- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Whether “street” or “vert,” skateboarding is attracting youngsters to empty lots as well as eye-popping parks across the Washington area, generating its own culture, clothes and slang. Some neighborhood groups are even videotaping their exploits and head-cracking disasters.

Skateboarding is all about that one perfect moment: when you’re flying down a ramp and jump off the board and the whole world just seems to stand still while you sail through the air. Or when you jump with the board as if it’s glued to your feet, then land on a rail 3 feet high and just glide down at incredible speeds.

Then you come crashing back down on the board and zoom around the ramp and it’s all over until the next trick.

“I think that’s the best feeling in the world: landing a trick for the first time,” says 11-year-old Bub Mintern, sitting on the grass at “K-town,” a homemade outdoor park off Strathmore Avenue in Kensington that was put together by local teenagers.

Dressed in hand-me-down cargo shorts, baseball cap, sneakers and a red T-shirt with advice on “How to get rid of a bad girlfriend,” Bub takes a rest from working on one trick to 50-50 a ledge (straddling the board on the ledge), that he’s been trying for three weeks.

“I’ll probably do it. Some tricks take a long time. Like a kick flip. When I first tried, it seemed like the hardest trick. I just asked people to teach me how to do it. I landed it,” he says simply.

• • •

Back in the day when skateboarding first started about 30 or 40 years ago, youngsters would get an adrenaline rush from skating anywhere they could, even in empty swimming pools — jumping in, picking up enough speed to fly into the air over the top edge of the pool, then go careening back down.

The equipment, skateboards, bearings, wheels and pads, have all improved since then, and “skating” (youngsters’ universal term for skateboarding) has become a global business. The thrill is the same, whether these daredevils are skating on plywood propped up in a parking lot or skimming the edges in spacious indoor parks.

One lanky teenager at K-town has all the stereotypical skater attitude: dime-sized green plugs in his earlobes, a spike in his chin, sawed-off blue jeans with red-and-black-check flannel pajamas poking out underneath and a large baggy black T-shirt with “SWAT” on the back.

But the one with the moves and the passion is 14-year-old Andre Houston from Olney. Fearless and laughing at the fun of it all, he takes off at a run, gathering as much speed as possible before jumping into the sky, baggy shirt filling with air and curls flying in an arc around his head.

On another day, a small 12-year-old boy with shining blue eyes and freckles is the king of the lot, jumping off his board and turning it over in midair in a perfect “kick-flip” before landing back on it. He has blue-and-white-checkered pajamas poking out from his ripped jeans, too, but he has all the style of a kid who knows he’s good.

“We come here on our boards from Wheaton,” Garrett Lopez says, taking a break, apparently immune to the cold wind. Use of the Kensington park is free, with rails, ramps, boxes, and even a small quarterpipe, a curved ramp designed to increase air speed, built by local teenagers out of what wood and metal they can find and drag over. The father of one is involved in construction, so he gets larger leftover pieces and makes ramps of them.

“It’s a little different style of skating here,” Garrett explains. “We have more boxes, ledges,” looking over at the rough, 8-inch-wide wood rectangular blocks carefully laid out across the unused basketball court, and eyeing the larger ramps carefully.

Andre also hangs out at K-town. He has his own customized board, with his favorite trucks (the metal pieces holding the wheels to the board), wheels, bearings and design; a stenciled green maple leaf across the black grip tape the covers the top of the board.

Designs are just cool, but bearings, the metal parts holding the wheels to the trucks, matter: they dictate how fast a skater can go. Wheels count too: Some are harder, some softer.

“They have a different feel. It changes the way everything feels. If you get soft wheels, you just, like, flow,” Andre says, in between racing up a bank, flipping his board beneath him and taking off again.

• • •

Every skateboarder has his own preference and style of skating. Those who can afford it go to large indoor parks that have a wide range of ramps, hair-raising halfpipes (U-shaped ramps that allow the skater to zoom from wall to wall at speed), even empty pools and “bowls” to skate on. These are the “vert” skaters, the ones attracted to the vertical drops they find in indoor parks.

