“If you cannot teach me to fly, teach me to sing.”
—J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan
It is Sunday evening just past suppertime, and Clay Kreiner, a 16-year-old skateboarder who will spend the duration of his summer vacation as a Visiting Pro at Camp Woodward, is about to slide himself over the edge of the Mini-Mega ramp roll-in. Under his feet is a narrow plank of curved wood that stands approximately 33 feet above the ground. Behind Clay, over the mountains of central Pennsylvania, the sun has begun to set, and the wide cloudy sky has turned shades of lollipop orange and red. A few dozen skateboard campers have gathered at the base of the ramp, a group of mostly American, middle-class white children.
For one or two weeks at a time these campers come from around the country to Woodward, Pa., to relieve the loneliness that sometimes accompanies participation in a subculture they must willfully believe to exist in while at home. For 10 weeks, Clay will live in a cabin alongside that week's rotating allotment of cabin mates, and practice every day on the Mini. Relaxed and calm, the dirty blond-haired young man nonetheless feels the pressure generated by himself and those around him to regain the momentum he had been building before splitting his left shinbone on another Woodward ramp last April. With only two more years until he turns 18, the crucial age by which Clay feels he must decide between professional skateboarding, college or something else entirely, he has a small window of opportunity to realize the expectations of those who have watched him ride a board.
Among the skateboard campers are two kids who live near Clay's hometown of Greenville, S.C., here on the first night of the second week of camp. Over the next week, Spencer, a rabbit faced 12-year-old, and Jake, a toothy and subdued 14-year-old, will talk about their love of skateboarding, the many things they know about skateboarding, and the many details of Clay's career, which they are as familiar with as if they were their own.
Quickly, Clay hits a speed of 30 miles per hour rolling into the six foot high launch box. He rises between the camp instructors and a select few campers standing on the sides of the Mini-Mega's 55 foot wide and 30 foot long gap platform. With their high-definition video cameras and DSLR telephoto lens, they document the smooth arc of Clay's high-speed flight. Although his Mini-Mega run may last only seven seconds and consist of two tricks, it nonetheless has the potential, depending on the difficulty of the tricks and their execution, to be captured on video, disseminated online, and scrutinized by more than six million American skateboarders. Near the peak of his ascent, Clay reaches behind him with his left hand to grab the side of the board just behind his left foot, articulating a trick known as a backside grab.
Clay Kreiner on the mini-mega ramp.
Clay lands on the part of the ramp just beyond the "knuckle," a 28-degree downslope that allows him to maintain most of his speed into the ramp's business end, an 18 foot tall quarter pipe. Tucking his long, skinny frame into a slight crouch, he exerts a force of more than two and a half G's while riding through the quarter pipe's acutely curved transition panels. Eyes and lenses watch Clay intently as he grabs his board and slowly spins his body one-and-a-half clockwise rotations while peaking a full 25 feet above the ramp's flat wood bottom. In the brief moment of his 540's last half turn, Clay spots his landing over his shoulder and reunites his board to the curve of the quarter pipe that connects the vertical plane to the horizontal. During his landing the campers, ages 7 to 18, clap and hoot their appreciation.
The 425-acre campground, and everything contained within, are maintained, shaped, and supervised by a staff of 250 employees, chefs, nurses, coaches, drivers and instructors tasked with keeping the 850 weekly campers alive and satisfied with their six-night, $1,200 experience. Skateboarders at Woodward join BMX bike riders, cheerleaders, gymnasts, inline skaters and digital media enthusiasts to learn their craft and socialize in an environment that in many ways resembles a traditional summer camp. They sleep in cabins, ride zip lines, swim, flirt and eat hamburgers. All campers also receive two and a half hours of daily instruction in their chosen sport - the gym and cheer kids from former Olympians, the action sports riders from older versions of themselves, and the digital media campers from professional videographers and photographers who've spent years documenting their respective sports. The DMC kids aren't all action sports athletes - some only wish to learn how to shoot better photos and movies - but many arrive as members of their respective tribes, focused on capturing images and making films about their sport of choice. Every week some of the sports' most popular athletes and digital media professionals make use of the camp's highly regarded facilities, and participate in camp life, much to the joy of the campers.
Dave Metty, the modestly built, round-faced director of the digital media camp bounds about the Mini Mega's gap platform with the visible energy of a man who looks like he might have trouble sleeping, finding angles from which to shoot the skaters with the video camera he holds near his waist. He shouts through the wind up to Jagger Eaton, who is now standing at the edge of the roll-in, and asks if he's ready for his run. On the platform, six DMC campers watch closely, studying both how the 43-year-old Metty prepares the shot for the visiting pro's trick as well as how he manages his rapport with the 12-year-old skater, a certified prodigy. Last June 28, Jagger's name and face became weaved into the collective skateboard consciousness when 37 million television viewers and 33,000 live fans witnessed him become the youngest-ever participant in an X Games competition. Jagger finished 12th in the finals of the X Games event known as Big Air, a contest that features a Mega Ramp made by the same California people who fabricated the Mini-Mega, but is almost twice as large, with a drop-in 88 feet high, an open gap 55 feet wide, and a quarter pipe 27 feet tall. Bantering with Jagger, Metty stands in a wide, uncomfortable stance holding his camera, providing the DMC campers and the campers in the grass below an example on how to shoot, as well as how to maintain your skateboard status once you've realized you aren't going pro.
