Throwing caution to the wind Games: When ESPN turned street athletes into pros some cheered. But others think skateboarding -- and other daredevil sports -- should stay on the street.

May 23, 1998|By Stacey Patton | Stacey Patton,SUN STAFF

Today and tomorrow over at Adventure World in Largo, you'll have a chance to see -- and do, if you dare -- the "extreme" sports: professional skateboarders careening down pavement at 60 mph with no brakes, bikers soaring 18 feet above ground, jumpers plummeting from a 200-foot tower attached to a bungee cord.

ESPN has thrown up a small city of ramps and jumps for the third annual X Games Experience, a traveling exhibit spinning off the annual X Games competitions. The cable network is inviting "everyday athletes" to show off their talents.

"Everyday athlete" Nick Lyons, a Towson University freshman, could show the pros a thing or two. He's king of the kick-flip, spinning the skateboard under his feet while he's in the air, a kid with "mad hops," who can do airborne 180-degree spins.

"I've had my ankle in a cast four times," says the 18-year-old.

But Lyons won't be going to the Xperience. It's not his injuries -- it's that he's just not willing to go to extreme measures to impress anybody but himself.

After all, it was "everyday athletes" like Lyons who invented extreme games, the sports whose roots are embedded in neighborhood streets across the country. The world of these sports is a place kids can express themselves and come up with their own choreography, their own language: insane, rush, charge, gnarly, pure juice, energy, stoked, radical, epic.

Until the X Games were created, daredevils like Lyons and his buddies could only catch extreme sports in the street or

local parks. And while many of the kids who've turned pro are from the streets, acceptance is not universal.

"The ESPN people don't know anything about street games," says Calvert Hall senior Josh Sannon, 17, who's known for his radical stunts on the half-pipe, a U-shaped ramp. "Their game setups and obstacles aren't realistic." Street athletes use curbs, stair rails, ledges, whatever's in their way. They make their own ramps. They improvise.

"This sport isn't about going pro," adds Sannon. "It's about having fun and hanging out with friends."

Dressed in old T-shirts and jeans -- not uniforms, helmets and pads -- Lyons and his friends spend most of their skating time at Lansdowne public park. The park's concrete-covered grounds are a haven for skaters who would otherwise risk being arrested if caught skating on the streets.

"On weekends when it's not sweltering hot, there will be tons of people out there skating," says Lyons.

Amid the camaraderie there's rivalry. "It takes nowhere near as much skill to Rollerblade as it does to skateboard," Lyons says. "When you see Rollerbladers hanging out with skateboards you have to get suspicious."

Downtown is another extreme scene, one that's more cutting-edge than suburban Lansdowne. The downtowners tend to skate more on the wild side -- they have more obstacles, more risks. And it's illegal to skate in most places in the city.

"You can't go for more than 20 minutes downtown without getting your board taken," Sannon says.

Says Lyons: "We've had broken hands and fingers. One of my friends got clipped by a car while he was skating along a curb." Luckily, his friend came out with only a scratch on his elbow. "None of us have had any real serious injuries."

He says skateboarding is one of those sports his mother warned him about. "You're gonna break your neck. That's what my mom used to say. But she used to watch me do tricks in front of our house and I know deep down inside she was impressed."

Lyons began skating when he was 14. He admits he was frightened at first, but with discipline, mind power and athleticism, he watched himself progress.

"One thing every skater looks forward to is progression," he says. "I started off skating on a curb, then down ledges, metal rails and concrete stairs." He can take eight steps.

"People don't realize how much skill and athleticism is required for skateboarding," says Lyons.

And that's exactly why ESPN's X Games are a good thing, says tour publicist Beth Swanson. "We are bringing these sports to cities in hopes that the public will understand and embrace these alternative sports," she says. "Without the ESPN X Games, these sports would not have the recognition they now have."

ESPN started the X Games in 1995 as a showcase for daredevils who found sports like baseball, soccer, tennis and football boring. After a quiet start, the games now attract more than 500 athletes to Colorado for the winter games and California for the summer games. (An athlete from Northeast Baltimore, 25-year-old Bucky Lasek, will compete this summer in San Diego.) About 220,000 spectators attend each event.

While the crowds enjoy the emergence of the X sports, Lyons is ambivalent.

"Mainstreaming these sports is not such a bad thing," he says. "But it's blown up too fast. You have Nike and all these other corporate sponsors jumping on the bandwagon making the sport into a money venture. The respect and recognition are good, but they need to slow things down."

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