Others prefer the freedom of street skating, just picking any area that has steps, railings and ramps, and jumping on them. The practice drives some area owners wild, since skates tend to cause damage to the areas in front of their buildings..

Several restaurant and hotel areas have posted large signs warning skateboarders and “bladers” — roller skaters who use in-line skates but do the same sport — that their activity is either not welcome or illegal.

“People go street skating and mess up the marble and rails,” says Garrett, who admits that in his two years of skating, he had tasted some street adventure too.

The District will slap $50 tickets on anyone found skateboarding illegally and take away their board. But sailing over smooth marble or jumping off sets of steps is too much a temptation for some youngsters and adults to pass up.

“I get chased out of every spot in about an hour or so,” says 27-year-old J.K., who asks that his full name not be used — because he’s doing something he shouldn’t. So instead he, and many others, does a lot of night skating, especially in the summer.

Videos of these exploits, filmed everywhere from the District to California to France, are hugely popular, and many skateboarders have hit star status, attracting crowds of fans when they come to town.

Shops like Asylum in Rockville have large screen TVs, and soft couches for youngsters (and parents) to watch the videos. Michael Simenauer, 14, a K-town regular from Kensington, has been working with his friends and father Jeff, also a skateboarder although a little rusty, to produce some videos, complete with Led Zeppelin audio tracks.

• • •

Skateboarding has been around for a while. It was popular in the 1970s, and several parks were built around Maryland at the time to cater to skaters. Since then, the sport has faded in and out of fashion but now has returned with a multimillion dollar clothing and video business built around it.

According to Chris Overholser, marketing representative for Vans, a huge skateboarding retailer, the most recent study by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) states that some 13 million people skated in the United States in 2002, more than 4 percent over the previous year.

Of those 13 million, 86 percent were between the ages of 6 and 17, and nearly 97 percent were under the age of 24. More than a third (37 percent) come from households with incomes over $75,000. More than 80 percent of skaters and bladers, the SGMA says, are males under 18.

• • •

And they all have the same look.

“Skaters” can recognize each other from across a crowded supermarket: It’s the beanie pulled down over the forehead, the baggy “grunge” jeans, usually torn, the oversized T-shirt, and what look like swollen sneakers but are trademark skate shoes, with a price tag to match.

After acknowledging each other with a short chin-up movement, conversations are usually just as brief, more like a secret handshake:

“You skate?”

“Used to.”

“Cool.”

Skaters tend to group together. For them, “bladers,” even if they are flying down a ramp and twirling in the air, are known as “fruit-booters” and are not quite in the same category as a skateboarder. The rivalry is mostly friendly, just like that between “street” skaters and “vert” skaters.

“They are two completely different experiences. Street is fun, you skate for a while, but, like, in a park you get to do a lot of crazy stuff, and put tricks together sometimes,” explains Scott Conner, 17, of Gaithers-burg.

He and Justin Kanner, 18, of Rockville are bladers. After a two-hour session at Vans Skate Park in Woodbridge, the largest indoor skate park on the East Coast, sweat is pouring down their necks, and their baggy T-shirts are sticking to their backs.

“This park is probably one of the best around here and the biggest one,” Scott marvels, blue eyes shining above a seashell necklace.

“People who skate ‘street’ don’t like ‘park,’” he continues. And those who are strictly “street” try to seem tough. .

“It’s a different mentality. In a park it’s all about the skating. In the street they try to act all thug-like.”

• • •

Indoor parks demand that skaters and bladers wear helmets and protective knee and elbow pads. They also make everyone sign waivers before they can even enter the fenced-off terrain. Both skaters and bladers have spectacular spills, and as in any other sport, it can result in broken bones.

The street and outdoor version is more dangerous: Crashing off a steep ramp or railing onto a concrete or marble floor without protective gear can get pretty painful.

Justin admits he and Scott like both street and park skating. Scott adds that street skaters’ bad reputation is not entirely deserved.

“We are not out to destroy property or do drugs like everyone thinks we are. We are just out to have a good time,” he says, packing up his gear outside the fenced-in skating area in the huge concrete hanger that houses Vans Skate Park and clothing outlet.