On the morning of the Mini-Mega session, I had driven into camp from the small, narrow-street village where I was staying, about 20 miles east of Woodward, occasionally getting stuck behind Amish farmers riding their black-topped buggies to church. Before I reached the quiet, country roads of my route, I stopped in at Winfall Antiques and Reflections. I was not looking for anything in particular and had no reason to stop, except to delay the inevitable encounter with hundreds of campers who'd see me as an interloper, infringing on their long awaited camp time. In the back room on a musty shelf, I found a 1953 copy of Edward Stoddard's "The First Book of Magic," a practical guide for aspiring illusionists. On the first page, under an illustration of a man whispering to a giant, black-hatted rabbit, the text began, "You see, it's hard to fool someone's eyes. A magician's hand is not quicker than the eye. The important secret magicians use is this: they know how to make a person look somewhere else when they have to do something secret." As I continued east, there were fewer cars on the road and more wide-open views of young farm crops, vegetables and lettuce sprouts in long narrow rows, stretching over hills of dark brown soil. Many of the farmhouses I passed had hand-painted signs at the end of their driveways, offering some good or service for sale - Rubber Stamps and Ink Pads from the house with horses in the back. Further down there was Snyder's Deer Processing Service, Levi's Harness Shop, and Zimmerman Woodworking. One of the more simple signs, printed in black paint with an uneven hand, advertised maple syrup, written above a tilted arrow pointing northwest.
One afternoon shortly after arriving I sat down with the owner of Camp Woodward, Gary Ream, in one of the camp's canteens. It was loud with kids in line buying candy, soda, pizza and hotdogs. A few yards away in the Woodward gift shop, girls and some parents lingered over T-shirts, sweatshirts, headbands, water bottles, travel mugs, sweat pants, key chains, cotton tote bags, snap back hats, flat brimmed hats, boxer briefs and long sleeve crew T's with a variation of the Camp Woodward logo. The broad shouldered, middle-aged Ream told me that from a young age he knew he'd never work for anyone other than himself. Ream was raised not too far from Woodward, by business-savvy parents who owned a Laundromat, restaurant, car wash and home construction operation. After graduating from Penn State in 1976, Ream and his father invested in a nearby summer gymnastics camp after the owner ran into financial trouble during a renovation. The Reams soon took over, but when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics, the gymnastics business slumped. After buying his father out, Gary turned the focus of the camp to what were then called "Lifestyle Sports," first adding a BMX racing camp and then, later, BMX freestyle, inline skating, skateboarding and, to supplement gymnastics, competitive cheerleading.
Despite being thousands of miles from California, the mystique of Woodward as a skateboard mecca grew.
Their timing could not have been better. They tapped into the inline skating boom in the '90s, which provided the revenue to expand the camp's ramps and parks, andwhen the X Games hit they were ready for the invasion of skateboarders who wanted to learn how Tony Hawk and Bob Burnquist flew so high on television. Despite being thousands of miles from California, the ancestral home of skateboard culture, the mystique of Woodward as a skateboard mecca grew. This was, in part, because they had more ramps and structures than any other skate facility in the country, and partly because some of those ramps were supplemented by cushy foam pits and a special padded mat, borrowed from gymnastics training, that allowed riders to safely practice backflips and more ambitious spin-style tricks without serious risk of injury. Perhaps more than anything though, their profile rose because every year a new class of professional riders hit the skateboard scene and more than a few were Camp Woodward alumni.
All the pro skateboarders Ream invites to his camp are offered free airport pick up, fed, housed, golf carted around the grounds and allowed to stay as long as they like, becoming part of what Ream calls the "Woodward family." Ream sees himself as the father of this family. "I want every one of my kids to excel," he said. "And what do Dads do? They pay for the process. They say, ‘OK, you have an idea, let's do it.'" Bankrolling the Woodward children became an investment in both their future and the future of their respective sport, as well as in Woodward as a brand. Ream often travels to contests and extends invites to Woodward to promising young talents. In recent years, he has taken on financial partners from the ski industry and opened Woodward camps in Beijing, California, and Colorado. Next year Woodward will open its first European location in Germany, on a former military base in the mountain village of Lenggries. And, if this past spring's prospecting trip bears fruit, Gary might soon open additional camps in Lisbon, Holland, Oslo, Estonia, and Barcelona. The Woodward brood is rapidly expanding.
