Bending gravity for fun and profit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WOODWARD, Pa. -- It's move-in day at Woodward Camp, and the veteran boys in Cabin 18-B are observing time-honored camp traditions: swapping stories about how to dodge the cabin-inspecting "mini-moms," laughing about the French-speaking camper they taught to say "I am a sex machine" last year.

The guys are also talking sports.

But there's no mention of Kobe Bryant, the White Sox, or going out for the football team.

This being Woodward Camp -- the world's biggest "extreme sports" camp -- they're talking nollies and grinds, about ways they've bent gravity on Woodward's 425 acres of dirt moguls, wooden ramps, and foam-rubber pits, about the joys of being outlaw athletes in training.

"One thing I can't stand about organized sports is you have to be there every day for practice," says Aaron Covaleski, a well-mannered 14-year-old with bright blue hair. He's one of 522 campers, ages 7 to 18, who have paid $685 for a week of instruction in how to skitch a skateboard across the edge of a picnic table and perfect other life-threatening stunts their parents won't let them perform at home.

"Skateboarding," he says, "has no rules, and you can keep making things up."

In an age when the big leagues are losing young fans, "lifestyle" sports such as boarding and biking that blend attitude with athletics are winning their hearts -- and dollars.

Sales of extreme sports gear and clothing top $5 billion a year by one estimate and are growing fast. Two television networks produce their own made-for-TV extreme Olympics, awarding millions of dollars in prize money for sporting events that didn't exist five years ago.

Woodward Camp, set in a sleepy Allegheny Mountain valley in central Pennsylvania, has become the epicenter of an alternative sports movement.

Last summer, Woodward drew 10,000 youths from 23 countries, a record it will break this year.

Not surprisingly, its success has attracted the attention of the Walt Disney Corp., a consumer colossus well aware of the multibillion-dollar purchasing potential of thrill-seeking adolescents. Over the past month, lucrative partnerships have been announced that will see Disney's ESPN finance new Woodward camps around the country and, maybe, overseas.

Other deals are in the offing, and Woodward's trademarked black-and-yellow logo will appear this year on action figures, model toys and collectible cards.

"There is no place like this in the world," says Cesar Mora, a professional inline skater from Australia who trains at Woodward. "There are places that are trying, but they haven't made it."

Seeking a new business

It took an international incident to turn Woodward Camp into an extreme sports nirvana.

The former dairy farm started as a gymnastics camp in 1970 and did fine until 1980, when the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games set off an eight-year drought of prime-time attention for the sport.

"We went looking for a new business," camp president Gary Ream explains. One of the few sports not already served by camps was off-road bicycling, or BMX.

In 1982, Woodward opened a winding dirt ramp for bikers. It was a hit, and soon wooden ramps and indoor facilities were added. Woodward officials noticed campers on the ramps with skateboards and, in 1987, that sport was formally added to the curriculum. Five years later, inline skating was included.

Then came the "X-Games," the made-for-TV competition that turned ragtag skaters and bikers into superstars and spawned a huge growth of interest in extreme sports.

Now, campers such as Aaron, the blue-haired 14-year-old, come to Woodward to learn new stunts and hang out with like-minded cultural rebels. Many dream of someday turning pro, emulating Tony Hawk, a 32-year-old skateboarding icon who earns millions endorsing products and selling video games, skateboards and other merchandise bearing his name.

"Who wouldn't?" says Aaron. "It would be a dream come true."

Like virtually all the other skateboarders here, Aaron has been shooed by police from parks where jumping on benches or screeching down railings is prohibited. A popular T-shirt at Woodward expresses the sport's outlaw sensibility: "Skateboarding is not a crime."

At Woodward, it's anything but. From dawn to dusk, the clunky grating of boards and tiny wheels fills the air. Picnic tables and benches are made of steel to make them easier to ride. Reinforced railings, too low to be of use to pedestrians, line the sidewalks and bear the scratches of boarders' repeated "slides" and "grinds."

At the first evening's orientation, the extreme campers, most of them boys, have to be reminded that they aren't alone here this week: training on the other side of camp are 180 gymnasts, mostly girls. Those athletes live in a world of comparative order filled with intense coaches, compulsory routines and regimented drills.

