Something for the Fleet of Foot

Teddy Gelman of Gaithersburg tries to master using Heelys. The 11-year-old caught himself before falling. Brother Sam, 8, treads with caution.
Teddy Gelman of Gaithersburg tries to master using Heelys. The 11-year-old caught himself before falling. Brother Sam, 8, treads with caution. (Photos By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 21, 2007

They're hard to spot, those Heely kids.

Although millions of Heelys have been sold around the world, turning the sneakers with wheels into a must-have accessory for the grade-school set, you seldom notice a child wearing them until . . . THERE'S ONE! . . . Over there, b y the giant fridge !

Like magic, 8-year-old Anthony Viera has shifted from walking to rolling on the wheels inside his shoes. It's as though he's floating as he zigzags past kitchen appliances, fishtails down another aisle where his grandfather is pricing air conditioners and then -- aye yi yi -- swerves near a display of big-screen, big-ticket TVs.

No one pays him any mind on a recent night at the Fair Oaks Mall, which is fine by him.

"One time, when I went to Home Depot, they told me to stop rolling," said Anthony, a third-grader at Cub Run Elementary School in Centreville. "They think you're going to knock things down."

A fad for some and an annoyance for others, Heelys have hit their stride just in time for summer. Last year, the company, Heelys Inc., had more than $188 million in sales, compared with $21.3 million two years earlier. But, alas, a backlash has set in as some worry whether the sneakers-on-wheels are safe. Some schools, malls and other public places have banned them.

For a company with about 40 employees, Texas-based Heelys has created a worldwide craze since the shoes hit the market in 2000. Many sporting goods and shoe stores carry them. A pair of multicolor Gelato-style Heelys at Finish Line in the Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax will set you back $99.99.

"When they first came out, they hit the market just fierce," said Finish Line assistant manager David Holy, 20, of Manassas. "I've had people in their 30s come in and ask to buy them."

But malls aren't just places to purchase the shoes. They're considered awesome places to wear them.

Look around the average shopping center and you're liable to see a child between 6 and 14 gliding along on wheeled sneakers, perhaps in tow as her mother holds her hand and dashes around on errands.

At Potomac Mills mall in Prince William County, security guards hand out warnings to children who are heeling recklessly. Those who continue heeling wildly are asked to leave. The mall adopted the policy in February after some customers complained about children rolling into them, spokeswoman Caroline Barry said.

World Against Toys Causing Harm, a Boston-based nonprofit group, puts Heelys on its 2006 "10 Worst Toys" list, and two medical studies, including one this month in the journal Pediatrics, have warned of their possible hazards. A 12-year-old Massachusetts boy died in March 2006. Two boys elsewhere were critically injured while wearing wheeled sneakers, though it is not clear whether the shoes were to blame.

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