On my first full day at Woodward, I found Dave Metty in the recently renovated Digital Media Camp suite, an airplane hanger-like building with an elevated office for six, walls and ceilings painted black, a photo studio, and an Apple-outfitted computer lab comparable to one found at a modestly endowed liberal arts campus. Air-conditioned and quiet, it was a welcomed tonic to the rising temperatures outside. Seated around a circle in black and white leather arm chairs, Metty and his staff of nearly 20 instructors and interns prepared themselves for the week's campers, due to arrive in a few hours, a group of mostly boys who would want to learn how to make skate videos. Metty, who's slightly balding with curly, white-blond hair in a perpetual state of escape from under his baseball cap, seemed awestruck that such a place like Woodward actually exists. As he excitedly worked his way down his staff's to-do list, he reminded them to greet every visiting camper as if they'd just walked "through Willy Wonka's factory with the golden ticket."
Growing up in a Detroit suburb in the 1980s, a teenage Metty fell in with a small crew of local skaters who'd ride the backyard ramps popular during that era. He and his friends would clean their skateboards with toothbrushes in the garage and pour over skateboard magazines like Thrasher and Transworld Skateboarding, carefully studying the photo spreads arranged like contact sheet grids. Step-by-step, the small photo boxes showed professionals and amateurs performing the steady stream of new tricks then being invented.
"I'd look at a picture and think ‘How did they do that?'" Metty told me later. "And then I'd study it and study it until I had this kind of epiphany. Then I'd go out and try it and be like ‘Whoa' when I pulled it off, because in a way the whole thing came out of thin air. I mean, it was there, in the magazine, but the actual doing, putting it together - I realized then that I could do all these things that started as ideas in my head."
The magazines were soon supplemented by skateboard videos Metty can still recall first encountering in magazine advertisements. "The Bones Brigade Video Show, ""Future Primitive," Santa Cruz Skateboard's "Streets of Fire." These were films the skateboard companies commissioned, starring the same pro skate teams they had often sent out on road trips across the country, to perform skate demos in skateboard shop parking lots while wearing the company gear. Decidedly unqualified as actors, the pro team videos of the mid to late '80s still set the tone for all skate films thereafter. Hokey stunts and plots of debatable merit filled the space between sequences of rider's tricks that for many viewers were the first time they had seen them. Taken together, the VHS tapes and skater magazines revealed a skateboard nation far beyond the borders of Detroit.
"Our world changed, as simple as that," said Metty. "It was like discovering new land. We skateboarded, but we didn't know that it was like this whole big, big, thing out there. When we saw that, it was as if we had found our home."
High school became something Metty suffered through only so he could ride his bike with his board atop his handlebars eight miles to the nearest backyard ramp. Thoughts about tricks began to consume him and in his late teens, he began winning local skateboard competitions, building enough confidence to leave Detroit and move at the age of 21 to California, to compete against the same pros he had watched so many times on video. Within weeks of his arrival, however, Metty realized his suburban ramp expertise didn't translate to the more fashionable and much larger vert ramps being ridden by Tony Hawk and other established pro skaters. (Called a "vert ramp" because it allows riders to rise vertically into the air.) Dejected and down to his last $6, Metty got his first job as a counselor, building ramps and teaching kids at a YMCA skatecamp in Visalia, Calif. While there, Jim Thiebaud, co-founder of Real, a new skateboard company and now one of the industry's most popular brands, offered Metty a job. "That was the very beginning," Metty said. "Everyone has one of those guys in the beginning and Jim Thiebaud was my guy."
By the mid-1990s, roles in skateboard videos had become vital career milestones.
At Real, Metty managed the skateboard team and filmed their videos, forging a career not as a skateboarder, but very much still in skateboarding. In the summer of 1992, Real sent Metty and eight guys in a van for a road trip of demos at skateboard shops around the country. An envelope of $400, along with $50 for each demo, had to cover the team's expenses during the three-month tour. At the Taco Bell, Metty would tell his crew that everyone could get one taco and one straw each, to be used for the biggest soda cup they could afford. At the demos, the pros would ride portable ramps and take pictures with local kids who couldn't believe the skaters they saw in videos and magazines were now skating before them in real life.
By the mid-1990s, roles in skateboard videos had become vital career milestones for the vast majority of professional skateboarders. Skate equipment companies, some owned by skaters themselves, then began sending teams of riders and filmmakers to increasingly remote locations, in an attempt to capture tricks in skate spots not yet claimed by another company's video.
