July 09, 2015 Features & Images » Feature Story

When Kids Fly 

Is it wrong to let children do extreme sports?

When Kids Fly: Is it wrong to let children do extreme sports? - STORY BY JON LACKMAN / PROFILES BY DAN FALLOON
  • Story by Jon Lackman / Profiles by Dan Falloon
  • When Kids Fly: Is it wrong to let children do extreme sports?

Just off Spyglass Drive in Tehachapi, Calif., a small city about 160 kilometres north of Los Angeles, a hulking steel lattice rises in the middle of a dusty plain. The girders hold up one end of a suspended wooden road that swoops up the hillside underneath it like a smooth, caramel-coloured roller coaster. The other end lies 90 metres away, its top 10 stories above its lowest dip.

One afternoon in April 2012, five boys and a man climbed into a camouflage-patterned dune buggy and drove uphill to the ramp's apex. There, the boys strapped on helmets and dressed themselves in kneepads, chest and spine protectors, hip pads and gloves. The oldest among them, a 13-year-old named Jett Eaton, dropped his skateboard and stepped on its tail, popping its front wheels into the air. He tipped his board over the platform's edge, then dropped into his run. Halfway down the length of the ramp, he reached a jump and soared over a 21-metre gap. On the other side, he resumed his descent toward the far end of the ramp, which curved up suddenly and launched him 12 metres in the air, spinning furiously, before he crashed back down onto the ramp.

He was trying to complete a difficult trick known as the ''nine'' — attempting, in the three seconds he was airborne, to spin 900 degrees, or two and a half times, like a figure skater performing a double axel, while holding onto his board with both hands. Jett had been trying and failing to do the trick for months.

After three hours — and Jett's 13 unsuccessful attempts at the nine — Geoff Eaton said they were done. He was their coach, and he didn't want anyone skating while tired. He had driven his two oldest sons, Jett and Jagger, who was 10, seven hours from Mesa, Ariz., that day to skate here, on one of only two permanent MegaRamps in existence.

The kids were gathered at the bottom, tossing a football, sharing snacks and laughs, when Eaton realized that Jett was flying down the MegaRamp again, having sneaked back up to try the nine one more time. As he approached the jump over the gap, he wobbled, then slammed into the ramp. ''Call the copter!'' Geoff yelled.

Even as childhood in America seems to become more and more circumscribed in the name of safety — as schools limit recess activities and remove threatening playground equipment, as critics inveigh against parents who let their children roam without supervision — kids participate in extreme sports at ever-younger ages. What used to be simple pastimes, like riding bicycles and skateboards, have evolved into thrill-seeking pursuits and intense competitions whose goals include new tricks and surpassing what's thought to be possible. Jett Eaton was first invited to compete on the MegaRamp in the Big Air event at ESPN's X Games when he was 13 years old; two of the top six finishers that year were 15 or younger. In January, a snowboarder named Chloe Kim became the Winter X Games' youngest gold medallist, at 14. In March, Minna Stess, then eight, became the youngest girl to skate from the top of the MegaRamp. The snowboarder Benni Fridbjornsson, now 10, landed a flip when he was six.

Vani Sabesan, a professor of orthopedics at Michigan State University and the lead author of a forthcoming study on head and neck injuries in extreme sports, worries that kids aren't developmentally ready for these activities. They tend to underestimate risk, and their parents can't always be trusted to keep them in check. She is especially concerned about adolescents who imitate things they see on TV or in videos, without proper training. ''What we're seeing is a lot of kids thinking maybe they can do what these professional athletes can do,'' Sabesan says.

She also points out that youth participation in extreme sports tends to be unregulated. ''Very rarely is it medically supervised, professionally followed,'' she says. ''That makes it even more high risk.'' Nor has there been much research on which extreme sports, or which moves within them, are particularly hazardous to kids.

''We don't even know what the injury rates are,'' Sabesan says.

The Norwegian research psychologist Ellen Sandseter, who has published two dozen papers on children and risky sports, describes herself as having been ''a sensation-seeking child,'' phrasing she prefers to ''thrill-seeking.'' She was lucky, she says, to have a father who took her skiing and mountain climbing.

By the time she was a young adult, she noticed that parenting attitudes were changing, that fewer kids got the opportunities she did, and she resolved to investigate why.

In the 1990s, she says, a program introduced Norwegian teenagers with drug problems to sky diving and other extreme activities. After that, they committed fewer drug offenses, fared better in school and reported being happier. In a later study of 360 high schoolers, researchers found that those who said their parents encouraged things like rock climbing and kayaking were less prone to criminal and antisocial behaviours like speeding, stealing and vandalism. ''If you've grown up with a lot of experiences with risky play, this teenage period will be more manageable, you'll be more realistic in your risk assessment,'' Sandseter says.

