Rolling Along in Obscurity : Dezera Salas won a gold medal in freestyle roller skating, but few would recognize the world champion of a much-ignored sport.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dezera Salas of Port Hueneme just became a world champion athlete, but don't expect to see her face on a box of Wheaties anytime soon.

Her gold medal at the 39th freestyle roller-skating championships late last month in Salsomaggiore, Italy, won't translate into any big checks for product endorsements. No fat appearance fees. No autograph hounds.

For Salas, obscurity knocks. She is virtually unknown even in Ventura County, a sort of roller-skating Mecca that has produced half a dozen national champions.

"They televised the finals every night in Italy, so I did lots of autograph signing there," she said. Then, in a tone of long-suffering acceptance, she added, "The sport is much bigger in Europe than here."

Skate Palace in Oxnard, where Salas teaches, has contributed several skaters to the U.S. and world championship teams. But the only camera crews to appear outside its doors in the sketchy south Oxnard neighborhood came to film segments for "Emergency 911" and "Cops" at the police substation next door.

"It's so unfair," lamented one roller-skating proponent. "We do the same thing figure skaters do--salchows, camels, lutzes--you name it. Only we do it with skates that weigh three times as much."

And yet the clunky cousin of figure skating slouches from one international competition to another, searching for respect. While the media crown an American ice-skating sweetheart every four years, roller skaters can't get their picture in a mug book.

As in figure skating, roller skaters are graded on appearance and degree of difficulty as they perform routines to music. Freestyle roller skates are the traditional four-wheel variety. In-line skates are fine for speed skaters and the ruffians who play roller hockey, but you can't spin on an in-line skate.

Despite the relative obscurity in which freestyle skaters train and compete, at least someone is watching. Ice skaters regularly borrow moves from them.

"Dick Button didn't do the first triple," said Ken Doyle, a former U.S. champion who works at Skate Palace. "It was done on roller skates six years before."

Rivalry between the two sports isn't always collegial.

"They're kind of snobby," Salas said of ice skaters. "But I guess they have the right to be. They're making money."

True enough. Although there's hardly a dime's worth of difference between the routines that roller skaters and ice skaters perform in competition, millions of dollars separate what they can expect to fetch in the marketplace.

Nancy Kerrigan lined up endorsements worth nearly $10 million from Disney, Reebok, Revlon and Campbell Soup. Kristi Yamaguchi pulled down an estimated $2 million in similar deals.

Salas' title win will net her a $2,500 grant from an amateur athletic association. She could apply for more grants through other associations, but she says the most she can reasonably expect to gain is $10,000, about enough to cover one year's training expenses for a title it took her 15 years to win.

LITTLE GLAMOUR

Dezera (pronounced Desiree) started taking lessons at age 7. When she turned 14, she started training with Tom Davis, another former U.S. champion who works at Skate Palace.

Expenses for lessons, travel and equipment totaled $700 to $800 a month, and when the baseball card store the family owns in Goleta didn't generate enough money, Dezera's father worked two more jobs.

"We did without a lot of things," said Dezera's mother, Diana Salas. "Her lessons got paid before our mortgage, and the lessons usually cost more."

Any regrets that their daughter didn't choose ice-skating?

"She tried ice-skating, but it never occurred to us or her to change over."

So Kerrigan gets about a million bucks to sit under klieg lights and slurp Campbell Soup while Dezera Salas pays retail for the Wendy's chicken nuggets she eats from a dimly lit picnic table at the rink.

Salas does earn $30 a hour for coaching other skaters and she has had success there, too. She is the youngest coach to have produced a national champion--one of her students won the elementary division (for girls 10 to 12 years old) in 1992.

On a good week she earns about $600--pretty fair coin, she admits. But as a world champion ice skater she could charge at least twice that for private lessons.

There are other differences apart from the money.

Visitors to the Skate Palace are immediately met with the smell of urethane, a chemical coating periodically applied to the maple wood floor. It's an odor unmistakably associated with bowling alleys and the connection hardly seems accidental.

Like bowling, roller-skating is a volksport : inexpensive and accessible.

It's Ping-Pong rather than lawn tennis. Over cocktails and a cigarette at a popular Oxnard bar, Salas further explained what distinguishes her sport.

"Figure skaters have to do major training both on and off the floor. They run, swim, work out. We really don't." She said she trains by skating her routine and little else.

Tonya Harding should have been a roller skater. She loved to nip out after practice for a beer and a smoke.

What's more, roller-skating is just a heck of a lot noisier than figure skating, which possesses that delicate "schoosh . . . schoosh . . . schoosh" of metal against ice. It's such a clean, attractive sound that audio engineers aim microphones at the rink to capture the effect for broadcast.

Roller skates, on the other hand, rumble slightly and when a skater jumps, the landing is punctuated with a graceless "THUNK."

Far worse is the unattractive noise wheels make when they are dragged sideways. It's a loud, low-frequency vibration that sounds like the fallout from a chili cook-off.

RESURGENT POPULARITY

Despite those telegenic liabilities, Andy Seeley, spokesman for the U.S. Amateur Confederation of Roller Skating in Lincoln, Neb., said the confederation is trying to make freestyle roller-skating an Olympic event.

It has already made it into both the Pan American and World Games, but Seeley said it's unlikely to be included in the Olympics before the year 2000.

Even in-line skaters are higher in the Olympic pecking order. Roller hockey was added as a demonstration sport at the 1992 summer games in Barcelona, and speed skaters are likely to be added next.

But there are signs that roller-skating is regaining some of the popularity it lost 15 years ago when roller disco, the bastard child of freestyle skating, fell out of vogue.

"When disco hit in the '70s, roller-skating got really popular," said former U.S. champ Davis. "I used to work at the rink in Reseda where all the stars like Cher came. After disco died there was a big decline."

In the intervening years, roller-skating has made something of a recovery.

The number of roller skaters in the United States now totals 32.6 million--up from 30 million in 1990, according to estimates by the Roller Skating Assns., a promotional group made up of more than 1,100 skating-center operators nationwide.

All of which should translate into more students for Salas, who had planned to retire after the championship and concentrate on teaching.

"The Pan Am games are in March, so I might as well compete in those," she said. "I'm 22, so the Olympics are out of the question for me, but I'm already planning for my students."

Lacing 'Em Up in the County

Whether you want to skate like a pro or go around in circles until you're dizzy, there are three places in the county to lace 'em up:

If you're a freestyle skater, you might have a tough time finding a floor to skate on in the evening; the explosion of roller hockey takes up lots of floor time around the county.

"Hockey players get priority," said world champion Dezera Salas. "There's more of them and they're bigger than us."

League nights vary from place to place. Call first.

* Skate Palace, 451 W. Hueneme Road, Oxnard, 488-6444

* Roller Gardens, 2731 Buckaroo Ave., Oxnard, 648-5380

* Skating Plus, 1728 Mesa Verde Ave., Ventura, 656-2120

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