Riding the boards and wearing the clothes of their favorite video riders, recreational skaters hung out and skated in small groups at schools, basketball courts or local skateparks, imitating the skate teams. Some would rent newly available portable VHS recorders and film themselves recreating the tricks they'd seen many times on video. The steady stream of new teenage skateboarders in more densely populated cities and town plazas frightened authorities and sometimes led to property damage as they grinded atop ledges, rails and curbs with their boards. Chris Loarie, the brother-in-law of a San Diego beat cop, heard so many stories of police called to investigate damaged property that he designed a metal clamp - the Skate Stopper - that would prevent anything from sliding over it. Loarie estimates he's sold over a million units since 1998, to school principals, office building management, restaurant owners, and architects concerned about the appearance and structural integrity of their properties. For his efforts, Loarie has been on the receiving end of thousands of hate messages, death threats and attempted assaults. One Michigan teen threatened to bomb his company headquarters.
As more American skate spots became locked down with Skate Stoppers, patrolled by cops, or simply too popular for their own good, skate companies now shipped their teams overseas, invading foreign locales with imperialist vigor. Skaters, team managers and growing crews of videographers embarked on projects that could take years to complete. Villages without a skateboard in sight were suddenly taken over, unknowingly, by the skateboard empire. Shot against fresh, exotic landscapes in locations across Europe, Asia and elsewhere, a single skater's video could be made up of trick sequences filmed at more than a dozen locations across multiple time zones.
These popular videos quickly gained a buzz in the skateboard community, turning previously unknown skaters and filmmakers into instant cultural icons. Word of mouth, magazine reviews and young skateboard websites ensured news of their fame spread to all corners of skateboarding. Nascent pro riders could instantly rise to the top of the skateboard hierarchy by dint of a single classic video role. Encouraged by a career path that was beginning to appear more stable, young skaters everywhere practiced in earnest, believing that perhaps they, too, could make it.
After leaving Real and returning to the YMCA camp as its director, Metty began working as a skateboard contest judge in the offseason. By the early-'90s, skateboard contests were already decades old, mostly modestly attended affairs that sometimes made it to TV, with the results and photos casually written up in the following month's issue of Thrasher. But in 1995, with the arrival of ESPN's new extreme sports competition, the nature of the skateboard contest changed. From the beginning, the X Games were a collision of skateboarding and capitalism, a corporate sponsored, brightly colored, Nielsen-rated carnival, with young men and women in thick, plastic helmets modernizing the role of the astronaut. Since then, the X Games have slowly become the sport's most important competition, an American spectacle broadcast to millions of action sports viewers who see its medals as being almost Olympic in stature, given to the best riders who are chosen by invite only and handsomely rewarded. Last year, ESPN announced the expansion of the weekend Games into an elaborate 2013 Global Summer Tour, with stops in Brazil, Barcelona, Spain, Germany and California. Working behind the X Games scorers' table since 1996, Metty takes a leave from camp and travels to each X Games event, working as the head skateboard judge for X Games Vert, Park and Big Air.
Earlier in the Eaton's stay, Jagger's father, Geoff, had asked Metty if he thought a double backflip would score high for Jagger at an upcoming X Games Big Air. Metty, who has a deeply held belief skateboarding will die the moment its contests assign points for specific tricks, just as is done in gymnastics and figure skating, turning skaters into checkbox ticking robots, told Geoff he couldn't answer that question without seeing the trick. Then, speaking to Jagger directly, he said, "It's not the trick that's important, it's about remembering how you got into skating and why you skate and why you're on the ramp in the first place. Now I know that's very philosophical, but it's very, very true and very pertinent to the times that we're in with action sports. Because they're huge, they're on TV, there's big money involved, and people in the game start to accumulate mortgages, start businesses, have energy drink contracts that say this, that and the other thing.
"Don't think about that. Go with your gut and blow the judges' minds away. You know what's going to blow their minds. If you do a backflip over the gap on your first run to a 540 that's 10 feet high and then you do a double backflip over the gap on your next run to a 540 that's 15 feet high, you're gonna blow their mind. That's impressive. And keep going with it from there, it's not rocket science."
On their last full day at Woodward, I visited Jagger and his father at The Lodge, a three-story hotel of sorts with private suites for the visiting pros and their guests. Because Jagger is here with a guardian he stays in Woodward's premium accommodations, otherwise, like Clay, he would sleep in the cabins. In what was decorated like the living room of a quaint ski villa, Jagger sat in a flower paisley armchair and ate a plate of sliced deli meats, of a portion that would do little to add bulk to his 78-pound frame. His blue chino pants and shoe sponsor T-shirt looked a size too big for his body, and his iPhone, which would chirp sporadically, looked oversized in his 12-year-old hands.
Talking about his son's training, Geoff stressed the importance of mastering the skateboard fundamentals. A former competitive gymnast who went on to become a successful gymnastics coach, he exhibited the pragmatic demeanor of a docent who'd had experience breaking down decade-long goals into increments of four hours.