Sandseter says that she let her son and daughter, now teenagers, climb very tall trees as grade schoolers and that her son now does back flips on skis. Over the years, he has developed a finely tuned kinesthetic sense for what his body can do safely, and he heeds warnings from coaches and peers. She believes that his skiing has made him generally more mature than most kids his age. But, she says with a sigh, ''he is a frequent guest at the emergency room.'' He has broken his shoulder, forearm and wrist; split his head open; suffered a concussion.

I have two daughters, seven and nine, who are thrill seekers. When our youngest was three, she slid down our three-storey spiral-staircase banister. She probably would have reached the bottom safely — she later told us she'd done it many times before — if someone hadn't happened by and startled her. Instead, she fell, breaking her collarbone. Last month, my eldest took a trip down a treehouse slide she had greased with bath soap and broke two bones in her foot. Both girls climb rock faces as high as 15 metres and are clamouring to go higher. My wife and I recently discovered they have a new favourite playground: our house's roof.

We don't want to Bubble-Wrap our daughters' childhoods. But we don't want them to seriously hurt themselves either. So we're stuck in the middle, questioning our choices.

After his crash on the MegaRamp, Jett Eaton was airlifted to the Level 1 trauma center in Fresno, 210 kilometres away. ''I thought I lost him,'' Geoff Eaton told me recently. Jett suffered a fractured skull, bruised frontal lobes, a seizure and a concussion. When he left the hospital three days later, it was not clear if he would ever skate the MegaRamp again.

As a young child, Jett wanted to do motocross. His father discouraged that and steered him toward skateboarding, which Jett took up at seven. As his skating improved, Geoff built an increasingly elaborate skating facility near their home in Arizona. Jett placed fourth in a major competition when he was 13, the age at which he was first invited to the X Games.

When I sat down with him earlier this year, he had just finished a three-hour practice session. His T-shirt, from DC Shoes, one of his sponsors, was drenched in sweat. His left forearm was encased in a black cast for a broken wrist. I asked him why he kept at it, despite all the injuries. To date, he has had 10 concussions and five seizures, has broken six bones and has had his spleen punctured twice.

''I got my first skateboard for Christmas when I was seven, and my dad built me a small ramp in my garage, and ever since I've loved it,'' he said. ''I couldn't stop getting on my skateboard.'' On good days, skateboarding is pure happiness. ''And even when I'm feeling down or not skating too well, if I start skating with my friends, I can get pumped up that way.'' At the end of his workout, I saw Jett finally land a trick he struggled with for weeks, the ''backside 180 nose grind'' — in which the front truck of a skateboard slides along a curb — and his whole body went slack with satisfaction. His friends rushed up, and everyone exchanged fist bumps.

I asked Jett, who has returned to skateboarding's second-largest ramp, the "mini mega," if he will go back to the MegaRamp too. ''Most likely I'll get back on it,'' Jett said.

His father is OK with that. ''That's his choice, if he wants to do it again,'' Geoff told me recently. ''I'll never tell him no.'' He sees how hard Jett skates: five hours a day, five days a week. Geoff also knows that some people regard his parenting as crazy — even criminal. But where others see only the injuries, Geoff believes he has helped his sons, now 16 and 14, find passion, identity, tight-knit peer groups. He says they eat right, sleep well and disdain alcohol and drugs. They apply the grit they've acquired through skating to their schoolwork.

''If you're going to live, you can't live behind a stop sign, taking no risk, and every time you want to do something that gets your heart beating, you decide that it's safer if you don't,'' he said. ''That's not how I live. I don't want my kids living like that.''

Jon Lackman is the author of a forthcoming graphic novel about Maria Lani, a model and con artist from the 1920s. He lives in Hatfield, Mass. He has written on politics, science, and the arts for Harper's, The New Yorker, Slate, Wired and other publications.

This article first appeared in the New York Times Magazine May 14, 2015.



Jack and Georgia Armstrong

By Dan Falloon

Left to right: Georgia, Chris and Jack Armstrong - PHOTO BY DAN FALLOON
  • Photo by Dan Falloon
  • Left to right: Georgia, Chris and Jack Armstrong

Chris Armstrong didn't exactly agree with any view that his children, Georgia and Jack, were extreme.

That's because so many kids growing up in the Sea to Sky corridor operate pretty close to what others might consider the edge. In other words, it's a normal part of growing up in the bubble.

Georgia, 10, is a gymnast, but also takes part in BMXing and snowboarding. She's also set to start swimming this fall.

Seven-year-old Jack, meanwhile, enjoys BMX and downhill biking, snowboarding, soccer and hockey. Of that wide variety of activity, he prefers downhill biking for the adrenaline rush it provides.

"There's a lot of jumps and I like whipping off on them," he said.

Georgia, meanwhile, said gymnastics is her preferred activity. It's a sport that boosts her others with a benefit to her flexibility and balance, and her favourite move — the back handspring, where a gymnast leaps backward onto her hands and back up to her feet — is a difficult and challenging display.

"I really like doing all the moves and learning how to do skills," she said of gymnastics.

Chris said there was no apprehension in getting the kids started so early. He noted both started skiing at two and riding the bike park at age five. Jack got into BMX at age four, while Georgia was seven.

