Caroline Mirelli’s professional career as a world-touring roller figure skater began in 1947 at age 17. Today, age 88, this Hall-of-Famer is still getting up at 5 am seven days a week to teach classes, choreograph shows, and coach national champions.
A petite woman with a huge presence, she moves about East End Skating Center quickly, juggling the needs of students and parents with aplomb. This super-ager has been on the go her entire life and has no plans to retire.
“I don’t feel 88,” she says. “God is good. Two years ago, I fell down while skating and broke my pelvis in three places. I finished the rehab program and came right back, though I did stop teaching on skates because I have all these little kids around me.”
In addition to children’s classes at both Cordova and East End Skating Centers, Coach Caroline teaches private lessons for adults and youngsters. “On Sunday,” she says. “I start with church, then I teach. I don’t have a single day off, but I love it!”
Born in Chicago in 1930, Caroline started skating at age nine, when her ballet teacher took 10 students to the rink to try ballet on wheels. She was the only one in her class who continued.
“That was during the depression,” she recalls. “There were five kids in our family, and nobody had any money. I used to take my little red wagon around the neighborhood and collect milk bottles and soda bottles to trade in for the money to skate.”
Her determination paid off in 1947 when she landed her first professional job in a touring show called “The Skating Vanities.” She had to drop out of high school and pack a trunk for Europe shortly before graduation.
“It was only two years after World War II,” she explains. “We crossed the Atlantic on a warship that had been converted for passengers. The choreographer had us put our skates on and practice on the deck. Everyone got seasick, so we never did it again!”
The war-weary audiences were very receptive. “For many people, we were the first entertainment after the war. Those people were so down and yet so happy to see our performances with the colorful costumes and great music. They treated all of us like stars.”
True to her nature, Caroline Mirelli worked hard and moved from a chorus position to a fill-in for the soloist. “I did everything I could to make extra money,” she says. “I worked my way into being the ‘swing girl,’ which meant I could do everybody’s routine––even the star’s. At one point, the star had to go home for a family emergency, and I took over for her.”
Money, travel, and applause were only part of the adventure. She also met her husband during that first tour––a handsome speed skater who had caught her eye. Caroline smiles mischievously, “I went to a meet in Michigan where he won a great, big trophy. I turned to my mother and said, ‘That’s who I’m going to marry!’” The handsome speed skater ended up joining their show. “There were pretty girls on our tour. I’d tell them, ‘Stay away from him, he’s my man!’ We went together for five years, and got married one day in Dallas between the morning and afternoon shows.”
Three years later, in 1956, the couple left the tour to have a baby, Toni Lynn, who only lived 10 days. They eventually moved to Whitehaven and opened Skate Haven on Brooks Road. Still longing for a child, in 1972, when Caroline was 42 and Tony was 51, they adopted their daughter, Kelli. They lost a family member in October of 1991 when her husband died of mesothelioma.
Ever positive and resilient, Caroline went on to lead an impressive number of competitive skaters to national victories. In 1996, she was inducted into the roller skating hall of fame. She continues to build champions. Her two students, Douglas Whealon and Cora Stafford, returned from the national competition in Lincoln, Neb. in early August with gold medals in pairs skating.
When asked to share her secrets to longevity, she cites her devotion to the Bible and prayer more than anything else. “My diet is ordinary,” she adds. “My staples are milk, coffee, bread and butter, orange juice, pizza, loaded baked potatoes, and lasagna. Of course, I never sit still. I’m always moving.” Caroline also speaks about purpose. “The day I brought my daughter home, the grass was suddenly greener and the skies were brighter because I had someone to take care of. I’m at my best when I’m taking care of others. At 88, I could be in a nursing home or walking around with a cane, but God has blessed me.”
Coach Caroline has no plans to retire and is still taking students, whose ages range from toddlerhood to senior citizenship. If interested in learning to skate, contact her through East End Skating Center at 901.363.7785.
By Caroline Sposto
Photo by Tindall Stephens