Jagger, however, spoke excitedly, with a slight lisp caused by his braces. "Every minute, every second, every hour, every millisecond of my life I'm thinking about new tricks," he said, his bright blue eyes open wide. "Thinking about what tricks I want to do and thinking about where I want to be with tricks in four or five years. I'm not really thinking in the present, like if it's a kickflip now I'm thinking that's a kickflip back lip or a kickflip front board slide later." As a voracious consumer of online skate videos, published by skate clip websites with massive followings, Jagger, like many other internet-savvy skateboarders his age, holds a wider library of what's possible in his mind, and therefore is less confined by the divisions within skateboarding of past generations, where street skaters kept to their streets and vert skaters rode the y-axis. The result is a new kind of skateboarder, hybrids like Jagger who can compete in X Games Big Air while also finishing third last December at the Tampa Am, one of street skateboarding's oldest and most competitive amateur events.
During the recent school year, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Jagger studied with private tutors before heading to Kids That Rip, a 50,000-square-foot Mesa, Ariz., training facility owned by his father Geoff. Originally built for gymnastics training, Geoff added a 20,000-square-foot indoor skateboard park when his sons expressed an interest in the sport, complete with a scaled down version of the Mega Ramp known as the Micro-Mini. Although the all-day school and skateboard Academy at KTR recently closed, many of the students continued a form of modified schooling on their own, as Jagger does, before heading to KTR for afternoon and evening skateboard training. Once Jagger had become familiar with the rhythms of the Micro-Mini, he began traveling 460 miles, once or twice a month, to Woodward West in Tehachapi, Calif., where Clay Kreiner broke his leg. Along with the skateboard legend Bob Burnquist, a 25-time X Games medalist who famously has a Mega Ramp in his backyard, and ESPN, which owns two Mega Ramps themselves (MSRP $400,000 each), Woodward West is one of only three Mega Ramp proprietors in America, as well as the only Mega owner and operator that ostensibly makes the ramp available to the general skateboard population. When he's not traveling, Jagger trains nearly every day at KTR with a cohort of young skaters already competing at the highest levels of the sport. In Barcelona this past May, Jagger's 12-year-old KTR colleague, Alana Smith, became the youngest-ever X Games medalist by winning silver in Women's Skateboard Park.
Because of the ramp's 53-degree downslope and 88 foot tall start, Mega Ramp skaters can reach speeds of 46 mph, a velocity that all but demands riders to don gloves and thick, long sleeves to prevent their skin from burning off while sliding down the ramp after a fall. (A ramp which, in fact, isn't covered in panels of plywood, but rather a synthetic wood and plastic composite known as Skate Lite, a weather resistant material manufactured in Seattle, and the default ramp riding surface for every decent contest and skatepark in the world.) To prevent their laces from melting when they slip down the Skate Lite, Mega riders wrap their shoes in layers of duct tape.
Aware that some might find fault in encouraging a pre-pubescent boy to ride a skateboard 40 mph, Geoff once told a local Arizona reporter that he "can sympathize with the general public that's looking at a 12-year-old kid skating a nine-story high ramp with a 60-foot open gap and 40-foot drop to concrete. I can see how every parent in America is like ‘Hey.' But what they don't understand is I think we've logged close to 600 hours on this ramp. Prior to that, we trained for five and a half years working up to this point. This is calculated skateboarding here. This is training. Preparation on the physical and mental side."
On Tuesday afternoon at Woodward, some of the cheer and gym campers line the periphery of Target Street Plaza, a triple-tier skatepark that from helicopter heights looks like a giant concrete wedding cake, to watch Jagger and his older brother, Jett, film a skate session with Dave Metty and his DMC campers/filmers. Initially the 14-year-old Jett was the stronger skater of the two. Then, last spring, after both boys received verbal invites to the X Games, Jett suffered an accident during an attempted 900 on the Woodward West Mega Ramp's 27-foot quarter pipe. He had not yet reached the gap when he pitched off his board and slammed into the ramp's launch box. Upon impact, his head broke through his helmet. He was airlifted by helicopter to a nearby hospital, where he was diagnosed with a skull fracture and bruised frontal lobe. He was sedated into a medically induced coma and awoke 11 hours later with no memory of the accident and no apparent lasting impairment.
Upon impact, his head broke through his helmet.
That Jett is again skating is itself a kind of miracle. When I spoke with a member of the event team that manages the X Games formatting and rider selection, he told me Jett's return to the sport, encouraged by his younger brother, is the kind of storyline ESPN favorably riffs upon in its comprehensive coverage of wunderkind sports stars. When Jett has regained his willingness to again ride the Mega, and receives the inevitable X Games invitation, the Eaton brothers narrative will likely be played up by ESPN, bent around a reconstructed version of the American Story where hard work and family support provide young men sturdy foundations to win X Games gold.
