TORONTO (Reuters) - When Courtney Donovan arrived for her Pan American Games roller
figure skating short program and saw people in the stands an hour before the competition she was sure they were lost.
It was an understandable reaction for an athlete who has spent her entire competitive career in virtual obscurity, performing in dark suburban roller arenas in front of a few dozen spectators rather than the standing room only crowd that filled the venue on Sunday to a cheer her sixth place finish.
"When I saw people sitting down an hour before we started skating I knew it was going to be something big," the American said. "I was shocked people were sitting down before I skated, people are sitting down to watch us...oh my gosh.
"That was probably the biggest crowd I have ever skated in front of before in my life.
"A regular competition for me would basically be in a regular roller rink and the crowd might be maybe 20-25 at most.
"We never skate in a big venue like this. The Pan American Games, this is like our Olympics."
The Pan Am Games is as big as it gets for the roller figure skaters, who get to march in opening and closing ceremonies alongside 7,000 other athletes, live in the village and soak up a facsimile of the Olympic experience that for the moment remains a distant dream.
"I felt amazing; I have never had everyone out there cheering for me so there was just a lot of energy out there today," said Canada's Kailah Macri.
"This was just such an awesome experience.
"I have been skating for 15 years and I have never had something like this here. People are interested in it. It has gotten a lot of attention."
Artistically and technically there is little difference between ice and roller figure skating.
The competition includes a short and long program, filled with many of the same elements, spins and jumps performed to the same dramatic soundtracks.
While Canada and the United States can claim a rich figure skating tradition that has produced some of the sport's biggest names like Peggy Fleming and Michelle Kwan, their eight-wheeled counterparts roll on in anonymity.
Macri has represented Canada at the world championships seven times but her efforts have gone largely unnoticed.
The sport enjoys a higher profile and acceptance in South America which has dominated the Pan Am medal podium.
Argentina's Giselle Soler won the gold medal on Sunday, following her sister Elizabeth from four years ago in Guadalajara, while Brazil's Marcel Sturmer captured his fourth consecutive Pan Am title.
"I feel great, I had a fall in the program but that's okay because we are human," said Soler, her elegant and technical routine a clear class above despite a spill.
Despite positive reviews and unprecedented exposure roller figure skating's moment in the spotlight is likely to be brief.
"We don't have an Olympics, so we are fortunate that the Olympic Committee allows us to come in and kind of show off our sport," said Donovan.
"In North America it is really hard to build up our skating clubs, it's hard to keep kids in the sport (when) they see gymnastics, ice skating and they kind of join those and ...stop roller skating."
Editing by Greg Stutchbury