Dover and Milford. The family also owned a skating rink in Deptford, New Jersey.

Charles Wahlig died in 2007, at age 74.

His first rink was actually in Elsmere. The Christiana Skating Center opened in 1979 and was managed by 1974 Newark High School grad Harvey White. He won the national title in senior dance in 1980, with his partner Beth Wahlig, Charles’ daughter and a secretary at Elsmere Rollerama.

Several Junior Olympics rollerskaters would end up training at the Christiana center, traveling to Delaware from nearby New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, while local students would take the bus to the Ogletown business after school.

Delaware’s most renowned roller-skating team, Scott Myers and Anna Danks, also represented the business. They won the November 1986 world championships in Bogota, Columbia, before splitting up the next year.

Charles Wohling trained some of the skaters, as did his sister Kathy. The family patriarch was also selected to coach the U.S. speed-skating team in the Pan-American Games in Puerto Rico in 1979.

He was instrumental in getting the sport included in the competition at all.

“It has been proposed as an event for the 1974 Pan-American but turned down,” he told The News Journal in 1979. “I couldn’t understand why, so I flew to San Juan to meet with the committee and see what the problem was.”

“Well, it turned out they’d never seen roller-skating as we intended it to be. All they had ever seen was ‘Roller Derby.’ That’s what they thought we meant.”

Roller-skating like the kind that took over Delaware in the 1970s and 80s was more similar to ice skating. There were three areas of competition: figure, dance and speed.

Even today there are national and world roller-skating championships, though they aren’t as popular as they once were, according to The Atlantic. The sport has suffered because roller-skating rinks are so expensive to build and maintain.

Remodeling a rink can cost millions of dollars, which is why many of them have closed instead.

Roller-skating rinks nationwide have earned bad reputations, too. As the industry changed and evolved, they came to be considered as places for cheap recreation, versus venues for graceful exercise. Teens would come and hang out unchaperoned, sometimes after having a few drinks.

The Wahligs’ rinks weren’t immune to that change. The Elsmere rink, which actually burned down in 1981 and was later rebuilt, was plagued by several large fights, one of which had to be broken up by more than 100 police officers.

At the time, Elsmere Police Chief Pat Ramone said Sundays were especially troublesome because people from other nearby states would come to skate and “conflicts would develop.” For a time, patrons were even checked for weapons before being allowed inside.

There was also a confrontation at the Elsmere Skate Center involving the infamous Yea Yo Boys gang, charged in the slaying of a Wilmington rap musician in the 1980s. About 150 gang members battled in the parking lot, while as many as 800 spectators watched, according to police reports of the incident.

In another fight, two people were stabbed.

In 1992, a large fight at the Christiana Skating Center made headlines when police broke up an unruly crowd of about 300 young people, and a teenage girl from Newark was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

More fights and disturbances at the rink have popped up over the past several years, including a brutal fight in November 2015 that was caught on video and led to charges against two girls and another brawl in April 2016 between teens there.

Ironically, the Christiana Skating Center saw an uptick in teen attendance in 2008, after the Christiana Mall instituted a curfew and stopped letting high-schoolers shop unchaperoned on Friday and Saturday nights.

Rinks downstate ran into the same problems as ones in New Castle County. One, in Milford, had to hit pause on its late-night skating parties after a fight during homecoming in 2011. The skate center drew up new rules and planned a return to its alcohol-free dances, but the first one of the year ended disastrously.

Police said teens fought in the middle of a 200-person crowd outside the rink just after they left at closing time. Police equated it to a riot.

The recent fight at the Christiana Skating Center follows a similar trend, but on Facebook, families said they still like to roller skate and that closing the business down altogether is not the answer.

They said parents should accompany their children to the rink and that the owners should provide security as a deterrent. Others proposed a curfew similar to the one instituted at the Christiana Mall.

The center also holds family fun nights and, very much in keeping with Charles Wahlig’s legacy, offers skating lessons.

It’s also hosted the Diamond State Roller Derby team and still has figure skaters who train at the facility and compete nationally.

The roller-skating business in Delaware was bolstered by the presence of one of the largest roller-skate manufactures in the U.S., Roller Derby Skate Corp. Though the company was headquartered in Illinois, its eastern division was right over the state line in Atglen, Pennsylvania, according to News Journal archives. The facility opened in 1973.

Roller Derby skates had “no clamps, no screws, no keys to lose,” according to the company’s slogan. They were made out of Zytel, a DuPont Company plastic.

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Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com

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