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Iowa City’s inflatable roller-skating animal brigade lifts spirits during COVID-19 crisis

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“A T-rex and a unicorn roller-skate down the street” sounds like the set-up for a silly joke. In Iowa City, it’s a delightful reality at a time when fun distractions are as good as gold.

The minds and skating talents behind the costumes are Laura Claps (the T-rex) and Sara Montgomery (the unicorn), Iowa City residents, partners and 10-year roller derby players. Both nonessential workers, it wasn’t long into social distancing before the couple began to feel helpless.

“It’s been a tough time for us to cope with the isolation that we’re feeling,” Claps said of the COVID-19 pandemic. “A lot of unknowns, a lot of mystery, a lot of people losing their jobs.”

“We were sitting on the couch watching the news and feeling pretty overwhelmed and [Sara] said, ‘You know, tomorrow we should just put these costumes on and skate around and just wave,'” Claps explained. “Really our target audience was kids who are at home, sitting in the window just kind of looking out, not really able to go visit with friends or leave the house or do much of anything that’s in their normal routine.”

“We have a house full of costumes, so it wasn’t hard to come up with what we needed, and we already know how to skate, so we just threw the stuff on the next day and headed out the door, and it’s just gotten an incredible reaction from the community, kids and adults included.”

Since the pair began skating around various Iowa City neighborhoods the week of March 23, videos of them gliding, spinning and waving in their inflatable costumes have been shared hundreds of times on social media, reaching people around the state, country and even other continents.

Look what Puck and I came across on 7th Ave this afternoon! Those are skating chops.

Posted by Liz Crooks on Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Comments on the videos and photos are often effusive: “Well there’s something to smile about.” “I’m literally in tears from the good humanness of it!!” “This made my day looking out my 2nd story window during [a] depressing time.”

“It’s kind of caught on a little bit like wildfire,” Claps said. “Through different forms of social media we’ve gotten pictures taken, videos taken and just so many shares and so much enjoyment. We enjoy watching people react to it and I think people really enjoy seeing us out and about.”

Before long, they invited other current and former Old Capitol City Roller Derby teammates to join their daily skates (in costume, of course): On Thursday, April 2, Claps’ T-rex and Montgomery’s unicorn were joined by Lisa Edwards as a rotund black cat and Diane Williams, in all green wearing big Hulk hands. (Other days, the group has included a sloth, shark or poop emoji; Claps said they try to keep their numbers at five or less to more easily maintain social distancing.)

As they skated up and down Reno Street in northern Iowa City, they quickly captured the attention of a daycare group, a couple with a 2-year-old son and a retired nurse (“I love that!” the 78-year-old woman said. “Do you think I’m too old for roller derby?”). Bikers waved and cars honked as they passed the skaters.

“The other day when we went out someone biked past us and said, ‘You know, my friend in the U.K. sent us a video of you guys,'” Edward said. “It’s gotten around!”

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“It’s strange. It’s great,” Claps said of going viral. “I love that people are enjoying it and spreading the cheer. If we can make more people smile through silly viral videos, let’s do it!”

In the past couple weeks, the skaters have taken requests to skate for kids’ birthday “parties,” showing up on their streets to offer a bit of entertainment.

“We look forward to it every day,” Claps said. “It just lifts our spirits and it’s something that brings energy to us while we’re [social distancing]. It’s honestly kept us afloat in a lot of ways. Literally, inflated!”

People can request appearances by the group by reaching out to theskatinginflatables@gmail.com.

Laura Claps breaks for an interview on Reno Street in Iowa City, Thursday, April 2, 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

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