Flying High, Falling Hard
It's 10 p.m.—do you know where your kid's spleen is? For millions of teens and preteens infatuated with extreme sports—that is, inseparable from their skateboards, snowboards, BMX bicycles and motocross motorcycles—risking and enduring bone-crunching injuries is shrugged off as part of the experience. Inspired by the daredevilish feats of professional extreme athletes, such as those competing in ESPN's wildly popular Summer X Games, to be broadcast this August, more and more amateurs are pushing the envelope in pursuit of the perfect kickflip; "I always call extreme sports good for business," says Dr. William Roberts, president of the American College of Sports Medicine. "They produce injuries that generate more income for me than any other sport."
Gen X has given way to Gen X-Ray. In 2002 there were 428,150 medically treated injuries among children 18 or younger competing in skateboarding, in-line skating, mountain biking and snowboarding—all sports that went from the fringe to the mainstream in the last decade or so. Yet these injuries are hardly an epidemic: The percentage of people hurt in these sports is roughly the same or even smaller than the percentage hurt playing football or hockey. American Sports Data Inc., which tracks injuries based on the number of times kids play a sport, ranks snowboarding 3rd out of 25 sports in risk potential, behind boxing and football. But skateboarding ranked 22nd, and BMX biking only 24th.
What's different is the kind of damage inflicted: Many doctors believe the fast pace and high-flying nature of extreme sports leads to more serious head and body trauma. "It's like the difference between a football hit and a car accident," says Dr. Anne Boyd, a Pittsburgh-based sports-medicine expert. "One happens at a much higher velocity, which ups the risk for a more severe injury." Playing football, she adds, "is safer than extreme sports. Would you rather your child go flying off a ramp on a motorcycle or play football? It's not rocket science."
For many parents, though, the risk is worth the reward—a happy child pursuing something they love. In the two years since she took up skateboarding, Stephanie Page has broken five fingers at five times. But she has also improved enough to earn four sponsorships. Her mother, who makes sure Stephanie wears protective gear and only skates where there is adequate supervision, supports her daughter's passion, even if she isn't aware of every bloody gash. "I'm concerned about injury, but not so overly concerned that I would restrict her," says Diane, 44, a quality control inspector at a cheesecake company. "I think she knows her limits."
Sometimes that isn't precaution enough. Like Stephanie, 13-year-old motocross prodigy Austin Ekberg always wore safety equipment and "didn't ride stupid," says his father, Leonard, 43, who often talked to his son about the dangers of the sport (riders on dirt bikes jump over steep mounds while racing around a track). Last year another rider clipped Austin's motorcycle during a jump, dislocating Austin's shoulder and breaking his collarbone in the fall. When his mother, Donna Simmons, 44, arrived at the hospital near their home outside Austin, Texas, her son—a straight-A student who hoped to turn pro—was in tears. "Does it hurt bad?" she asked. "No," he said. "I'm afraid you're going to make me quit."
She didn't. This March 1, during a practice session with his best friend, Austin hit a bump and flew over his handlebars. The motorcycle landed on his back and splintered a bone which pierced his heart. Austin died almost. instantly. His parents, clearly distraught but focusing on good memories, refuse to indict motocross. "It was just a freak accident," says his father. "Motocross is a wonderful sport and it made our family so close." Now Austin's many trophies still line the shelves of his room. " 'We never missed a race," says Donna. "If your kid wants to do something and they're dedicated to it, you need to support them."
Austin's death shows that even the most safety-minded athletes can find themselves in grave situations. But in many cases, injuries occur when teens copy tricky moves they've seen on TV without considering the hours of practice that go into perfecting such moves. And just because they bounce right back from falls does not mean they are not damaging their bodies. "A lot of these kids are going to have a tough time when they get older because they will develop significant joint problems, such as arthritis," says Dr. James Williams, a Cleveland Clinic sports-medicine physician who treats many extreme athletes.
Take Phillip "Froggy" Soven, 15. Only 5 when he started wakeboarding—a cross between waterskiing and surfing—he turned pro at 11 and is now a top wakeboarder. "From the beginning my husband and I were very involved," says his mother, Michele. "Every injury he got, I would find out how and why it happened, to prevent it from occurring again." Then last June, while on a lake at his Longwood, Fla., home, Froggy tried to jump onto a 40-ft.-long wooden slider. He caught the tip of his board on the edge of the obstacle and slammed into it, shattering his nose and splitting open his face. The injury required 59 stitches and two reconstructive surgeries. "If he wasn't wearing his helmet," says his mother, "it could have been fatal."
Still, he was back on his wakeboard in just eight days. "I might get hurt again, but I'm not really worried about it," he says. "I never think I'm going to crash. If it happens, it happens." Despite her concerns, his mother knows better than to limit his time on the lake. "It's something he loves to do, so how can I forbid it?" she says. "If I did, it would be more likely that he'd do it without parental guidance."
That maybe, but some parents draw a line anyway. Chris Dahl, 16, of Katy, Texas, is permitted to skateboard and snowboard, but not to race dirt bikes. "I'm classified as the overprotective mother, but I'll take that rap," says his mom, Fran, 44. "I want him all in one piece, and there are just too many things that could happen." Jayne Polelle, 39, from Madison, Wis., goes one step further: She and husband Mike aren't allowing their kids Megan, 9, and Mitch, 12, to play any extreme sport. "We bike as a family, we run, we ski," she says. "I don't shelter my kids, but I'm not comfortable with sports with high injury rates. I want them to be safe."
Jono Moore, 47, wants the same thing for his 12-year-old son Zean, but he won't prevent him from street luging; in fact he encourages it. The Gualala, Calif., resident knows as well as anyone that street luging—in which riders lie face-up on narrow wheeled sleds and race down steep roads, reaching speeds of 50 mph and up—can be extremely dangerous. A famous luger, Moore tore off his foot in a high-speed crash in 2001 (surgeons later reattached it). "My son knows from watching me what can go wrong," says Moore, who always supervises Zean's practice runs and makes sure obstacles are marked. Zean, who began luging at age 5, sprained his ankle after crashing into a tree at 30 mph but has otherwise avoided major injuries. "When I go fast, I think about my dad's accident," he says. "It's scary, but the thrill of the ride keeps me coming back."
Stressing safety and common sense may be the best most parents can do. That, and scanning their kids for injuries. Sixth-grader Gabe Smith, who practices at the same skate park as Stephanie Page, has broken his wrist and ripped ankle tendons. "His doctor is losing his hair over the number of injuries," says his mother, Denise. "He's careful but he likes to show off."
Like the time he propped a piece of plywood on a ledge and tried to skateboard over a sidewalk. "You'd get tons of speed and land on the street," he says. "We got hurt bad, and we almost got hit by cars." Denise, sitting next to her son at the Rye, N.H., skate park, suddenly straightens up-. "This," she says, "is the first I heard of that one."
Alex Tresniowski. Anne Driscoll in Rye, Kevin Brass in Austin, Giovanna Breu and Shia Kapos in Chicago, Ken Lee in Los Angeles and Melody Simmons in Washington, D.C.