Both have had close calls, but haven't had any major injuries.

"(They have) all had crashes in everything, but haven't broken anything," Chris said.

In terms of goal-setting, Jack is looking into the future, as he hopes to eventually become a professional downhill biker and take part in Crankworx. Georgia, meanwhile, has a more immediate achievement in mind — to graduate to the competitive 1 level in gymnastics.


Adam Shippit

By Dan Falloon

  • Photo by Dan Falloon
  • Adam Shippit

The 2010 Winter Olympic Games are slipping back into the realms of history at this point.

But the ripple effects of the Games are actually starting to intensify in some regards.

With the top athletes in the world here in the resort, several youngsters experienced firsthand the rewards of hard work. With the brand-new Whistler Sliding Centre open for action, a portion of those young athletes was drawn into luge. And now, with the chance to train locally, some of that international glory is coming back to the Sea to Sky corridor.

Leading the charge is Adam Shippit, a 16-year-old Pembertonian who won the youth A doubles World Cup this year with three victories in six races. Whistlerites Matt Riddle and Reid Watts were fourth and fifth respectively and Squamish's Nicky Klimchuk-Brown was sixth. Riddle and Watts emerged as world champs in their own respects, capturing the youth A doubles title.

Luge is a sport where athletes have to start young — Luge Canada recruits those eight to 14 — in order to properly develop the right muscle memory.

With Whistler's track a notoriously fast one on the world scene, the incoming participants must steel themselves quickly to eventually reaching top speeds of 145 km/h. After winning the Crystal Globe, Shippit told Pique one of the biggest challenges this season was accepting the simplicity he found in other places where he got seven training runs compared to "the thousands" of runs he's had at home.

"In Whistler, we have a more complex track, but (in Europe) it's simple," he said. "You had to just almost forget everything you've learned in Whistler and learn a whole new different type of sliding."


Jackson and Cooper Bathgate

By Dan Falloon

LefT to right: Jackson and Cooper Bathgate - PHOTO BY DAN FALLOON
  • Photo by Dan Falloon
  • LefT to right: Jackson and Cooper Bathgate

It's a surname that's well regarded in hockey circles, but Jackson and Cooper Bathgate are setting out to associate it with skiing.

The twins are the grandsons of Hockey Hall of Famer Andy Bathgate, who scored 973 points in 1,069 NHL games, primarily with the New York Rangers. If the younger duo can keep up their current pace, they'll be lauded on a similar level.

Both brothers, the sons of well known ski racer Greg "Sumo" Lee, made it to the Freeride Junior World Championships in Grandvalira, Andorra as 16-year-olds this past February.

Twins can generally be the target of some ribbing for their similarities, but Whistler Blackcomb Freeride Club head coach Derek Foose said that when it comes to their competitive approaches, they couldn't be more different.

"Cooper is extremely calculated and very consistent, and Jackson has a little more of the wingnut (mentality). He's the guy where he's going to win or he's going to explode doing something spectacular. They both have their merits."

From their first visit to Whistler Blackcomb at just eight weeks old to taking to their skis just three years later, the Bathgates have been early adopters of skiing. The pair even received an advance entry to the club at age 11.

There are skills the twins will have to develop further to become forces on the world stage. At the worlds, the competition was set up differently from what North Americans experience, as the section of the mountain upon which skiers would ride was cordoned off and skiers could only plan their attacks from afar.

Jackson placed sixth at worlds, while Cooper ended up in 18th after an early fall dashed his gold medal dreams early. The uncertainty in what he'd be skiing played a role, he said.

"(I was) looking for a playful fun line. I picked the line that looked like the most fun. I wasn't exactly stoked to ski it, mostly just nervous," Cooper explained, adding after the fall, his improvisational skills came into play.


Stephanie Denroche

By Dan Falloon

Stephanie Denroche - PHOTO BY SCOTT ROBARTS
  • Photo by Scott Robarts
  • Stephanie Denroche

Whistler downhill biker Stephanie Denroche got her start elsewhere in another discipline, but found success pretty quickly in her new one.

Denroche, who started in cross-country, found a vibe pretty quickly on a downhill bike. Last summer was her first riding one, but she made the most of it, winning the U17 national title at Sun Peaks last year as a 16 year old.

Getting her start in cross-country helped Denroche build up her riding skills as she prepared to climb into downhill.

"When you start on a little bike with not-very-good suspension or none at all and you do technical riding, I think it really improves what you're going to do (downhill)," Denroche said. "It's better if you learn on something not as good, in my opinion, because when you get around you get to the point where you're like 'This is better, so I do better.'"

Denroche's family owns Cross Country Connections, so she's been around two-wheelers from a young age.

"I hang around there and I know bikes," she said.

In addition to the national title, Denroche also won her age category in the Crankworx Canadian Open DH and was selected as the winner of Whistler Off Road Cycling Association's (WORCA) Lumpy Leidel Memorial Award as the club's top junior rider.

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