Their moves mesmerized. And their passion for roller skating — and for each other — packed a powerful presence.
Earlier this month, Robert and Flora Fitzgerald beat 21 other couples at the USA Roller Sports national competition in Fort Wayne, Ind. The Hayward, Calif., couple won in the veterans division for dance teams age 55 or older. It's their third gold medal.
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"We were so excited that it almost took us off our skates," says Robert, 63, who goes by Bob. His wife is 61 and answers to Flo. "We almost fell over with happiness" after the first-place finish, he exclaims.
In 2008, they also won the veterans division team dance event. And in 2003, they captured the top spot in the premier gold dance final for qualifying adults as young as 25.
The Fitzgeralds' romance began at the roller rink. He was 19; she was 16. Except for his four years in the Navy, the couple, who have been married 42 years, have been inseparable.
"This is special because we've been doing it a long time," says Flo. Skating "makes you use your muscles and your mind."
In sync with each other
Teams are judged primarily on timing, execution of the prescribed patterns and precision of footwork. By the time a competition rolls to a close, they've performed a foxtrot, march, polka, tango and waltz.
The oldest dance-team participant this summer was a 90-year-old man. "Our membership is skating much longer than they used to," says Jane Wojnarowsky, figure-skating director at USA Roller Sports in Lincoln, Neb., and a coach for 35 years.
During the demanding sequence of steps, a couple must remain in constant contact. That can propel a budding romance, but when out of sync, skates can collide and cause falls.
The Fitzgeralds have fallen many times over the years. Bob has fractured his ribs, hand and wrist. Flo has fractured her wrist, elbow, knee, foot, pelvis and back vertebrae. She even hit her face against the floor. At 42, she underwent a total hip replacement.
"I have osteoporosis in advanced stages, but I've kept skating through the years," says Flo, a hospital financial counselor.
"This girl is amazing," says Bob, who retired as a senior traffic engineering aide for a local municipality. "She's superhuman. And there isn't anybody at the national level who doesn't know that already."
Their resilience impresses Bob LaBriola, 80, the couple's coach for a dozen years. "They're very competitive," he observes. "It's a joy teaching them."
LaBriola's half-century of coaching has catapulted 170 couples of all ages to first place. He and his wife of 56 years, Irene, fell in love at a roller rink. So did Bob Fitzgerald's father and stepmother. "I want to win everything I teach, and they share that desire," LaBriola says of the Fitzgeralds.
For three months before the annual competition, the couple fly from their home near San Francisco to the Los Angeles area every weekend to practice with LaBriola, who owns the Fountain Valley Skating Center. Hotel stays augment the expense, but the rewards outweigh any hardships.
Journey to stay fit
The Fitzgeralds have five grandchildren, a bounty of roller-skating friends and many medals. But winning is about more than medals. It's about hard work — the journey on and off wheels to stay fit. During the off season, they turn to power walking and weight lifting while scaling back meal portions.
Their partnership works wonders, as do their individual talents. Flo played the piano as a child, and Bob still plays the trombone. "They're musically inclined," notes the older of their two children, Tracy Magstadt, 41, of Castro Valley, Calif., who skated from about ages 2 to 13. "Timing always came more naturally to them."
Sometimes the going gets rough on roller skates, but they're able to ride it out. "Flo will look at me and say, 'Just dance with me,' " Bob explains. "She draws in all the years of experience we've had together, reminds me how precious it is to dance together as a team, as husband and wife, and how lucky we are to have each other."
It's as if they'll be buried wearing their skates. "We both love this so much," he says. "I would like to be able to do it until the end."
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Susan Kreimer writes about health and medicine.
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