By Matthew Hendley
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Hundreds of bodies glisten in the hot sun of a hazy Philadelphia summer day. Lanky young men in baggy shorts and backward baseball caps wind their way through a dense crowd, pausing to glance at teenage girls in tight tank tops and shorts. Young families crowd side-by-side with raucous twentysomethings into the packed bleachers that face an enormous gated dirt motorcycle track. Inside the track, giant ramps of chocolate brown dirt swoop up from the earth in steep, dramatic slopes.
Breathing is already a little difficult with the thick humidity in the air, but the spectators are really on edge for the breathtaking stunts that they've come to see.
Suddenly, a loud rev rips like the buzz of a chain saw, and everyone turns to look. Up from the other side of the dirt mound, a guy on a dirt bike flies 50 feet into the air -- a full five stories -- leaving the ground in a cloud of dust and soaring skyward like Superman. His legs fly up behind him as he holds on to the handlebars, and the crowd gasps, then cheers, as he lands smoothly a moment later.
This is freestyle motocross, a cutting-edge sport of gravity-defying, high-flying stunts on (and, for brief moments in the air, off) dirt bikes. It's the last hour of practice before eight daredevils enter the Freestyle Finals of the X Games -- the Super Bowl of extreme sports.
Spectators gather around the southern end of the arena, where a row of searing hot metal barricades separates the crowd from the riders, who talk to fans as they await their turn for one more run.
One of the riders, in heavily armored gear, wields a black Sharpie as he faces a throng of sweaty, giddy 12-year-olds, signing the tee shirts, hats, posters and magazines that they hold out for him. This celebrity of the moment is Nate Adams, who at 18 is one of the rising stars of freestyle motocross -- arguably the most extreme of the extreme sports. He's also the youngest rider in the professional freestyle moto circuit. Earlier this year, he won the World Freestyle Association (WFA) Championship for two events, Freestyle and Big Air. While Freestyle is a 90-second run through a course of jumps and ramps, where riders have to pull as many stunts as they can, Big Air gives each rider three chances to do one big, mind-blowing trick. Now, as defending champ, Adams is under intense pressure to uphold his reputation in the same two events at X Games.
Two young boys, hair spray-painted neon green, approach Adams for an autograph and ask him if he's going to do a backflip during his run. He shakes his head and pulls down his shirt collar, pointing to a shiny pink bump protruding from his collarbone. The boys stand in awe at their injured hero, then get distracted when someone in the crowd throws up a stack of bumper stickers -- two dozen kids scramble to grab them as one kid yells, "Free shit! Free shit!"
Adams is one of four members of the Phoenix freestyle motocross team Hessian Aggression. Although the sport pits them against each other as individuals, they call themselves a team out of camaraderie -- their success put Arizona on the freestyle map, which is otherwise dominated by California-based riders.
Adams' teammates, Jeff Doetzer, and Robert and John Distler, have also tasted some of the fame that Adams is enjoying, including top rankings in the International Freestyle Motocross Association (IFMA), whose next competition comes to America West Arena this Friday and Saturday. But they've also sustained severe battle wounds that have taken them out of competition for weeks and months at a time, forcing them to restake their claims on glory, again and again.
The Distler brothers, who share not only similar achievements but also uncannily coincidental accidents, are working hard to get back on track within the upper echelon of freestyle motocross after their injuries.
Doetzer, whose chances of competing nationally were recently dashed after breaking both of his wrists, is getting wary of breaking yet another bone.
Adams' career, meanwhile, has been promising from the start, but the past year has seen some remarkable success. His digitized likeness will appear in three video games that will come out soon, and he just recently added retail giant Target to his lengthy list of sponsors, which also includes Thor, maker of sought-after motocross gear; DC Shoes; Von Zipper sunglasses; Alpine Stars riding gear and sportswear; and handlebar manufacturer TAG Metals. He signed on to an action sports agency last year, and earned roughly $150,000 in contest purses and salaries from sponsors. This year, his father and former manager says, he could make maybe double that.
And while the three teammates observe Adams' skyrocketing career with a mix of admiration and realistic insight, Adams keeps pushing ahead. Although he's suffered injuries in the past, he had yet to face any major setbacks, until recently.
Freestyle riders understand that the threat of injury is a constant. While the competitions are extremely dangerous -- there is no room for mistakes, and pressure to perform the sickest tricks can lead to gruesome wipeouts -- merely practicing can be just as sketchy. A mechanical malfunction in the bike, bad timing or just a slight change in the wind can lead to a high-speed crash. And even the smallest injury can hold back a rider when contest time comes around.