Camp Woodward's Target Street Plaza, Vitamin Water Lounge, and Go Pro Video Lab are part of the increasingly symbiotic relationship between skateboarding and the large corporations that desire its prized demographics. Coolers filled with Red Bull are available to sweaty campers during Red Bull sponsored contests. After dessert, kids wearing red and white striped Velcro suits moon bounce on the Target Velcro Wall. Visiting Woodward Pros, some of whom ride for the Red Bull pro skate team, come armed like Santa with large goodie bags of T-shirts, sneakers and stickers from their sponsoring companies. DMC staff members coordinate with the pros and film them tossing the items out to frenzied campers. The scenes of kids fighting over stickers intersperse the clips, also filmed by DMC staff and campers, of the pros landing high-level tricks around Woodward's many skateparks. The video edits are then distributed online by the head of Woodward's social media department, raising the profile of the camp, the skater, and the skater's various sponsors. During the DMC video sessions with the pros, longtime Woodward campers are often the easiest to spot. They've developed a kind of practiced, teenage nonchalance absent from the newbie campers who struggle to appear calm while a real skate video is being shot.
Designed to accommodate street skateboarding tricks, the Target Plaza is anchored by a thick, circular slab of concrete 8 feet in diameter that covers the set of stairs connecting the smaller upper level to the more expansive middle. Banks of smooth, vanilla-colored concrete flank the plaza on three sides, where Spencer and Jake, seated with other campers, dangle their legs over the edge. Around the middle level Jett and Jagger alternate S-shaped runs, followed by one of the DMC filmers. The brothers both wear helmets, even though as Visiting Pros they are not required to. Despite both being accomplished riders, they struggle to land their maneuvers.
As a general rule of safety, skateboarding campers aren't allowed to ride their boards on the first day of camp. Years ago, Gary Ream realized his campers were so excited to finally touch wheels to Woodward concrete they'd often ride well above their abilities on Sunday afternoon, to harmful results. Since then they've been prohibited from skating until they've slept off the buzz. Mondays, however, still bring their fair share of skateboard injuries. One driver from the staff of five the camp keeps on-call remembered a boy who had flown in from Puerto Rico and fractured the growth plate in his ankle within 15 minutes of his first skate session. By the time the driver was ready to take him to the hospital 45 minutes from Woodward, he had been assigned another passenger, a boy who'd fractured the growth plate in his wrist.
For a sport defined by tricks of elegance, a great deal of time in skateboarding is spent falling down.
For a sport defined by tricks of elegance and control two seconds in duration, a great deal of time in skateboarding is spent falling down. Unlike skate videos or contests, where riders fluidly string together tricks with precision, live skateboard sessions test the limits of one's tolerance, both to endure long spells of another's public failure, but also to witness a skater continually getting hurt by his own doing. In the real world, one would be obliged to contact local authorities if one encountered a young adolescent repeatedly hurling himself down a flight of concrete stairs. Watching Jett and Jagger repeatedly fall after their attempts to grind the Plaza's eight-step handrail, the quiet crowd just waits for them to get back up.
After a few more runs, Jagger lands his trick on the handrail, a front tail fakie, and returns to the back ledge of the course to talk to a group of bright-toothed girls with seven-percent body fat. BMXers, marauders always cruising in packs of two or three, zip through on the black cement path running behind the cheerleaders and down to the camp's nether regions. Standing up above their saddles, the BMXers show off by pressing their sneaker soles to the back tire, filling the air with a burnt rubber odor that smells much like a car slamming on the breaks to avoid a collision. Another wave of campers, who at all times are somehow secretly tuned into a high frequency radio channel broadcasting coded skateboard bulletins and messages, crowd in along the banks, in the grass behind Spencer and Jake, while Jett continues to attempt a grind on the rail. Riding with his arms stiffly to his sides, like a man in a full body cast, Jett pops his board in the air, spins it, and tries to land on the board as he slides down the rail. The healflip front boardslide requires Jett to turn his back to the ground, and when he falls his forearms audibly slap against the cement.
After a dozen crashes, Jett looks wounded, and holds his wrist in his left hand. As he painfully narrows in on a successful landing, the now murmuring crowd encouragingly applauds his near misses. After one more fall, Jett stays down, and tears well in his eyes.
When Jett finally lands the boardslide, a palpable release of tension rises from the crowd. Campers yell and Jett is slapped on the helmet in congratulations. Digital media campers crowd around him, standing on the stairs, to show Jett replays of his triumph captured from multiple angles. Looking on from the edge of the Plaza, it's difficult to divide the moment of victory from the brutal succession of falls that preceded it. The euphoria at the rail has the atmosphere of a jungle hunt and a bagged large animal kill, a prize to be shared by the entire village. When the trick is eventually added to a video edit, it will span only a few seconds of actual footage.
"And then for the wheels, if you want nice ones like vert skater wheels, which is what we use, they're probably around 40 bucks for all four," said Spencer. "They're urethane, they have to melt them, so it takes a little bit of time. Bearings really range, depending how fast you want to go, so we use Bones - Bones Red. The bottom of the range would be Red, that's what Jake has, and then there's Bones Swiss, which is what I have, and you haven't met Joseph yet, but he's one of my good friends and he's coming back week seven and eight and he rides Super Swiss 7, which is a little bit faster, and then you've got Clay and one of his good friends Austin Creaseman, they skate $100 bearings. They're called Bones Swiss Ceramics, but they're like a hundred and four dollars."