The park is more than 61,000 square feet, with a light-bulb-shaped cement bowl, a kidney-shaped cement bowl with a 10-foot deep end, a stunt jump area, a 6-foot-high mini-ramp and a 12-foot-tall, 40-foot-wide “vert” ramp.

Allen Chaney, at 39 the godfather of skateboarding in the area, comes to the park regularly. He has been skating in the area for 31 years, and has tried out just about every indoor and outdoor park that exists in the Greater Washington area.

“We skated way before it was cool,” says Mr. Chaney, blue-and-white skateboard in one hand, blue cap on his head over his pony tail and an earring in his left ear.

“I’ve been skating since I was eight. I grew up in Maryland and we skated all the parks they build in the 1970s,” says Mr. Chaney, who now lives in Virginia.

“It’s a very positive sport. It’s always had a bad reputation because it was different, not mainstream. But everyone gets something out of it, mentally and physically.”

You need to be pretty strong to go flying off a 12-foot half-pipe — which to the uninitiated looks more like jumping off a cliff without a parachute — and both girls and boys in the park will skate the ramps, bowls, and stunt area, doing kick-flips, nose-slides, tail-slides, heel flips and “ollies” — a trick that involves flipping the board in the air with the feet and then landing back on it with both feet — for up to two hours at a time, the average length of a session.

“If you are not in good shape, you will get in good shape,” Mr. Chaney says, smiling.

But more than anything, he says, it’s a great sport for youngsters, and the parks are great places to go.

“It’s not trespassing, it’s not spray painting, it’s self-expression. These kids are just testing their skills and being creative.”

Where to find places to skate

The Washington region has been slow to catch up to the rest of the country when it comes to skate parks. Parks here are new or still in the planning stages. But the future is just around the halfpipe. Here’s a guide to a few nearby parks.

DISTRICT

• 11th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW (next to Shaw Junior High School). Dawn to dusk daily. The District’s first free public skate park. Opened last September by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation for skateboarders, bladers and BMX bikers. No fees. See https://shawdc.com/artman/publish/article_216.shtml.

MARYLAND

• Gaithersburg Skate Park: 506 S. Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg. April to mid-November. Summer hours noon-8 p.m. daily. Park of 12,300 square feet run by the City of Gaithersburg Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture. Designed for in-line skaters, BMX bikes and skateboarders. Twelve ramp/box structures made of pressure-treated wood, asphalt surface at ground level. Full sessions $4 residents, $6 non-residents; partial sessions $3 residents, $5 non-residents. Lessons and rental gear available. 301/258-6350 or see www.gaithersburg md.gov; click on “Youth Services” and then “Skate Park.”

m Rockville Skate Park: Welsh Park, 355 Martins Lane, Rockville. Summer hours noon-8 p.m. daily. A 10,300-square-foot skating area built and operated by the City of Rockville Department of Recreation and Parks for in-line skaters, skateboarders, and free style bikers. Daily fees $4-$7 per session. Lessons and rental gear available. Call 240/876-2655 or see www.rock villemd.gov/skatepark.

VIRGINIA

• Arlington Skate Park: Powhatan Springs Park, 6020 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Still under construction, this 15,000-square-foot park is designed for skateboarding and in-line skating, with some accommodation for BMX bikes. Scheduled for completion in late summer.

• Vans Skate Park: 2700 Potomac Mills Circle (off I-95 exit 156), Woodbridge. 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. The East Coast’s largest park, a private indoor park of 62,000 square feet with a 13-foot vert ramp, a 52-foot-wide mini with boomerang bend, three street courses, a baby ramp, a 10-foot-deep kidney bowl, a 3-foot-deep peanut bowl and a cement reservoir. $5-$15 per session. 703/491-1815 or see www.vans.com and click on “Skate Parks.”

• Wakefield Skate Park: 8100 Braddock Road, Annandale. Summer hours 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-9 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Operated by the Fairfax County Park Authority. Phase One of a three-phase project for this 21,500-square-foot park features two courses, the freestyle and the competition courses, and includes ramps, inclines and grind rails. Admission $4.50-$7.50. Lessons and rental gear available. 703/324- 8702 or see www.fairfaxcounty .gov/parks/skatepark.

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