Not so on the extreme-sports side of camp. Some of the spike-haired extremists resent even the camp's minimal mandatory daily instruction, which eats about 2 1/2 hours of daylight that could be spent riding, skating and hanging out.

"You can't teach skateboarding," gripes Zack Chestnut, 14, of Pelham, N.Y. "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard of."

Instructors such as laid-back, aspiring pro Jeff Byrd take such impatience in stride.

"Some of these kids don't want to learn," he says. "They are set on being street skaters. Some want to learn everything."

Part of the problem for teachers is how fast the techniques change. Advances don't come from coaches poring over computer-enhanced videotapes but from kids sneaking into construction sites and pushing the limits of gravity.

"The level of skateboarding has gone up so much over the past few years," says Jesse Weinstein, Woodward's 23-year-old skateboard director. "Kids used to see a curb and skate it. Now kids see people doing 12-foot verts and skating the gnarliest railings, and say, 'I want to try that.'"

Possible catastrophe

Riding gnarly railings is not without risk, of course. That's why the camp's application carries a frightening warning that notes the risk of "catastrophic injuries," including "permanent paralysis or even death from landings or falls on the back, neck or head."

So far, Ream says, no such catastrophes have occurred. Lawsuits have been few and far between, but every week sees plenty of broken bones and trips to the hospital for X-rays. Camp staffers drill regularly with a helicopter crew from a nearby trauma center just to be ready.

Derrick Robinson, an 18-year-old from Rensselaer, N.Y., is back this year after losing the tip of a finger in a skateboarding accident last summer. Woodward gave him the week for free.

Considering the number of hours spent on wheels at Woodward, the injury rate is no worse than that of other organized sports, Ream says. Besides, campers would be doing the same things at home but without supervision -- and in traffic.

"Most kids have a great thing going for them, and it's called self-preservation," he says.

The camp strictly enforces a helmet and kneepad rule. Staffers are stationed around the grounds on raised platforms like lifeguards, scolding kids caught with unbuckled helmets or attempting stunts beyond their ability. Recklessness can mean having your equipment confiscated or, in serious cases, being sent home.

Injuries sent Aaron to the emergency room of a nearby hospital once on each of his two previous visits to Woodward. But his parents view Woodward as a safer alternative to dodging cars at home in Arlington, Va.

"He was into video games for a while, and we encouraged him to get out and get some exercise. This is what he does for exercise," says his father, Jack Covaleski, an associate director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.

"He's into it, and it keeps him fit," Covaleski says. "There are a lot of worse things he could be doing."

One of Woodward's big selling points are the pros who come here to train, tout their sponsors, and show off in demonstrations set to the blaring sounds of Black Sabbath and Primus. Young campers line the sides of a huge half-pipe skating structure, watching in awe, then gather to get autographs on shirts and skateboards.

The life of a professional skateboarder or biker is tough, but it can be lucrative. Earnings come from competitions or demonstrations that can pay from $100 to $5,000 a day. The stars attract sponsors interested in selling their products to the sport's fan base of high school-age suburbanites, a large, upscale market hard to reach via traditional advertising.

"I get paid to fly around the country and ride my bike and hang out with kids," says BMX rider Jerry Bagley, 22. "It's great."

Bagley views visits to Woodward as working vacations (these athletes eschew the term "training"). He has endorsement deals with Red Bull Energy Drink, Mosh bikes, and DC shoes. He made $35,000 last year and expects to double that this year, depending on how he does in competition.

"Why go to college? Ride a bike and have fun," he says.

Mike Frazier is among the sport's elite. At 28, he has been skating for 15 years. With endorsement deals with Vans shoes, Counter Culture Clothing, Oakley Sunglasses, Spitfire Wheels and Mountain Dew beverages, among others, he spends about 250 days a year on the road.

"It's a lot of work," says Frazier, an easygoing man with a shaved head and several tattoos. While not in the class of Tony Hawk, who by some estimates is making $3 million a year, he says, "I'm doing all right. I make more money than my parents. We lucked out to do what we love."

As one of the camp's prime attractions, the pros are taken care of at Woodward. Top-ranked athletes get free rooms in a luxurious lodge. Lesser stars, or those who prefer it, are housed in "Bud's Barn," an eight-room house near the stables built with equal parts attitude and pine lumber.

