Posted May 7, 2013 by Sam in CLE

Tim Yanko: On a roll

Tim Yanko: Then & Now
Tim Yanko: Then & Now

Tim Yanko was pretty surprised that I wanted to interview him at all. “The fact that you’re here and you’re listening to me talk about roller skating, well, that tickles me,” the Cleveland event planner commented as I snapped shots of his unending array of awards.  But when I heard that he’d been skating for more than 40 years and still competed nationally, I had find out more. What had been a favorite weekend diversion (just imagining the “all skate” announcement backed by Toto’s “Africa” sends me back to my ill-spent youth) felt like it had all but disappeared from the pop culture scene.  But, I discovered in visiting Tim that there are still kids who regularly meet at the rink and legions who continue to love and live the sport. We met at the spacious Brookpark Skateland—gloriously equipped with a disco ball and dj booth—where Tim was just finishing a lesson with one of his “stars.”

When did you start skating?
I was seven. My little sister’s girlfriend who lived across the street was an only child. Her mother always did really fun stuff and included us. She was taking the girls for class skating on Saturday and I just always went along. I was like her brother too. Classes ended when school started, but we returned the following year. That’s when the teacher, Judy, said, “Stand up. I want to talk to your mother.” I thought I was in trouble, but she actually wanted me to have individual lessons. My mother couldn’t really afford to give me lessons so she babysat for Judy because all her kids were little at the time. It was Judy who gave me my first pair of skates.  She’s still my coach today.

Did you like it from the beginning?
Oh, I loved it. I lived it. That became my second home. I have been at Brookpark Skatepark since 1967. I am a very “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” kind of guy. I am also extremely loyal. It’s a family-owned business that’s considered one of the nicest in the country. It’s definitely one of the cleanest and well-managed.

Roller skating has risen and fallen in popularity . . .
Oh, it’s definitely fallen. When I was younger and competing there were eliminations and semi-finals and finals. There would be maybe 60 teams in my event at the start and they would have to bring that down to like 20 teams then maybe 8 before they got to a point where they could pick the winners. Now you’re lucky if you even have 10 or 12 teams at nationals.

Younger skaters compete and when they win and become champions they decide to go off and try soccer or something. Nobody seems to stick with things the way they used to.

How do they break down the competition, is age a factor?
For sure. It is all done by age. You start out primary and move on to elementary, juvenile, freshman, sophomore and then you get us old people in there with, you know, novice, esquire, veteran and then golden . Whoo, right? I think that’s 70 and older. Overall it’s pretty evenly distributed; there are as many youth as there adults skating. But it’s the world [competition] where the sport is really hurting. We don’t have a lot of world-class skaters representing the US there and that’s a problem.  Younger skaters compete and when they win and become champions they decide to go off and try soccer or something. Nobody seems to stick with things the way they used to.

Tell me a little more about what goes into a competition.
In terms of music, we skate to foxtrots, tangos, waltzes, blues, boogies . . . The judges look at the whole performance. They look at things like timing – you have to be in time when you’re dancing or forget it, pattern, how well you do your steps. When my partner Dena [Beder] and I skate we look like we’re just one. We just move like that. We’re in unison.

Couldn’t they up the ante on the music a little?
They’re trying to get it so we don’t have to skate to organ music anymore, but that would kill me.

So, dish a bit about competition day. It seems like it could be kind of nasty—you know, like a pageant, almost.
I wish I could find someone to follow and do a documentary. I think it is fascinating. We all have our rituals. Dena and I really don’t talk to the outside world. We get in this mode. We don’t want to know what’s going on at home or in the world or with our parents. I guess it gets me focused and skating, well, I guess it’s one of the few things in my life I can say is just for me. I’m a giver by nature, I think, but this is something that’s mine.

Oh, but during competition, everyone plays head games.

Even in your age range?
That’s where it’s the worst. The little ones just like each other and they don’t really care so much. The adults are the ones that are, oh, they’re evil. It’s like one big happy family of skaters until we get out on the floor, then it’s cutthroat. And I’m just as bad

Do you win anything when you compete? Is there a cash award?
No. You get medals. You get the honor. But we’re not getting rich at this . . . at all.

What does it cost to do this?
I am not going to tell you it’s cheap. There are lessons. Then there are fees to compete in say, regionals. And there is the cost of driving down there. Of course you have to stay somewhere and you also have to eat for five days. Oh, and now that I am teaching, when I go to nationals I am there for weeks. I start with the little ones at the beginning and end up with the adults toward the end. I was in stinkin’ Lincoln for 16 days last year.

Dena and I have no kids and no animals.We can spend our money on Swarovski crystals we slap all over ourselves.

What about the outfits? Do you buy those the same place that an ice skater might?
You can go online and there are skating skirts and things like that, but we have women who sew for ours. I mean, who wants to be caught in something that was commercially available, to look like someone else?  Dena and I have no kids and no animals.We can spend our money on Swarovski crystals we slap all over ourselves. I am not glitzy in my daily life, but boy am I glitzy when I get on that skating rink. It’s almost like an alter ego. I can show you some of my stuff. I actually toned myself down considerably.

So you coach others as well as compete?
Yeah. I’ve met some of my skaters at competitions. Others I’ve found through classes. You know right away who can do it and who can’t. You absolutely tell who has talent by observing a class. And so far this year Dena and I have competed three times so far and our regional championships are coming up in June and nationals in July and the beginning of August.

What’s the biggest award you personally have ever won?
National champion, first place.

How many times?
A couple of times.


How long have you and Dena been partners and what’s the dynamic there?
We’ve been together 11 years; this will be our 10th nationals. It’s a little like a marriage, we are together so much. Dwight [my non-skating real-life partner] understands that. I guess we’re a modern-day family, we just don’t have any kids yet.

How did you two meet?
At nationals, that’s where the whole community comes together. I have a very good friend Laura who is also a skater. Laura competed against Dena in figures. I found out that Dena left her longtime skating partner, but it was too late. I always thought we’d be good together. Then, when she and this other partner were getting fourth or whatever after two years together, he left. She called me then and asked if I’d consider come to Florida for a tryout. I said, “Sure.” I mean, my buddies were in Fort Lauderdale where she was at the time and I thought, “Fort Liquordale? Can’t be a bad trip.” We skated around at a little rink there and her coach said we were a good match. We went on to beat her previous partner right away. He was in sixth or something and we were on the podium; we got bronze at nationals the first year we skated together.

Do you ever worry that Dena will want to quit and you won’t have a partner someday?
Yeah, I do worry about that. We’ve talked about it. If that happens, we’re done. I mean, I won’t stop teaching, but I won’t go out there looking for a new partner. I won’t find another one like her. I won’t find another person as devoted as I am or who loves it as much as I do.

Did you ever consider hanging it up?
There was a point in my late teens or early twenties where I took a break, yeah. But it turns out it’s in my blood and I can’t help it. I went right back.

What’s your biggest strength as a skater?
My dance. I’m a dancing figure skater. I never cared to jump and spin. I did it, of course, but I really like to express myself in dance. I was trained that way. And I love my figures because that’s just me. Nobody’s talking. There’s no music. There’s no timing. I shut everything off and it’s just me and the line.


Sam is live-music -loving vegetarian communications professional with an entertainment, travel and tourism background. A restless soul, Sam believes in getting out there and doing things because you only go around once but knows she could benefit from a little more sleep. Give her a reason to see a movie, catch a concert or explore a new destination at [email protected].