What it feels like to drop into X Games Big Air

BARCELONA, Spain -- Before competing in Big Air, skateboarders don knee pads, elbow pads, shin guards, hip pads, chest protectors, back protectors and, of course, helmets. If I were to ride down the Big Air MegaRamp here at X Games Barcelona, I would need all of that equipment, plus a pair of Depends.

Big Air looks spectacularly insane on TV, but even a 70-inch HD screen simply cannot capture the knee-wobbling, hyperventilating, kidney-draining view you get in person from the lip of the MegaRamp. It's so high that the competitors ride an elevator to the top.

Imagine walking along the roof of a nine-story building and peering down at the sidewalk. Now imagine getting on a skateboard or a bike and placing your front tire on the ledge. Then picture pushing yourself over the edge.

That is essentially what they do in Big Air. The tallest drop-in ramp is 88 feet high and begins with a seemingly sheer plunge at the top that gradually curves as it reaches the bottom, 65 exhilarating feet below.

If anyone tells you they're not scared [of Big Air], they're lying and trying to be tough.
Bob Burnquist

"If anyone tells you they're not scared, they're lying and trying to be tough," says Bob Burnquist, who won Skateboard Big Air gold at the X Games in Brazil. "We're all scared. It's respect scared. Because if you're not scared, you don't respect it, and if you don't respect it, you're going to get hurt."

Asked what goes through his mind just before he pushes off the edge, Jagger Eaton replied, "I'm just thinking, 'Don't die.' "

Eaton says the first time he tried Big Air, he was scared out of his mind. "I was thinking, 'This is going to change my life if I do it,' " he said.

Eaton, by the way, is 12 years old and the youngest athlete competing at X Games Barcelona. What is it like for his parents, or any parent, to watch a child roar down the MegaRamp at up to 40 mph and then sail through the air?

"I cry. I cry every time. It's scary," said Ryonna Smith, mother of skateboarder Alana Smith, who will be competing in the debut of Women's Skateboard Park in Barcelona. "Anything is easier to watch than the MegaRamp."

Brett Wilhelm/ESPN

Elliot Sloan during Big Air practice at X Games Barcelona.

Fortunately for Ryonna's tear ducts, her daughter is not competing in Big Air here. But 12-year-old Trey Wood is an alternate for Big Air. His father, Jay Wood, says he sometimes averts his eyes because it's so frightening to watch his son speeding down that huge ramp.

"For me personally, I have a fear of heights, so just the thought of him at some of the heights he goes is hard for me," Jay said. "I usually find somewhere to go on the perimeter and watch. I feel more comfortable when I'm a distance away.

"I don't know if I will ever get comfortable watching him do it. I love that he loves it, but it's hard for me."

The thing is, plunging down the MegaRamp isn't even the most dangerous part of Big Air. The competitors also must fly over a gap that ranges from 50 to 64 feet, land safely on the quarterpipe and ride up that ramp, rise about 20 feet in the air above the lip, reverse direction and ride back down. If you miss on the quarterpipe, you risk crashing down onto the lip.

"My board went the opposite way once, so my legs just gave out and I landed on my chest," Trey Wood said. "The doctor said if I didn't have a chest protector on, I would have punctured my lungs. I've been lucky, I guess, that I haven't had too bad of a fall. Some of these guys have gone as high as they can and hit the top of it. They look like a rag doll."

Burnquist said he, too, has been lucky with injuries. "I've broken bones mostly. I've had 28 fractures. A lot of repetitive ones."

Yeah, only 28 broken bones, including six fractures of a bone near the elbow. Mega Millions Lotto winners have nothing on him.

Brett Wilhelm/ESPN

Imagine standing 88 feet high at the top of this MegaRamp here in Barcelona and pushing over the edge.

Still, as much as the athletes may fear Big Air, they also love it. This is why they're attracted to the sport. Eaton says Big Air did change his life, giving him many opportunities, such as competing here in Barcelona against Burnquist (who, at 36, is three times his age). Plus, Eaton said, "It gave me so much confidence."

And as much as his stomach twists and turns while watching his son, Jay Wood says he sees the benefits for his son as well.

"It's been a neat lesson for Trey -- walking through it and learning to overcome fear," Jay said. "I think there are a lot of things in my life where I robbed myself experience-wise because of fear. Whereas I've watched him battle and walk through those fears. It's neat to watch that as a parent.

"Skateboarding has taught him so many life lessons that can't be taught otherwise and that even us as adults don't go through."

I can confidently say that Big Air is a life lesson that I won't experience, either. The only way I'm going down from the top of the Big Air ramp is via elevator or stairs. As Jay Wood said, "I think there is a fine line between insanity and genius."

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