Weekend Plans? Just Hangin'
For X-athletes young and old, Pennsylvania's Camp Woodward is a good place to take the air.
The Washington Post
September 25, 2002
Camp Woodward can make you sick. And I mean that in the best possible way. Because "sick," as any extreme biker, blader or boarder will tell you, is the right-now vernacular for the ultimate state of cool-dom, that moment when you nail the can-can, grab the sweet, high air or execute the perfect 360 off the vert ramp. Used in a sentence, it sounds like this: "Sick trick, dude!"
For those of you not in the know, biker, blader and boarder is BMX biker, Rollerblader and skateboarder. And those -- plus gymnastics -- are what Camp Woodward, the extreme sports camp in Woodward, Pa., is all about. The very look of the place -- a sprawling, 70-acre park crammed with ramps, skate bowls and dirt jumps -- is so sick it'll make you want to hurl. This isn't your father's camp. Unless your father is skating pro Tony Hawk or says things like "Skate it up!"
If you want to know what that means, dads, chaperon your kid to Woodward for a weekend. You won't be alone. With parental supervision required for campers younger than 20, it's a chance to have a private X-sport stunt show, starring your very own progeny. (Parents too nervous to watch are known to trek off to nearby State College or browse for antiques and collectibles in the bucolic environs of Woodward. But plenty hang around, and many report actually enjoying it.)
I wanted to taste the sickness firsthand, so on a recent weekend I climbed onto a borrowed Hoffman BMX bike and headed for the quarter pipes. About 20 years ago, when I was a BMX freak myself, we'd do tricks in the neighborhood and "get rad." As in "radical." Back then, rad was the highest plaudit a tabletop, endo or any other trick could earn. But times change, and so does slang. Tricks change, and so do bikes. So, as it happens, have I. But I'll tell you how I did on the ramps later.
Launched in 1970, Woodward was exclusively a gymnastics camp until 1982, when the directors added BMX racing and started building freestyle ramps for daring two-wheeled tricksters. Skateboarding followed in 1988, and in-line skaters (also called Rollerbladers) arrived in 1993. The camp's many jumps, ramps and other gonzo facilities range from warehouses named School and Playground to the in-your-face Cage, a pro-level street course built for an ESPN competition. Common sense and my out-of-practice bones told me to avoid the Cage, so for my ride I chose the mellower Outdoor Street course.
This is weekender's season at Camp Woodward, a bit calmer than the summers, when about 10,000 skaters, bikers and boarders -- plus gymnasts -- practice their moves here. Now, X-athletes of any age (except gymnasts, who are summer-only) take over from mid-September through mid-May. Any skill level, too: Former X-athletes like me are free to mingle with today's top dawgs. So are those wanting to go on their maiden runs into the bowls or off the ramps.
For those just getting started -- or returning to their own personal Gravity Games after a long absence -- it helps to watch the experts at work. That's what I did.
It turned out to be a bit of a mistake, at least for my ego. Not long after I met Kevin Colla, a lanky 15-year-old from South Windsor, Conn., the youthful BMXer inside me felt so emasculated and inferior that I briefly considered bolting and taking up lawn darts. Colla looked to me like he'd just wheelied off a Wheaties box. I watched, awed, as he jumped his 20-inch-frame bike over a tightly packed succession of five quarter-pipe ramps, at one point lifting both of his feet off the pedals and forming a flying V with his outstretched legs. That move, he told me in a laconic, teenaged way, was a "no-footed can-can."
It looked wicked dangerous. Wasn't he scared to do it? He blinked at me and simply answered: "No."
I'm guessing he wasn't frightened when performing the so-called "suicide no-hander," either. The move entails taking both hands off the bars and throwing them behind one's back, all in mid-air. I made a mental note to skip it when my turn came.
In-line skater Garrett Bergman, of Potomac, came to work on "grinding" -- the art of sliding across or down railings or poles (picture the creative destruction that occurs at Freedom Plaza). "They teach you a lot" at Woodward, Bergman said between skates at Lot 8. All around us, his cohorts were whirligigging off gargantuan ramps as the musical stylings of the latest speed-metal band kerranged from a boombox.
"It's awesome. Where else can you skateboard, like, 12 hours a day?" said skateboarder Adrian Hass-Hey, of West Windsor, N.J., a frequent camp visitor. He paused to yell "Yeah!" at a boarder-in-flight who'd popped up like a friendly ghost out of the Rock, a 20,000-square-foot sunken concrete skate bowl. "Awesome," he said again, and went to try an "air over the hip" in the bowl. I didn't know exactly what that meant, but it sounded cool. I mean sick.
It also sounded like something that I, personally, shouldn't try. I don't really have skateboarding aspirations. But I still liked watching Stephen Lewis, who came as a camper for four years and is now one of Woodward's skateboarding instructors.
"Make sure you get out over your board before you push down!" Lewis explained, teetering on the business end of a six-foot-tall half-pipe, as he demonstrated the "drop in" to a gaggle of tykes and teens. Down he went -- whoosh! -- gracefully.
I headed to my own session on the bike just after dinner at the Hummingbird Room in nearby Spring Mills. (Talk about "awesome"; I recommend the lamb chops.) Well, like I said, bikes have changed. They now have four-inch pegs attached to the wheel axles that allow you to suspend yourself parallel atop a ramp. I thought that was a nifty development but decided against ramp-top derring-do. The rear of the seat is also pushed way down, which I found hard to get used to.
Hey, I'm older and, therefore, bigger. I don't fit on a BMX bike too well these days; I graduated to a mountain bike long ago, and the most extreme thing I do is bunny-hop curbs on my way to the C&O Canal towpath. Pedaling while sitting down, I knocked my knees on the handlebars a couple of times.
Thanks to the ever-patient Shawn Dorton, one of the BMX instructors, I did all right. I put on my helmet and hard-capped elbow and knee pads and started out by pulling some little -- really little -- aerials. Gradually, muscle memory kicked in and I got bolder. I began to zoom up on and then drop down into some big ramps, coasting back to flat-topped macadam and safety. My aerials got slightly bigger. "You were getting it," Dorton said to me the next day.
But I didn't exactly get sick. That's all right, though. I didn't get killed, either. At my age, I'll just settle for rad.