Pennsylvania: Skateaway weekends at Woodward Camp are as much fun for parents as for their skating, boarding and biking kids.

March 18, 2001|By Marion Winik | By Marion Winik,Special to the Sun

My friend Tara and I have just gotten back from a five-mile run over the hilly terrain of Penn's Valley. Our route took us through a piney forest along a frozen creek, down an old horse-and-buggy road where an Amish father and son in their black hats were out for a stroll, past inns that have accommodated lodgers for more than 200 years.

Now we're lounging in a steaming hot tub in the center of the valley, playing with my baby Jane, who spent our run being dandled by doting innkeepers. The sky is brilliant blue, the air is icy clear, and low peaks surround us. It's reminding Tara of a similar soak she once took in Utah's Zion National Park, while I'm thinking of a week I spent at a spa in Southern California.

But actually, we're at a skateboarding weekend in central Pennsylvania with our sons, Ian, her 13-year-old, and Vince, my 10-year-old -- who are at this very moment a couple of hundred feet away in a giant warehouse building known as Cloud Nine whizzing down wooden ramps, across concrete floors, along iron rails and straight into the air on their skateboards.

It's Woodward Camp's Family Skateaway weekend, and we're convinced: It's a fine idea.

Family affair

If your kid plays basket- ball, baseball or soccer, you're knee-deep in it. Between the practices, the games, the driving, the fund-raisers and the team party, these pastimes demand as much from the parents as they do from the players. But because it's a way of spending time with your kid and showing interest in his activities and anyway, it's fun, most parents do it enthusiastically -- up to a point.

But if your kid is interested in extreme sports -- skateboarding, inline skating or freestyle biking -- things are different. Because these sports aren't organized, there's little way for the family to show support or to get involved. Most of the time it's a gang of kids going off to a parking lot to skate, at least until the police or the local merchants tell them to move along.

Many skateboarder dads end up building ramps, and we all drive carloads to skate parks. (Ramp? Skate park? See glossary.) These parks are none too parent-friendly. If there's anywhere to sit, it's a couch that has so suffered at the hands and butts and fast-food meals of adolescent boys that it's no longer fit for adult use. Let's not even get into the music. If you're familiar with Blink 182, suffice it to say they are the easy-listening end of the scale.

When we do watch a trick, it's usually with white knuckles and bitten lips and the hope that whatever happens won't require a trip to the hospital.

This is a big part of the reason Woodward Camp created Family Skateaway weekends, which provide an opportunity for the parents of extreme athletes to devote some time and attention to their kids' interest, and to reinforce common-sense safety concepts while they're at it. Imagine -- instead of being something they are getting yelled at for doing at the strip mall, extreme sports become something the family can build a weekend vacation around.

A mix of sports

Woodward Camp, about 25 miles east of State College, Pa., and about three hours from Baltimore, has been an internationally known gymnastics center since the 1970s, when it was founded by a former Penn State gymnast. In 1980, when Jimmy Carter's boycott of the Moscow Olympic games presaged a dip in visibility for gymnastics, the owners de- cided to add other sports. In 1982, the biking program opened, followed by skateboarding in 1988 and inline skating in 1992. The camp is in partnership with ESPN to open Woodward facilities around the world.

This summer about 10,000 kids will come here for one or more weeks: 7,000 of them to board, bike and skate. They are almost all boys, and the 3,000 gymnasts are almost all girls, which probably makes for some interesting nights on the deck of the ol' canteen.

"Oh, they're just fascinated by each others' sports," says Darren Hazel, the 26-year-old director of the extreme side of the camp. Each other's sports, huh. Is that what you call it?

Darren, whose uncle Gary Ream is a co-owner of the camp, has been hanging around Woodward since he was 12 -- though his sport is basketball. He played hoops at Juniata College until a shoulder injury ended his career. He also got a degree in education.

Today, in the camp's off-season, he's a substitute teacher for local elementary schools and a basketball coach. He has that casual, confident, good-humored way that kids respond to instantly. His role on the Skateaway weekends is to spell the parents, giving a couple of hours of supervised time here and there so we can enjoy some of the other activities.

For a couple of hours Saturday night and Sunday morning, Darren opens the deep foam pit in the Lot-8 facility, which is an area where riders can practice tricks with "a lot of air."

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