A mini-basketball court and a bike parking lot with repair stand dominate the first floor. There is a Harley-Davidson pinball machine and a computer for wired athletes to keep up with e-mail. Upstairs, two lofts contain a pool table, a 120-watt JVC stereo system, and a 60-inch TV. Guests can get to the upper lounge via stairs or a ladder but usually leave on a fire pole. Signs discreetly remind residents that quiet time in Bud's Barn begins at 1 a.m.

Everett Rosecrans, a 52-year-old free-lance "natural health" guru, has come to Woodward this week to ride bikes with his grandsons. But he'll be keeping an eye on the other campers, as well.

Rosecrans is a consultant for Vans clothing company who travels to skate parks and regional bike contests across the country looking to sign up the next Mike Frazier or Tony Hawk.

He's seen extreme sports emerge from the 1960s, when competitions were held in drained swimming pools, to Madison Avenue chic. His Santa Fe Springs, Calif.-based company makes $200 snowboarding boots and $80 shoes for dirt bikers and skateboarders.

Business is good. Sales were up a third in the last fiscal year, to $274 million, and the stock is up 25 percent for the year.

Vans' success comes from winning the loyalty of 13-year-olds, something many companies can't do. Sporting goods giant Nike jumped into the action-sports market a few years ago and failed miserably.

Among its missteps: insisting competitors wear bibs, like Olympic skiers, featuring its trademark swoosh. This not only violated the baggy-shorts informality of extreme sports but obscured the T-shirt logos of other sponsors.

Today, virtually no Nikes are to be seen at Woodward. Just Vans, Etnies, DC, Airwalk, and other brands with carefully tended underground images.

"You can't fool kids. They will expose you as a fake immediately," Rosecrans says.

Extreme sports had their ups and downs until 1995, when they took off like an inline skater doing a McTwist. That's the year ESPN broadcast its first Olympic-style "X-Games," a development one camp official calls "a lightning bolt of luck" for Woodward Camp.

Critics sneered at new sports such as street luge and sky surfing, but the games were a hit financially. This year, they attracted 350 athletes who competed for $1 million in prize money.

NBC created its own version, "The Gravity Games," with a telecast scheduled next month. As with the X-Games, there is a look unabashedly like MTV (which has its own annual extreme sports and music festival).

"It's the next big thing. It's just continuing to grow," says Dan Hirsch, president of On Board Entertainment, a consulting firm in Sausalito, Calif., that specializes in alternative sports and music.

Extreme sports appeal strongly to the 12- to 24-year-olds of Generation Y, a group bigger than baby boomers. On Board estimates that the entire industry, including surfing, sells about $5 billion a year in gear and other merchandise.

"It is like rap music was 10 years ago," Hirsch says. "Everybody thought it was a passing fad, and today it is the largest segment of the music-buying industry."

Chain of camps

Woodward's owners and their new corporate backers hope he's right.

With ESPN as partner, Woodward recently announced an agreement to develop a chain of Woodward-like camps. The first will open in 2002. Another Disney-owned operation, Disney Online, has added live webcasts of Woodward's ramps and verts to www.disney.com.

The camp store already has Woodward skateboards, mouse pads, videos and sweatshirts for sale. By this Christmas, toy stores will have plastic models of a Woodward "half-pipe" vert ramp. Push a button, and the recorded announcer says, "That's Rad!" Miniature finger skateboards also are in the works, as are action figures. Cyclist Dave Mirra's new Nintendo video game is set at Woodward.

Meanwhile, Ream is making plans to add more attractions to the camp, to keep the "fantasy alive," as he puts it.

A downhill urban street "snake run" -- allowing campers to ride or skate down four flights of concrete stairs, around reinforced lamp posts and onto steel dumpsters -- is in the plans for next year.

That addition may be enough to draw Aaron Covaleski back. He considers himself a street skater, not a ramp man. He was sore by the end of his week of camp, and had managed another trip to the hospital -- for a check that revealed a bruised Achilles' tendon.

"If they build that, I'm definitely coming back," Aaron says.

Ream, who grew up near here, hopes Woodward's summer-camp intimacy survives the boom times. Some of the sport's biggest names started as "dish dogs" here, washing trays in the cafeteria so they could practice on the ramps at night.

"It's been amazing to see some of these kids go on to become like rock stars," Ream says. "Woodward is sort of the living room, the house for all of us. We started together."

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