On a break after lunch, Spencer and Jake told me about their equipment and how they ended up with all the same skate stuff as Clay. The boards themselves, called decks, go for about 50 bucks, and trucks, which hold the wheels and are what a rider uses to grind against rails and curbs, usually cost $60 a pair. A complete set of quality parts can cost a skater $200, and that's before skate shoes, T-shirts, shorts and, if riding at Woodward or any skatepark with concerns about liability insurance, thick plastic pads and a buckled helmet.
It was sunny and hot and we were standing close to the Target Plaza, where the day before Jett and Jagger had filmed their session on the rail. I asked the boys if they had plans to ride the rail, too, but they demurred, saying they were more focused on the vert, like Clay. Spencer, who plays cello, piano, guitar and violin, talks in paragraphs with the kind of emerging insightfulness that becomes as much a burden as a blessing in adulthood, an unforgiving light always turned inward on one's self. Jake, who spoke occasionally about how expensive Woodward was for his parents, was quieter.
"It's kind of because when we all started skating we went to the same park as Clay, and everything Clay had is what the store had too, " Spencer explained. Wisely, when Clay began winning national amateur contests, the skatepark then carried any new brand that put Clay "on flow," the status assigned to an amateur skater who gets free gear from a company in exchange for wearing or riding the company's branded items in videos, at parks and around school. On flow, riders can move up the chain to become an amateur team rider, which Clay now is for most of his sponsors, traveling with the pros for demos, riding in team videos or appearing in commercial photo spreads. Full on pro riders receive salaries, sales kickbacks on products made in their name, tremendous clout and a myriad of perks and bonuses. "And if you just look at us, we all have the same stuff as Clay, because that's all we had to use."
"I love Osiris, we all do," added Jake, referring to the popular skate shoe company.
"We got introduced to Osiris when they started sending Clay all sorts of stuff. Now he's got Osiris clothing, he's got Osiris bags, he's got Osiris shoes, he's got everything by Osiris, which is awesome," said Spencer.
Later that night Spencer and Jake are in Cloud 9, the aptly named indoor skatepark with a 13 foot tall vert ramp, along with Clay and a few other campers. Clay is getting his pads on, big black knee-capped apparatuses with detailed fabric choices the owner of the pad company consulted with Clay on before sending him his latest complimentary pair. Clay, who admits to taking pleasure in the finer things of life, would like to one day own a black on black Range Rover, a white Corvette and a white Nissan GTR supercar.
Fully aware that being a good sponsor leads to endorsement deals and more lucrative sponsorships, Clay maintains his swag on the ramp deck. Not necessarily the skateshop kind of swag, he tells me later, but rather the swag his companies send him. His shoes, T-shirt and shorts are all Osiris, and his helmet features the stickers of the companies that flow him bearings, wheels and boards. Fair-skinned and sharp-nosed, his dirty blond hair pokes out from under his fire engine red helmet. After a few passes up and down the ramp, he's reaching heights of 4 and 5 feet above the coping, airborne to eye level with Spencer and Jake. In between runs, Clay tells me about one of his middle school teachers who pulled him out of class to ask him for an autograph. In a mock adult voice, Clay joking mimics the teacher. "‘Well, son, I think you're really going places,'" he says, the other boys laughing. "But most other teachers, when I tell them I skateboard, they don't understand, they think this is just some kind of hobby. They don't realize that this is actually all that I do."
Once a month Osiris sends Clay a box of gear he estimates to be worth $500. With T-shirts from another clothing sponsor, Index Ink, Clay will alternate the brands he wears when he travels with his father, a lumber and plywood salesman in South Carolina, to contests around the States. After hearing about Clay as a young teen, X Games management has kept a close eye on his progress. If he avoids further injury, it is likely Clay will soon be traveling to contests around the world.
Clay says that breaking his leg gave him pause last year, and reinvigorated the daily practice schedule he largely designed for himself this summer at Woodward. Talking about Jagger and the breakout teen skate stars he has become friends with, like Mitchie Brusco, the 16-year-old who this past May landed the first 1080 spin in an X Games competition (three full aerial rotations on the 27-foot Mega Ramp quarter pipe), Clay says breaking his leg at Woodward "hit me in the face. If I want to make it, I'm going to have to work twice as hard now to catch up. Because if we were all at the same point when I fell, then they all moved ahead of me together. And if we keep progressing at the same rate, they'll always be better than me. So I'm going to have to work twice as hard, so I can catch them, stay with them, and then work even harder so I can be better than them later."
