Short stacks vs. legends of Big Air
On a clear, warm June day in the rolling hills outside Tehachapi, Calif., Regan Schaar calls out to her 12-year-old son. "Tom!" she says in a motherly voice of polite authority. "You gotta get dressed, honey."
By "dressed" she means it's time for her youngest child to gear up for an afternoon skate session.
This will be no ordinary session. In fact, there's nothing ordinary about this monolithic skate ramp or the handful of pint-sized skateboarders about to ride it.
Heading into this week's Big Air competition at X Games LA, the kids at the Woodward West action sports camp are here for one reason only: to ride the MegaRamp every day. Can these preteen prodigies hold their own against X Games veterans three times their age? The world will find out on Thursday during the live broadcast of Skateboard Big Air elimination rounds on ESPN2. Until then, practice makes perfect.
To prepare, young Schaar spends the next 20 minutes squeezing his 5-foot, 90-pound frame into a flexible, makeshift suit of armor. In addition to the standard helmet, knee pads and elbow pads, Schaar wears full-finger gloves, full-length soccer shin guards and one of those plastic-plated vests commonly worn by motorcycle racers. He also wears snowboard-grade gel-injected padding to protect his tailbone and hips from high-speed contusions. A pair of Schaar's contemporaries, 11-year-olds Jagger Eaton and Trey Wood, even wear strapless mouthguards.
"Skating this ramp is as dangerous as it looks," said Trey's mom, Stacy, who's posted up rampside with water, snacks and sunblock for her son. "I'm very protective. I keep an eye on him. If he's looking worn down, it's time to get him off the ramp. As parents, that's when we come into play. We take this very seriously."
As they should. This ramp -- which is one of only two permanent MegaRamps on the planet -- starts way up on a looming hillside, where skaters drop in via a 100-yard track to gain speed. By the time they reach a set of pitched launches -- which most closely resemble the kickers found in professional snowboarding events -- they're going about 40 mph. After clearing the 70-foot "gap" section, skaters then have to contend with a 27-foot quarterpipe that can easily send them another 10 to 25 feet skyward of its vertical lip. Anywhere along the way, a fall can be confidence-rattling at best; at worst, downright deadly.
Parents of these young skateboarders are acutely aware of that. A few months ago on this same MegaRamp, Jagger's big brother, Jett, who was 13 at the time and well on his way to earning an invite to ride in this week's Big Air competition, lost control while speeding down the approach ramp and slammed against a kicker like an insect against a windshield.
"I heard the thud," remembered Geoff Eaton, Jett's father. "I ran up there, and as soon as I saw him, I screamed, 'Call the helicopter!'"
Jett woke up in the hospital with a skull fracture and bruising of his brain's frontal lobe. He has no memory of the crash.
After a family meeting with the boy's neurologist, they decided to ratchet back Jett's skateboarding a few notches. The MegaRamp is off limits. At least for now. "I'll be at X Games next year," Jett said.
Geoff Eaton told ESPN.com that he hasn't yet gotten any hate mail for allowing Jagger to compete at X Games after witnessing firsthand how a MegaRamp slam can damage the human form.
"If you want to bubble-suit yourself and wear your helmet your whole life, you're gonna clear with the neurologist every time," said Eaton, a former competitive gymnast who owns the Kids That Rip skateboard school and the Desert Devils gymnastics training facility in Mesa, Ariz.
"I understand where they're coming from," added Stacy Wood, referring to parents critical of her decision to allow Trey to ride MegaRamp. "But I'm just backing what my kid loves."
Before dropping into his first run of an afternoon session that moves him one step closer to landing an elusive 900 on the quarterpipe, Trey told ESPN.com that riding "the MegaRamp has always been a dream. I feel like X Games is a big accomplishment I've been working for my whole life."
That young Trey has been putting in the work ranks high with the small group of grown men who cherry-picked the Big Air roster this year. MegaRamp's Jeff Jewett, who co-owns the brand alongside pioneer Danny Way, among others, explained that prospective Big Air competitors need a track record in the discipline. It doesn't hurt that Jagger, Trey and Schaar all rode the Dreamland MegaRamp Invitational event last fall, held at perennial Big Air dominator and defending gold medalist Bob Burnquist's personal MegaRamp. Since then, the groms have dedicated many weekends to riding the Woodward West ramp.
Also to get the nod, Big Air contenders must routinely land tough tricks, above and beyond simple gap jumps and average airs on the quarterpipe. And finally -- and this is a big one -- they really have to want it, meaning they must have the support, time and financial wherewithal to train hard in the weeks leading up to X Games.
By that criteria, Jagger -- who's the youngest athlete in X Games history -- and his buddies arguably pass muster, joining an elite collection of skateboarders worldwide -- about 50 or so -- who can ride a MegaRamp with confidence and control. (It also explains why decorated Big Air veterans Pierre-Luc Gagnon and Andy MacDonald aren't on the invite list. Gagnon's priority is Skateboard Vert, and MacDonald is already on double duty with Vert and Skateboard Park.)
Last year, then-14-year-old Mitchie Brusco broke ground as the youngest Big Air competitor in event history and landed the first competitive 900 during early rounds, finishing fifth overall. This year, preteen Schaar leads the young-gun charge, the only skater on Earth who can claim the 1080. In April, at X Games Asia, on a scaled-down version of the MegaRamp, Schaar took home the gold medal after landing the first 1080 in competition, beating out Burnquist along the way.
"Tom Schaar and Mitchie Brusco are 110 percent deserving to be [skating Big Air]," said Burnquist, 35, whose body of work on the MegaRamp -- from competitive history to video parts to mainstream media coverage -- is unrivaled. "But you have to keep in mind that this is a professional contest, and you can't open it up to any kid who can jump the Mega. If [contest organizers] really want to do it that way, have a kids division."
"It's amazing to ride with them," added Burnquist, one of just four athletes that's competed in every X Games since its inception. "They have a different energy, and everything is still a dream come true to them. And I guarantee you're going to see one of them do a 900 this year."
Or maybe even a trick that's never been seen on a full-sized MegaRamp during competition?
"I know that everyone wants to see me do the 1080," Schaar told ESPN.com during a recent training session at Woodward West. "I'm nervous about the X Games, [even] just practicing for it."
Although their competitive nerves could get the best of them, these kids have something else going for them.
"I would call them unbreakable," said Adam Taylor, 22, who started competing in Big Air when he was 18. "I was like them not too long ago. Fall ... get back up ... do it again. They have that advantage for sure. And they're tiny; they can spin around really fast. [That's easier] when you weigh 80 pounds."
What's not so easy at that weight is going big, added Taylor, who deliberately puts on about 10 pounds before a MegaRamp competition to help him launch farther across the gap section and blast higher airs on the quarterpipe. That's the point, he says. "The contest is called Big Air. It's not called Big Trick."
Judging a skateboarding contest "is like judging art, it's a really hard thing to do," skate legend and Big Air judge Steve Caballero told ESPN.com. "Age does not matter. When they're standing way up on that takeoff platform, they all look the same size anyway. It's what they're doing. It's what's being presented that day. I'm looking for anything that impresses me. Difficulty. How they land. And it always helps to bring something new to the table. Bottom line is that it's really just my opinion, and I don't care what anybody else thinks."
Win or lose, added Stacy Wood, as her 11-year-old son dedicates yet another MegaRamp session to pushing the boundaries of his own skateboarding, "I think this event will help open up a lot of eyes around the world on how talented these kids are. They deserve to be at X Games."
Watch the X Games Big Air contest Friday from 9 p.m. to midnight (ET) on ESPN