The Camp of Hard Knocks
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Camp Woodward would be considered extreme anywhere, but it seems especially out of place here, in the heart of Amish country.
On this late afternoon, a horse and buggy are stopped alongside the two-lane road with the passengers leaning against one of the large, wooden wheels. They point down at the dirt course where some of the best freestyle motocross athletes in the world are launching themselves and their 250-pound bikes into the air at heights of 50 feet.
The first sign of your arrival is the glimpse of a motorcycle, not on the road, but soaring across the foreground of 425 acres of an action sports test lab nestled among green, rolling hills. It's not only the place where athletes train, but it is the gold standard -- a place for pioneers who continually raise the bar and never stop pushing the limits.
Freestyle motocross rider Mike Metzger is from California, but he made his first trek to Woodward, Pa., this year to train for the Dew Action Sports Tour, which begins tomorrow. He was one of the soaring bikers who wowed the crowd with can can and nac nac back-flip combos.
"As an action sports athlete, you pretty much know that you'll be here one day," he said. "But, being here now, the videogame and the brochures and magazine pictures don't do it any justice. It's overwhelming. Bigger and more beautiful. We don't have any green trees like this in California. There's just more than I even know what to do."
Woodward has humble roots as a pine tree farm that became a gymnastics camp because of its empty barn and proximity to Penn State.
But it was 10 years ago when the blue foam changed everything.
Foam blocks have been a staple of gymnastics training for decades. Each block is about a square foot and hundreds of them fill pits that allow young gymnasts to comfortably attempt their first flip and elite ones to try new moves safely.
In 1996, the Australian ski team was at Woodward to use the gymnastics equipment to train for their aerials. Late one night, on a whim, they built a foam pit in front of one of the taller ramps they called Mount Everest.
Camp owner Gary Ream was surprised the next morning to see the new setup.
"It's one of those things where it made perfect sense," he said. "But for some reason our worlds of gymnastics and action sports were always separate."