By Sonny Amato
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
In the tough-guy world of action sports, where training money is scarce, the safety measures were still archaic. Outside of a helmet and pads, BMX bikers and skateboarders would use old mattresses or blankets spread out between two people to cushion their falls.
It didn't take long for Ream and the Woodward crew to set up the foam to attract even more bikers and skaters.
Mat Hoffman is a BMX vert rider and the undisputed king of the bike stunt. He won 10 world championship vert titles by staying a few steps ahead of the competition. A Woodward regular, he also was one of the first to take his bike into the foam.
After his first cushioned landing, Hoffman emerged from the pit angry, mumbling and swearing under his breath.
"He basically just said, 'This is going to change everything,' " Ream said. "He thought that after all his work, guys would instantly be able to close the gap."
Like many of the pioneers, Hoffman sacrificed to build his legend. The price for his expertise was 45 broken bones and 50 concussions.
"People say that what we're doing isn't exactly a science, but in a way it is," said John Parker, a veteran BMX vert rider. "We just happen to embrace the experimentation part of it. And, suddenly, with this foam, we could try things a thousand times before we ever really needed to risk injury."
Late that afternoon in a complex at Woodward called Cloud Nine, a group of top BMX and skateboard pros were lined up atop both sides of the vert ramp. It was the action sports equivalent of NBA all-stars playing a pickup game. Some young campers, many with their mouths agape, stood at the bottom and watched the pros attack the wooden ramp.
Some of the runs finished with one last trick that veered off the side of the ramp, where they landed softly in an enormous foam pit. Others launched themselves toward the other side of the ramp, where there was Resi -- a hard surface covering a few feet of pillowy foam.
With a remix of D.J. Kool's "Let Me Clear My Throat" blasting from the speakers, the athletes showed their approval for each other by banging their bikes or boards against the wood. They all paid close attention when BMXer Kevin Robinson dropped in for his run.
Robinson is on the cusp of landing the first double flair in competition. In fact, he has vowed that he will land one soon. At the 2004 X Games, even after crashing at the end of his official run, he attempted it again to the delight of the crowd, but missed.
At Woodward, he pumped his way back and forth to gain speed before launching himself toward the roof, flipping backward twice while doing a 180 before hitting the foam at the perfect angle.
As he climbed out, one of the skaters told him, "You would have had that one."
Just a few hundred yards away, bikes fired up for another run at the FMX course.
People from all over camp flocked to the grassy hill to watch them take flight. With the roar of the engine that accompanied each jump, the only other sound you could hear was the excited squeal of young gymnasts.
It's near this spot that Ream plans his next big undertaking -- a 250-foot-by-60-foot wide indoor FMX facility with foam pits, pulleys and harnesses like those used to train Hollywood stuntmen.
When that happens, Metzger vows that he'll pack up his family and move to Pennsylvania.
Ream smiled when Metzger said this. He and his staff feed off the energy of the athletes and the seemingly endless possibilities of what's next.
"There are those points when a guy does something and you just look at each other and say, 'What else can be done?' " Ream said. "But we know there's another level. There has to be. That's why we do this."