As the camp's 10 p.m. skating curfew approaches, Spencer, looking concerned, is off to the side of the vert ramp deck, which smells strongly of sweat. If he's upset about leaving soon, I'm surprised, because I know he's coming back in July for another week at Woodward. I ask him if something's wrong.
"It's just a waste in a way, that whatever I learn here I'll forget after a month. And then after I come back for week eight, I work all week to learn it again and then it'll be gone all the way until next summer." When the skatepark near Spencer and Jake recently closed down, they lost the only vert ramp in their area. Now they have to drive on weekends an hour and half to Georgia just to find a half pipe. Although I didn't say it, I sensed a parallel between Clay and Spencer's anxiety about others passing them by, that Spencer realized his dissatisfaction was caused in some way by forces he saw as out of his control. Or it might have been an understanding gained after a week at Woodward, seeing how his skills compared to others, getting a better sense of the physical as well as psychic dangers attributable to the rite of passage into skateboard adulthood - which, for all its supportive infrastructure, still constitutes a lifestyle choice counter to the mainstream.
After a few more passes on the ramp, with Spencer and Jake maxing out about a half foot over the coping, the boys all leave Cloud 9. As a visiting pro, Clay can skate beyond curfew, but he doesn't like to make the campers feel bad by flaunting his many camp perks. On the way out, we pass The Lodge, where in the mornings Clay likes to discretely stop by the kitchen for a cappuccino.
"You don't want to stop coming back to Never Land."
The night is now cool and a few hundred yards away, just beside the Mini-Mega ramp, the digital media instructors are helping the photography campers set up tripods at the outdoor skatepark known as The Rock. The DMC photography director, Ian Abineri, who looks like Thom Yorke's distant, taller cousin, is handing out ruby-colored road flares to DMC instructors and interns. Ian, who is 26, arranged special permission for the campers to stay out past curfew, so they could take time-lapse photos of the instructors riding around the park showing trails of fire lit up behind them. A 20,000-square-foot park, The Rock is predominately a connected series of swimming pool bowls, with dips, bumps and sections of sharply banked curves. Ian, who has been coming to Woodward for 13 years, first as a camper and then instructor, told me earlier in the week, "You don't want to stop coming back to Never Land. You want to keep coming back so that somehow the summer never ends." Like a lot of the full-time instructional staff, at the end of camp Ian will get an offseason job until next June, in nearby State College, Pa., where last winter he worked in retail. With a college degree in fine art photography, and a growing Rolodex of skateboard industry contacts, he's considered moving out west with another Woodward employee to pursue a career as a full-time skate photographer. Giving the high sign to the photography campers, Ian ignites the road flare and drops into the bowl.
He's joined by four other instructors who weave back and forth over the curved concrete. Lines of thin, dark smoke dissipate behind them and fade into a cloud that hovers over the bowl entrance. Campers stand and watch from the porches of their cabins that run alongside The Rock's perimeter. With the flare held out behind him, Ian pops off one bank for an ollie and lands on the other side, his four wheels against the concrete sounding like two strong people clapping their hands together in unison.
For three generations, millions of American skateboarders have ventured out into the night for similar skate sessions, in groups or alone, filmed or not filmed, participating in a shared common experience that's often absent elsewhere in this country. That seven pieces of plywood shaved into the shape of a Popsicle stick have made the American experience less lonely somehow feels very American.
To avoid collisions the other DMC instructors take wide angles around the contours of the bowl. Against the smooth concrete, zooming in close to the bowl deck and then again zooming out, their wheels create an odd, liquidy Doppler effect, which sounds like driving quickly with the windows down past a breaking ocean shoreline.
The flares are crackling and Ian cautions anyone whose hand is burning to dunk their flare in the plastic bucket of water. Standing under The Rock's cotton candy-colored lights, spheres of yellow, blue and red bulbs affixed to tall light posts, one of the young photo campers looks like an employee at an amusement park, taking candid shots of children to be turned into souvenir key chains for their parents, but the image captured, a 30-second exposure, reveals squiggly trails of fire and ghostly body outlines, dozens of lines of light scrawled against the dark, overexposed evidence of night time movements.
In the early afternoon on the last day of camp, Dave Metty and his staff are in the DMC building helping campers make final adjustments to their skate videos and photos. Later that night they'll premier their work at the camp's Friday Night Arts Festival, where one video will feature a clip of Clay briefly hovering in the sky. Down at one of the camp's older half pipe ramps I find Spencer and Jake during their required daily instruction. The goal is to get all the kids in their group to drop in. The two boys have no trouble with the challenge and kill time talking to me from the ramp deck.
They realize that despite skating with each other on countless weekends at their old local skatepark - the one that recently closed down - they've never been to each other's houses. Plans, however, are already in the works for the two to drive together the hour and half to Atlanta, now the closest park with a decent half pipe.
Over on the Mega, Clay is airborne, peaking a backside grab 8 feet above the quarter pipe, much to the awe of parents who came early to bring their children back home.