Rollerblade pioneer Scott Olson reinvents the wheel

Thirty years after his initial success, Olson keeps aiming for the stars

To find Scott Olson these days, you have to go out to the middle of nowhere.

Forty miles west of Minneapolis in Waconia, one dirt road leads to another. At the end is a grove of trees and a nearly hidden but imposing metal gate that requires a pass code for entry. The gate yawns dramatically, revealing another dirt road canopied by trees.

Scott Olson with his pedal-powered Skyride prototype
Bre McGee
Scott Olson with his pedal-powered Skyride prototype
The Olson family in 1985
courtesy of Scott Olson
The Olson family in 1985

This dark tunnel stretches on for a disconcertingly long time until a looming barn suddenly comes into view. Two donkeys calmly nibble at the grass while dozens of chickens peck at the dirt, but it's soon very clear that this is no ordinary farm.

Brightly colored oddities are scattered around the property. At the end of the driveway is a fully made bed encased in a clear plastic dome. A cartoonishly oversized ping-pong table, emblazoned with the words "Kong Pong," squats in the middle of the yard. A strange-looking bike with a scull-boat seat leans propped in its own corner. Giant plastic penguins stand sentry over the massive yard.

Though all of these things are bizarre, the impression they give is nothing compared to what's at the farthest end of the property: a massive track hanging 12 feet off the ground and spanning a seventh of a mile in loop. A small aerodynamic capsule hangs suspended from the track. "Skyride: Come fly with me," someone has painted in neat light-blue script on the dark green track. It's an amusement-park ride, mysteriously deposited in the prairie.

Scott Olson is nowhere in sight, but the barn — the only building on the property besides a chicken coop and a couple of tiny sheds — has been left wide open. Inside, more contraptions are scattered everywhere, though half of the barn has been converted into a three-story living space. It's eerily quiet, and though Olson's name is called many times, no one answers.

Then, after several minutes, Olson suddenly emerges from a door behind the staircase, bare-chested and wearing a brightly colored, ankle-skimming sarong, the kind women typically use to cover up at the beach.

"Hi, I'm Scotty O," he says, smiling brightly and shaking hands. "This is an informal meeting, right?"

At 52, Olson is in better shape than most people 30 years younger. He's tan from an entire summer spent outdoors and leanly muscled from decades of intense workouts. He speaks in a slow California-surfer-meets-Minnesota-farm-boy drawl, and has the shaggy blond hair to match.

He digs a T-shirt out of a disheveled closet, puts it on, and immediately begins chattering about all of his inventions.

The sleeper in the driveway is a "Lunar Bed," elevated and covered with a transparent dome for sleeping under the stars. "Kong Pong" is a more sprawling game of ping-pong, which is even more fun when played on ice skates. The penguins are the winter version of pink flamingos.

These are mostly the ideas he hasn't spent all that much time marketing, although he sold the penguin idea to a company that continues to manufacture them, after making sure there was a clause in the contract that allows him to receive a few free penguins each year.

On the other hand, the Rowbike — the strange contraption with the scull-boat seat — made him some respectable money and now belongs to a company out in California. The bike, which is powered by a rowing motion rather than pedaling, is mostly popular with men over 50 and serious athletes who want a full-body workout, Olson says.

He leads the way down a narrow staircase to a huge basement-level shop where a couple of men in safety goggles are engineering capsules that look much like the one hanging from the track outside.

"These are for the Skyride," Olson says, breezing past the workers as though the Skyride hasn't been his obsession for the past decade.

At the moment, Olson is on the hunt for his oldest invention, the one that made all the others possible. He wanders into another room and comes back with something very mundane-looking in his hands. It's a beat-up brown leather skate, with four orange wheels arranged in a row. Olson waves it around nonchalantly.

"This is the first prototype for Rollerblades."

Olson prefers the term "entrepreneur" to "inventor."

He's careful to point out that he didn't actually invent the inline skate (which dates back to the Netherlands in the 1700s), but that he and his younger brother Brennan simply tinkered with the design of an existing skate and brought that modified design to the market, which eventually exploded with a demand so great that Rollerblades became a household name and Time magazine named it one of the 100 coolest products of the 20th century.

Olson also doesn't like to be known as the "Rollerblade guy," but he still remembers the first time he saw an inline skate.

It was 1978 and he was 17 and back home for the first time after playing junior-league hockey in Canada. He had five Siberian husky puppies in his truck that he had brought across the border in hopes of selling them for a profit. He was always coming up with unusual ways to make money, selling Swedish snow shovels purchased wholesale, hawking terrariums he filled with plants and insects, and even taking up taxidermy for a brief stint when he learned he could make 50 bucks a bird.

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