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Like skating without the skates
U.S. News - Nov 9, 1998

Sliding down railings on shoes with an attitude–but how safe can it be?


Are handrails just for holding? Not in the world of alternative sports, where tradition dictates that feet can get you down rails just as well, and even faster. First it was in-line skates and skateboards. Now it's a new kind of sneaker that lets young daredevils seek thrills (and tempt injury) in ever more inventive ways.

Normal sneakers don't allow you to slide because rubber soles create too much resistance. But Soaps, manufactured by a footwear company called Soap based in Torrance, Calif., have a smooth, plastic, concave frame under the arch of the shoe known as a "grindplate" that allows users to slide down surfaces like rails, steps, and ledges because the plastic greatly reduces friction. The plate is easily removable (it's also replaceable), and you don't feel it when you're just walking in the shoes. And because the plates are not obvious, Soaps aren't generally banned in school–unlike skateboards or in-line skates.

Company founder Chris Morris, 35, is a former Rollerblade sales representative who thought the fun of subcultures like skateboarding and in-line skating was being sacrificed as the sports grew more competitive. He sees Soaps as a tool for the casual "grind"–skater slang for sliding down angled objects with defined edges. Rather than something you go out to do, "Soaping" (as devotees call it) is more like something you do when you're out, as Soap spokesman Pat Parnell puts it–a view shared by Mike Matason, 17, of Fairfax, Va. "I'm spontaneous, and if I see something that looks kind of fun, I'll do it," he says.

Sole food. The company launched Soaps a year ago in several markets, including New York and Los Angeles. They cost $80 to $110 a pair and attract kids as young as 8 and as old as the high teens. Soap says it has already sold 220,000 pairs; by the end of the year, it plans to have its nine shoe models in about 1,000 stores across the country–mostly in skate shops that cater to the extreme-sports enthusiast. (Hint: These are the kinds of stores that don't sell Air Jordans.)

Because the shoes are geared toward casual use, medical experts fear injuries among those using them without proper precautions; few kids are likely to have kneepads and helmets handy if they get the whim to slide down the steps at school. Doctors are worried about injuries similar to those from skateboarding and in-line skating, like sprains, fractures, bruises, and cuts, particularly to the wrist and lower arm, elbow, ankle, and head.

And because the shoes are so rigid from the arch to the heel, walking in them regularly could lead to arch, ankle, and knee injuries, says Arnold Ravick, a Washington, D.C., podiatrist. The company says it hasn't heard of any serious injuries, but the shoes come with a sticker saying that peeling it off releases the company from liability for injury or property damage.

In the extreme-sports mainstream, many view the new pursuit with skepticism. "I personally think [Soaping] is going to sort of die out," says Kenny Oyedeji, 19, who publishes 817, an online skating magazine. "There's a lot of criticism, with people saying 'freestyle walking' is kind of pointless–like if skaters are going to skate, they should just get skates."

Matason has run into some other critics as well: Sliding down rails causes skid marks and has earned him reprimands. "Older people will yell at you about it because basically you're destroying property," he says. As for little kids? "They kind of look up to you."
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