Canada's Macri hopes Pan American Games exposure might help grow her sport

TORONTO — Kailah Macri was both pleasantly surprised and a bit puzzled when she walked into Hall B of the Direct Energy Centre on Sunday night to a sold-out crowd.

"I thought 'I don't have that many friends,'" Macri said, laughing.

The 24-year-old from Whitby, Ont., went to finish fourth in roller figure skating at the Pan American Games — a sport that has drawn a crowd of curious fans and journalists, and landed the Canadian on the front page of the Wall Street Journal this week.

"Obviously people are coming out for the sport, and all the media, just because it is different and people don't know. I think that's really cool," Macri said.

Roller figure skating is one of several non-Olympic sports in the Games, and has been a part of every Pan Ams since 1979 — except 1983. There's been a world championship since 1947.

The sport is popular in Latin America. But in Canada, which churns out world-class skaters — of the ice variety — Macri is a rarity. She only had to beat one other skater, in a skate-off in Calgary in May, to qualify for the team.

She's struggled to find coaching and training facilities, and has driven 300 kilometres three times a week from her home in Whitby to Cambridge, Ont., to train. At one point, she trained in a municipal shed in Scarborough, Ont., where the city stored lawn mowers and snowblowers.

Macri, who has competed in seven world championships, retired after finishing fifth four years ago in the Pan Ams in Guadalajara. But the lure of competing at home brought her back to the sport. She hopes showcasing her sport here can help educate Canadians — and perhaps encourage a few kids to try it.

"I've had little kids coming up to me asking where they can take lessons, where they can learn to skate, so definitely increases awareness about the sport because no-one knows about it," Macri said. "Having this competition in Toronto was really great for the sport."

While the sport conjures images of disco balls or roller derby, it's very much like figure skating. Instead of ice and blades, they skate on wheels and lacquered wood.

The jumps — the Axel, the Salchow, the Lutz — are the same. The spins are slightly different. In a 'heel camel,' for instance, the skater spins while balancing only on the back wheels.

Dressed in a bejewelled red dress Sunday night, Macri rolled onto the ice and took her starting pose to thunderous applause at the Direct Energy Centre, normally home to events such as Toronto's Festival of Beer or the One of a Kind craft show.

The Canadian's long program wasn't as solid as she'd hoped as she touched a hand down on her double Axel and triple Salchow, en route to scoring 470.80.

Giselle Soler, an 18-year-old from Argentina, won the gold with 519.70. Talitha Haas of Brazil took the silver, while Marisol Villarroel of Chile won bronze.

Courtney Donovan of the U.S. was sixth, but said she also relished the opportunity to compete in front of a North American crowd.

"This is the surrealest experience for me," Donovan said. "I used to ice skate, I never had aspirations to be in the Olympics, I did the best I could, but there were so many 15-year-olds who were popping off these triples and I thought, 'I'm never going to experience something like that.'

"To be able to come here and to qualify to represent my country was just the hugest honour for me. It's nice to see all these people here."

Macri, meanwhile, hopes to start medical school in the fall of 2016. She plans to compete in the world championships in September in Cali, Colombia, and then likely retire from competing and become a judge or a coach.

Canada didn't have a skater in the men's competition.

The Pan Ams also feature roller speedskating. Canada's team features Valerie Maltais, an Olympic silver medallist in short-track speedskating.

The Canadian Press