Love (and other emotions) in an elevator
MUNICH -- The only thing worse than riding the creaky elevator up to the top of the MegaRamp is not riding it at all. That's the only reason why the best skateboarders in the world are willing to fly down an 88-foot tall ramp, flinging themselves into the air.
The best way to explain why they would do this is to catch sight of a man who is not allowed to jump. On Sunday night, in the hours before the Skateboard Big Air final, Jake Brown slumped against the wall outside an arena. He'd hit his head during practice on Saturday and knocked himself out cold. The X Games medical staff forced him to withdraw. He begged to get back in. Officials said no, so the closest he'd get to competition was the piece of concrete he'd found. He looked lost, empty, an angry Masonite burn on his chin. An olive drab duffel bag lay on the ground next to him. He pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniel's and took a swig. All he wanted in the world was to ride.
The X Games in Munich ended Sunday night, and the centerpiece of the final day was Skateboard Big Air, which draws sellout crowds of fans either boozed up on stout German beer or tweaking on Red Bull -- oohing and ahhing over the flips and spins, secretly hoping for a spectacular crash.
It had been a wild four days, with people enjoying currywurst at a skateboard street competition, or maybe a doner kebab at a motocross race, or perhaps getting a free tattoo in between. Not henna tattoos. Real tattoos. One dude got an owl with his face on it.
"I wanted an owl that looked like me," he said.
For many, all of that was prelude to the Big Air. That's where the skaters soar into the sky, 20 or more feet above the lip of the quarterpipe, spinning as many as three times. The MegaRamp is less a skating apparatus and more of a circus cannon. It rises nine stories into the air, built in the Olympic Lake in Munich, surrounded by a grassy hill full of spectators.
The inside of the ramp looks like a rib cage with bones of tubular steel scaffolding. An open-air freight elevator on the back side is how the riders get back up to make their next run. Four or five riders at a time can fit inside the elevator, and during the hourlong competition, the elevator will make 31 runs up and down.
There are only four MegaRamps in the world. One was in Munich. Another is in skateboarder Bob Burnquist's backyard. Burnquist is the most decorated Big Air skater in the world, a 36-year-old grown man. On the second trip the elevator makes to the top, he finds himself standing next to one of his newest peers: 12-year-old Jagger Eaton, named after Mick.
Eaton wears a shirt with the German colors on it, which the local fans should love.
"You're a smart kid," Burnquist says. "Now say something in German!"
Everyone laughs, not showing any stress hidden beneath the surface. It's almost time to go live. Cameras circle upstairs on the ramp deck, and the minutelong ride is the last chance to center themselves. Burnquist closes his eyes and breathes, finally opening them when the elevator reaches the top. On the next trip up, Burnquist fist bumps Eaton. At the top, a ramp official yells, "Seven minutes!"
On the seventh trip to the top, Burnquist tells the skaters to hurry up and get on the elevator. The competition is timed, and the skaters need to complete as many runs as possible in two 20-minute segments. Burnquist is the schoolmarm, especially with three teenagers competing. When he barks, they obey.
"Turbo!" he yells. "Turbo!"
Burnquist waits his turn, the elevator going down for another group of skaters. It's halfway up when he drops into the MegaRamp.
Burnquist lands something the other skaters call a switch backside 540 ollie, which means he spun around a time and a half and did a lot of other crazy stuff that none of the other professional skaters had ever seen before. It's a video game trick. Everyone is falling on themselves.
"There it is," 13-year-old Tom Schaar says.
"G-- damn Bob!" Eaton screams. "That was so freaking gnarly! That was freaking nuts!"
The skaters watch the video screen during the ninth elevator trip to the top, and they see Elliot Sloan wipe out, and flying full speed, slam his head onto the ramp.
"Owww," Schaar says quietly.
"F---," Rony Gomes says.
They don't talk much after that. The medical team huddles around Sloan, and the elevator stops running.
Fighter pilots hate funerals, and skateboarders hate it when everything stops, because even if they can't see their friend stretched out, surrounded by paramedics, they've seen the scene enough to carry it with them everywhere. Any of them could be laid out right now, and eventually, all of them will.
On the 11th trip, Sloan steps back inside the elevator. He looks shaky, sitting down on one of the guardrails. He stands and hunches over. There's a little small talk but the other riders give Sloan his space. His thoughts are his own. The ramp official is standing there when the elevator reaches the top.
"I didn't know if I'd get to see you again," the official joked.
Sloan roars down the ramp. The other skaters want to see if the fall is in his head, or maybe just his sore joints. They lean over the side of the elevator to get a better view of the video board. They all cheer when he sticks his landing. It never feels like a competition around the skaters. Nobody plays head games or tries to intimidate anyone. A good trick deserves respect.
"He's back!" Schaar says.
"No way!" Eaton says. "Dude, you get bonus points for that."
Eaton turns 13 next year, which means that he has recently added another interest to his life besides skateboarding: girls. The lift is headed up for the 20th time when a young shapely thing walks up the road beneath the ramp.
"Oh," he gushes. "She's so fine."
He looks through the leaves of the trees lining the road for a better view.
Jimi Hendrix blares out over the speakers. Fellow skater Alex Sorgente laughs and sings along.
"Little heartbreaker," he croons.
"Am I in first?" Burnquist asks during the 27th ride to the top.
The other skaters nod. The competition is nearly over. Just a few runs left. The seven competitors have been flinging themselves off a tower for the past hour, doing it over and over, always being rushed off the ramp by the television producers with a close eye on the clock.
Burnquist and Sloan are fighting for first place, standing next to each other on the ramp. "I'm not scared right now," Burnquist says. Both hold out their hands and theatrically make them shake.
"How many more runs?" Burnquist asks on his next trip up.
"One," Eaton says.
Then everyone just starts dancing. Eaton, as usual, is the spark, doing his version of the eye move from "Pulp Fiction," which came out seven years before he was born. He busts out "Gangnam Style," and everyone crowds around, with Burnquist shaking it, too.
"Bob's about to twerk it!" Sloan cracks, laughing.
The competition is over.
Burnquist rides to the top of the ramp one last time. His wrist looks like it hurts, and he lays down on the wooden floor of the elevator, curling up, his head resting on his hands. His eyes are closed, and when he opens them, he stares into the hazy sky. He limps out of the elevator and the crowd cheers when he comes into view.