Wheels always turning on farm

The Baltimore Sun

Woodward, Pa. -- If skateboarding, in-line skating or BMX freestyle biking is your religion - or more likely, if it is your kid's religion - then there is a summer pilgrimage you might want to take at least once in your life.

In the green hills of central Pennsylvania, on an old, 425-acre dairy farm 30 miles east of the Penn State campus, there is a place called Camp Woodward, where risk-taking and individualism are encouraged, bruises and ankle sprains are worn like badges of honor and there is always a new trick to learn and a ramp to try it on. It's not your typical summer camp, but in the world of extreme sports, it might be the closest thing to sacred ground.

"For the last 12 to 15 years, this has been the Mecca for kids who love to skate and ride bikes," said Andy Alvarez, a 22-year-old from North Hollywood, Calif., and an instructor and counselor at the camp. "It's the only place like it in the world. I fell in love with it as a camper and I never wanted to leave."

Alvarez isn't alone in his adoration. About 9,000 campers ages 7 to 17, including somewhere between 500 and 600 from Maryland, will pass through Camp Woodward this summer - most of them staying a week and shelling out between $800 and $1,000 for fees, lodging and food.

But the camp is much more than a regional draw. Youths from all 50 states and 35 countries will make the trek to Woodward this summer from as far away as Venezuela and Indonesia.

On the Dew Action Sports Tour, which makes a stop in Baltimore today through Sunday, nearly 90 percent of the competitors (excluding those on the FMX motorcycles) have spent some time at Woodward, either as a camper, instructor or as someone just looking for a place to experiment and chill.

The camp even offers free housing for action sports pros who want to hang out, hone their skills and hopefully pass on a few tips. It's not unusual to see, on any given day, four or five of the best BMX freestyle athletes in the world just hanging out, practicing for the next tour event.

The man behind it all, Gary Ream, couldn't look less like an action sports guru if he tried. Ream, who is built like a linebacker, has thinning hair, stylish wire-frame eyeglasses and a graying mustache. He has never been on a skateboard and isn't interested in starting now.

But he owns and runs Camp Woodward, and spends his days puttering around its campus in a golf cart, a Blackberry in his hand and a grin on his face. Catch him on the right day and he looks almost like an action sports Willy Wonka, overseeing the madness and creativity of his famed and eccentric chocolate factory.

"We call it structured chaos," Ream said as he weaved his golf cart through an army of skateboarders.

First, gymnastics

Ream said he never envisioned Camp Woodward would evolve the way it has when it opened in 1970 as a gymnastics camp. That year, the camp's founder, Ed Isabelle, a former gymnastics coach at Penn State, joined with Ream, a business major at Penn State, and a few other investors to purchase the dairy farm and turn it into one of the elite gymnastics camps in the country.

They invested in the best equipment and invited ex-Olympians to join the staff. The camp's reputation grew, and business boomed.

Everything was going great. Then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979.

"When [the United States] boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games, we realized that an event like that can have grave consequences to a sport like gymnastics in this country," Ream said. "Every time there is an Olympic Games, there is a spike, and when there is not, it goes the other direction. We started looking for alternative sports."

The camp added BMX freestyling in 1982, then skateboarding in 1987. In-line skating and dry-land snowboard training soon followed. It was one of the first places to use foam gymnastics pits for extreme sports athletes so they could practice aerial tricks without the fear of major injury.

Just in case, the camp has an infirmary and several medical personnel on staff.

The gymnastics program still exists at Camp Woodward, and is still world renowned. Olympic gold medalist Carly Patterson is one of the camp's instructors this summer. But the action sports campers now slightly outnumber the gymnasts and, in many ways, their world view dominates the camp's aesthetic.

Spend 20 minutes touring Woodward's facilities, and it's almost enough to give the modern teenager sensory overload. In addition to the cornucopia of extreme sports activities available, there are flat screen televisions everywhere. A steady rotation of bands like Green Day, The Killers, Modest Mouse and Arctic MonKeys can always be heard, thanks to ubiquitous speakers.

There is a fruit smoothie bar, a paint ball range, a pool, a music recording studio (the female recording artist Pink is a former camper), a snow-cone machine, a woodshop for making and painting skateboards, and an entire building where campers can sit in recliners and do nothing except play Sony PlayStation.

Sony, Target and Red Bull energy drink are the camp's major sponsors. All of them work with Ream to offer a number of scholarships for campers who need help with tuition.

"Red Bull is a great company," Ream said. "They really get what we're doing here."

Campers can even rent video cameras, spend the day documenting their tricks (successful and unsuccessful), then head to the video editing room and put together a three-minute highlight film/music video of their week and burn it to DVD.

'Like heaven here'

Jamison McMaster, a shy, 13-year-old skateboarder from Florence, S.C., spent a recent afternoon editing several of his successful tricks [and a few crashes] into a video with Smile Like You Mean It by The Killers as his soundtrack.

"I want to start my own skate company someday," McMaster says. "This is like heaven here. It's the best."

Days don't always run smoothly at Camp Woodward. Skateboarding always has held a special attraction for outcasts and youths inclined to thumb their noses at authority, and for some campers, the idea of rules and organization goes against everything extreme sports are supposed to represent.

"It can be a challenge to get them to listen sometimes," said Tim Rioux, the camp's skateboarding director. "But you try to show them that skateboarding does have rules. There is an etiquette on the ramp."

Some kids do come to Woodward with dreams of becoming the next Tony Hawk, Bob Burnquist or Andy MacDonald, but seeing Woodward as a training ground for the future action sports stars misses the point, according to 20-year-old Phil Jackson, one of Woodward's skateboarding instructors.

"I see this place as my chance to have some influence on not just the future of skateboarding, but some of these kids' lives," Jackson said. "Not very many of them are ever going to do this for a living. But a lot of kids who ride skateboards are looked at as outcasts. Skateboarding is a release for them. If I can be a mentor to them and make them feel good about themselves, I'll feel like I made a difference."

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com

Panasonic Open

What -- AST Dew Tour's Panasonic Open

Where -- Camden Yards sports complex

When -- Today-Sunday

Tickets -- Available online through Ticketmaster or through the M&T; Bank Stadium box office. Four-day pass (today-Sunday), $35; daily, $15; daily children (12 and younger), $5; premium, $100.

TV -- Saturday, Sunday, 4-6 p.m., chs. 11, 4; Friday, Saturday nights, midnight-1 a.m. USA (tape)

Web site -- astdewtour.com

Today's schedule

Gates open at 2 p.m.

Outdoor festival 2 FMX prelims 2:30-5 BMX vert prelims 3-5 SKB park prelims 4-6:30 BMX dirt prelims 7-8:30 SKB vert prelims 7-9:30

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