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Local speed skaters prep for Nationals

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- Jayden Watts points to an area across the rink at Stardust Skate Center.

"It was right over there," she says. "That's where I lost my first tooth. ... I ran into that wall."

Jayden's partially toothless grin reveals a gap where the aforementioned tooth once resided.

"She's tough," Jayden's dad, Jason Watts, grins with a mixture of pride and admiration. "But she loves to skate. She has no fear. She jumped right up and got back out there on the floor."

Jayden, who is 7, and her 9-year-old brother, Tanner, were destined to be "rink rats," those kids who live to lace on the skates and go full bore. Their parents, Jason and Cheryl Dodge Watts, do -- after all -- manage the skate center that their grandfather, Evard Dodge, opened back in 1981. But even the proud parents had no idea just how well their kids would take to the sport.

As part of the GT Speed in-line skating team, Jayden has finished second in her age division in the Roller Skating Association national championships. And Tanner has a fifth-place national finish on his resume.

The Watts kids are part of the Stardust-sponsored GT Speed team that, in spite of a relatively low profile, has some of the nation's best in-line skaters. In fact, team coach Bubba Fells says there are a number of potential national champions on the team.

"Of the 25 or so we have on our team, we've got between seven and 10 who are pretty sure bets to qualify for nationals," Fells, who started skating when he was 16 to "keep out of trouble," said. "Certainly there are some who are part of the team for recreation or fun, but we have some serious skaters, too. Their goal is to eventually make it to the world team.

"Some of them, if they continue to work the way they are now, definitely have what it takes."

The Watts kids -- who were "skating about the time they started to walk," according to their father -- and others in the area joined the Columbus-based GT Speed team coached by local skating legend Yamill Collazo five years ago, but when the rink used by the team shut down, the operation moved to Albany's Stardust Skate Center.

Fells, who was employed at Cooper Tire in Albany and had skated until recently for a speed skating team in Tennessee, came on board to work with the GT team.

The local skaters compete in seven area events -- in Cedartown, Warner Robins, Columbus, Rome, Albany and other cities -- and accumulate points, but those events are merely preparation for the Southern Regionals, held in May each year in Port Richey, Fla.

"The kids enjoy going to the area events to compete, but skating is not like baseball or football," Jason Watts said. "They train pretty much all year for one thing: to do well enough at the regional meet to qualify for nationals.

"There's no immediate gratification where they get the chance to play a game every week. They've got to be really dedicated to train for that one shot."

At the Regionals, skaters compete over three days in short, intermediate, long and outdoor events. The four atletes in various age groups who accumulate the most points qualify for nationals, scheduled for Fort Wayne, Ind.

"It takes years to get to a point where you're ready to compete at nationals," Jason Watts said. "Kids have a lot of distractions, and it's tough to find ones who are dedicated to do the work required."

William Morales, another of the GT Speed team's young stars, has also placed nationally.

"Skating has meant a lot to some of our kids," Cheryl Watts said. "We've had kids on our team who've turned their lives around -- one was failing in school and now makes all A's and B's. One was headed down the wrong road, and he's completely gone the other way.

"The kids are together practicing three or four times a week, and they become like another family. It's a really neat thing to see."

Fells calls Stardust a "phenomenal facility" for the GT Speed team's training. The team usually works three practice sessions around Stardust's regular schedule: Tuesdays (family night) from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Fridays (night skate) from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturdays (party day) with sessions from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.; as well as Sundays (family day and jam night) from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., respectively.

"Our kids love being a part of the skate team, but skating is a great -- and inexpensive -- family activity," Jason Watts said. "Kids get away from bad influences and build positive relationships.

"This is one of our family businesses, but we don't really do this so much for the business as we do to provide kids in the area something fun and positive to do."

Not that it's all fun and games.

"Who're you gonna beat at nationals this year?" Watts asks his daughter as she comes over to pick up a bottle of water during a recent practice break.

"Tiana Turner," Jayden replies, her smile disappearing.

Asked who she's talking about, the 7-year-old replies, "She's the one who beat me at nationals. I'm going after her this year."

And nothing -- not even a tooth-jolting wall -- is going to get in the way.