- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho (AP) - As 23-year-old Chris Burton crouched on his skateboard to gain speed, the whipping wind puffed his T-shirt like the masts of a seafaring vessel.

He could be heard before he was seen. The distant rumbling of his wheels created a Doppler effect as he shot around a corner in a full roar of skate wheels on pavement. In a flash, the sound quieted, and Burton continued west down Fernan Lake Road until only the songs of evening birds fluttered in the late-summer air.

Burton, of Coeur d’Alene, was simply out for an evening jaunt of downhill skateboarding, a beautifully dangerous sport that requires vigilance, a respect for safety measures and a lust for adrenaline.

“Just like any adventure sport out there, I love overcoming the fear,” Burton said. “That is very satisfying to me.”

Downhill skateboarding is all about speed. Burton said his record is 58 miles per hour. He was introduced to the sport when he was 19 when he realized how much he enjoyed taking his longboard down steep declines. After his first downhill crash, he conducted research about this more adrenaline-filled angle on skateboarding and how to properly and safely enjoy it. “That’s when I realized there is a whole other scene behind this,” he said. “I found somebody who taught me how to slide, taught me how to tuck, taught me how to go fast and I just kept pursuing it from there.”

Burton said the group of downhill skateboarders in the Coeur d’Alene-Spokane area is small and the median age is higher than that of a group of mainstream skateboarders, but this works out well as those who are active with it are generally more experienced and passionate about what they do.

“A lot of teenagers’ parents won’t let them do it,” Burton said. “You need your own car. There’s certain judgment calls you need to make regarding traffic and things like that, so it does attract an older crowd.”

Downhill skateboard racing takes flat-ground skateboarding and cranks it up several degrees. It is celebrated worldwide with tournaments such as the Maryhill Festival of Speed in Goldendale, Washington, the Pike’s Peak Downhill Skateboard Race in Colorado and the 7 Curves race in Brazil. Pike’s Peak and 7 Curves are organized by the International Downhill Federation, a nonprofit dedicated to downhill skateboarding, street luge and classic luge as well as pushing these sports and their participants to new heights.

David Uhlenkott, 35, of Spokane, is one of Burton’s colleagues who utilizes the hilly and light-traffic areas Coeur d’Alene and its surrounding mountains have to offer. He has been a downhill skateboarder since 2003 and competed in his first official race in Maryhill in 2006 when the competition was the world championship for the International Gravity Sports Association.

He said he loves skateboarding and enjoys watching others perform tricks, but he never really had the finesse or patience to conquer the stair set jumps and handrail slides of street style. Also, he said his body couldn’t take the impact of trick skating when he entered the sport at the age of 23.

“I started skating park, I love riding big bowls,” Uhlenkott said. “The smoothness, the acceleration, the gravity defying, and I don’t have to quit when I’m 25. Downhill skateboarding was a natural progression from there. I had a few guys that I met at the park that did downhill and going really fast always sounds fun to me. I did a lot of cycling growing up, also snowboarding, and for that matter, even every car I ever owned, I needed to see how fast I can go. More than anything, I find it calming. There is something relaxing that comes with speed. You must focus on what you are doing, and you can only focus on that. Everything else in your day goes away. It is also a low impact sport; I know many guys in their 50s and older that still skate, and I like finding things I can keep doing as long as I live.”

Safety is the cornerstone of downhill skateboarding. The skaters wear full helmets and special gloves with fingers and palms that are lined with thick wax or plastic discs on which weight can be placed while sliding around corners. Some wear elbow or knee pads.

But old-school skater Tim Nieland, who began skateboarding on clay wheels in the early ‘70s and still takes his board for a ride every week, remembers when safety was somewhat of an afterthought.

“I lived in a community that was on a mountainside so we did a lot of downhill,” said Nieland, 51, of Dalton Gardens.

“The one memory that stands out is one time we were wondering how fast we could go, so my friends and I went to the top of one of the steepest streets in town and got pulled down hanging on to my friend Rick’s ‘57 Chevy while he was going 50 (mph). We let go and passed him. This was before they had specialized long/downhill boards. All I had on was a T-shirt and shorts and Vans shoes, no helmet or pads.”

While Uhlenkott finds peace in the sweeping hills and rolling motion, Nieland emphasized the overwhelming jolt one feels when downhill skateboarding.

“The feeling was like nothing else,” he said. “One mistake and you were seriously injured or dead, so you would have to commit 100 percent. Biggest adrenaline rush ever.”

It’s a sport that builds and breaks trust between people who ride together, Burton said, as well as an activity that demands that people look out for each other, look out for cars and possibly look out for law enforcement.

“On a big hill I was riding in California, we all got $215 tickets,” Burton said. “Out here, I’ve had forest rangers follow me down and just say, ‘Dude that’s cool,’ then all they do is tell us ‘Don’t disrupt traffic’ and ‘Keep your helmet on.’ They’re really cool about it out here.”

Burton hopes to continue with the sport by collecting sponsors and skating around the world, despite taking a nasty spill in 2014 that landed him in the hospital with a bleeding brain.

“It’s not that it scared me, per se, but it changed the way that I approach risk. I used to believe that being adventurous meant doing something and not caring about the risks,” he said. “Now, I see it more as looking at the risks for what they are and choosing to do them anyway, or not choosing to do them. It was a really big growing up moment for me.”

It’s a risk he’s willing to take for a sport he loves. He said he feels the downhill style is unique, a culture all its own.

“It’s a silent protest to the absolute over-obsession that our society has with safety,” he said. “I understand that there are times and places for that. But when everything is a liability, and everything is an opportunity for a lawsuit, even close friends of mine, I was in a car accident, they’re like, ‘Dude, did you sue?’ and I told them, ‘No, I’m fine.’ I find that to be completely counterproductive to a society of human beings that are supposed to work together and trust each other.

“A lot of the reason a lot of us choose this sport over others is that, yes, we’re putting ourselves in a lot of risk, but it’s only ourselves and others that choose to ride with us and consent to it,” Burton continued. “We have no intention of endangering anybody else, and most of us don’t encourage other riders to do things that they don’t want to do. We really believe that the amount of risk that you choose to take is a very deeply personal decision and we’re just there to encourage and support people in however they want to ride.”

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Information from: Coeur d’Alene Press, https://www.cdapress.com

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