Free ride to self-expression

Skateboarding becoming increasingly popular in Steamboat

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"Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration," Thomas Edison said.

Throw into that equation a healthy dose of sheer guts, and he could have been talking about skateboarding. Behind each skill mastered on the skateboard lie hundreds of hours of practice, ankle rolls, elbow scrapes and ego bruises.

At the skateboard park near Howelsen Hill, about 40 or 50 skaters gather each day to practice on the metal rails, ramps and halfpipes. They vary from 5-year-olds to adults, but most are between 10 and 16 years old. In baggy shorts and duct-taped helmets, they repeatedly fling themselves at the park's obstacles. Sometimes they perform the tricks flawlessly, but more often, skateboards skitter away from owners like wily animals not yet tamed.

Young bodies topple from rails, slide down ramps and faceplant onto concrete. Yet they rise, retrieve the ornery boards and try again. Although some parents might wish such tenacity would extend to math problems and piano lessons, it's hard not to admire the skaters' indefatigable spirits.

"Skateboarders are tough. They take more of a beating than in almost any other sport, but they still get back up," said Jon Casson, a coach in the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Summer Recreational Skateboard Club.

The growing popularity of the sport in Steamboat prompted Casson to start the skateboarding club, which meets twice a week and has 26 members. In addition to teaching children new skills, Casson wants to upgrade the skatepark and improve public perception of skateboarders.

Bounty of the board ...

One frequent visitor to the skatepark is 12-year-old Forrest Dupree.

"Skateboarding's fun to do, and it's fun to hang out with kids who like doing the same thing," Dupree said.

He moved to Steamboat for the summer four weeks ago and said he met most of his friends at the skatepark.

While waiting their turns to skate down the ramp, Forrest and other boys cheer each other on, offer advice and boast of tricks accomplished. Their camaraderie complements the otherwise solitary nature of the sport. A primary appeal of skateboarding is the freedom and individual expression it allows, Casson said. Skaters can invent tricks, link them in different combinations and indulge in whatever aerial stunts gravity permits.

The thousands of tricks invented -- carrying names such as stalefish air and alley-oop -- testify to the creativity of the sport.

"It's an individual thing to play with, and you can do whatever you want. It's not, 'Hit this ball and run to this base, or get the ball in this hoop,'" Casson said.

Eleven-year-old skateboarder Tucker Allen agreed.

"I didn't want to do baseball or soccer. You have to wear uniforms," he said.

But skateboarding also is beginning to appeal to children involved with more traditional group sports, Casson said. By mixing individual and group sports, children get the benefits of both, he said, pointing to University of Colorado football player and mogul skier Jeremy Bloom as an example of someone who has excelled in both types of sports.

In addition to the freedom of expression the sport offers, it also improves participants' balance and coordination, Casson said. When watching the baffling whirlwind of arms, legs and skateboard of a skater completing a trick, it's easy to understand why. Many skiers and snowboarders are using skateboarding to cross-train in the summer. Not only do many of the jumps, twists and flips overlap between the sports, skateboarding bolsters children's confidence to try new tricks on the snow, Casson said.

Fittingly, most of the children in the club also compete in winter sports.

"If you skateboard, it helps with your snowboarding because you can keep your balance better," Allen said.

More than skateboarding's difficulty, freedom or camaraderie, however, nothing compares to the satisfying sound of feet hitting board after a trick successfully complete, Casson said.

"The feeling you get when you land a new trick or drop into a ramp the first time is indescribable," he said.

Skateboarding's history

Combine bored California surfers, a summer drought and the invention of urethane wheels, and what emerges is modern skateboarding. Although milk-crate scooters have existed since the early 1900s, surfers in the '60s and '70s gave life to the sport.

"They wanted to capture the surf feeling when waves were dead," Casson said. "Then in the '70s, a drought hit California, and a lot of the swimming pools were empty. Kids said, 'Hey, we can skateboard in these.'"

That, as well as the use of urethane wheels for better traction, helped transfer skateboarding from horizontal to vertical moves. In 1978, Alan Gelfand invented the "ollie," a trick that allows skaters to get the board in the air without using hands or a ramp. To accomplish an ollie, the skater pops the tail of the board down with his rear foot and jumps at the same time. The back of the board hits the ground and rebounds into the air. As the board bounces upward at an angle, the airborne skater presses his front foot on the front of the board to level it out. The skater and the board are then horizontal in the air and can perform any number of tricks until gravity returns them to the ground. The ollie revolutionized skating by allowing skaters to do vertical moves on flat ground, and it remains a staple trick of skating.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, skateboarding waxed and waned in popularity because of a number of economic and social factors, but in 1995, skateboarding appeared on ESPN 2's "X Games."

"The X Games was probably the single biggest reason for the rise in popularity. It became a part of youth culture again," Casson said.

Between 1999 and 2000, skateboarding grew from 7.8 million participants nationwide to 11.8 million. Many of those reside in Colorado, which has the second highest number of skateboard parks in any state, behind California, Casson said.

Bad-kid boarders?

Despite the growing acceptance of skateboarders by society, a perception still pervades that skateboarders are troublemakers, Casson said. Initially, such a reputation developed, in part, because no skateparks existed.

"In the 1980s, we had to skate in the street. We'd get kicked out of everywhere, our boards would get confiscated and we'd get tickets, but we just wanted to have fun," Casson said.

Although the "skateboarding is not a crime" campaign helped, the children at Howelsen Hill said they still feel persecuted.

"People have called the cops on us like 8,000 times," 11-year-old Brian Moore said.

"Then they give us tickets and confiscate our boards," 11-year-old Sam Robards said.

Casson is trying to smooth relations between Steamboat residents and skaters, who he said are not the hellions many perceive them to be.

"We've gone to skateparks in other towns, and I always get compliments from the locals about how nice and well-mannered the Steamboat skaters are," he said.

Still, skateboarders riding on sidewalks and streets can cause friction with pedestrians and business owners. Many of the skateboarders think the solution lies in the skatepark.

"If they don't want us to skate in the streets, they should build a better park," Robards said.

Skatepark face-lift

Improving the skatepark is just what Casson is trying to do. He and the other members of the newly formed Steamboat Skatepark Alliance want to construct a new mini-halfpipe and replace older, run-down features by the end of the summer. The old halfpipe was torn down in the spring because sagging support and deteriorating metal made it unsafe.

"First and foremost, we need a safe place for kids to skate. We also need to have a sophisticated enough park to allow our kids to progress," Casson said.

The group has raised $19,000 from foundations, grants and individual donations but still needs $30,000.

"We'll try to raise it wherever we can get it. I'd love to see the city help, but I keep getting told they don't have any money," Casson said.

Also, in the next two to three years, the alliance would like to raise $350,000 to $500,000 to construct an all-concrete skate park, which lasts longer and requires little maintenance, he said. It would replace the metal ramps and halfpipes that wear down and reach sizzling temperatures in the summer.

"You get burns when you touch the ramp," 11-year-old Jackson Coe said.

For Coe and his five friends, the top three items on their wish list for a skatepark include more rails of varying difficulty, a 5-foot mini-ramp, a roof overhead so they can skate in the winter and, they say emphatically, a water fountain.

Casson thinks it's a worthwhile investment because of the skills, confidence and creativity skateboarding teaches children, he said. Also, the sport offers an alternative to loitering and getting into trouble, he said.

"There's so many opportunities for adults recreationally, from tennis to hiking. Let's give these kids something to do also," he said.

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