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.
That's why Adams is lucky to have gotten this far, the final Freestyle round of the X Games. Just six weeks ago, while practicing in California with fellow rider Mike Metzger, he set his mind to mastering the backflip -- the dangerous, flavor-of-the-moment feat that is rumored to guarantee a gold medal at this year's X Games. Last year, rider Carey Hart was the first to attempt the stunt at the games, but suffered a severe wipeout. Metzger has since landed dozens of backflips at his home ramp, but hasn't tried them in competition. But Adams, on his practice run in California, came up short on the ramp, landing face-down on his front wheel as he was three-quarters of the way through the rotation. The result was a broken collarbone and a separated shoulder. "The clavicle separated right at my shoulder," he explains. "That's why it sticks up -- there's nothing holding it down anymore."
In order to heal and to save his strength for the high-profile X Games, Adams dropped out of two other big competitions in early August, the Vans Triple Crown in Tacoma (an event in which he held second place in last year's final standings) and the Gravity Games in Cleveland.
Going into the X Games Freestyle Finals, Adams ranked seventh out of eight riders. His collarbone is still broken, but he's determined to ride. He admits that the injury will hold him back from performing his signature trick, the Tsunami. A dramatically extended handstand from the bike's handlebars -- done midair, across a 75-foot expanse -- it's a trick few riders can do. Although a similar trick called the Kiss of Death inspired Adams to create the move, the Tsunami is a unique expression of Adams' own riding style. The secret's in his flexible shoulders, he says, which, under normal circumstances, allow him an impressive degree of extension.
But since the accident, he's in too much pain to even try. He can't perform his trademark stunt, and the injury is seriously limiting his repertoire of moves. So Adams will have to plan his freestyle run around what he's capable of doing with a broken bone.
"I've been doing a lot of double nac nacs -- it doesn't hurt to do 'em, so I throw 'em out pretty good," he says. The trick involves kicking both legs off to one side of the bike as the rider hangs on to the handlebars. "I'm not doing the Tsunami because it hurts."
Adams' father Tandy stands nearby, polishing his son's 230-pound dirt bike adorned with Target logos. "He's so stoked about being able to ride but doesn't want to fall down," he says plainly. "Because he knows that if he lands on his shoulder again, he's gonna be toast."
Sinking his muscular, six-foot frame into the plush living-room sofa at his parents' Glendale home, Nate Adams makes a very unassuming sports star. In his baggy clothes and chunky skateboard sneakers, he looks like the kind of gangly kid who would be more comfortable on a BMX bike than on a football field. He has a baby face, but his blue eyes, full of quiet determination, show his maturity.
Adams lives with his mom and dad, Sandy and Tandy Adams, and is the youngest of three children, all of whom ride motorcycles. His older brother and sister join Nate and his dad for rides out in the sand dunes in Glamis, California, while Sandy watches. Nate credits his father with teaching him how to ride. "My dad raced professionally -- he rode his whole life," he says, "so it was just what he wanted to do for us when we were little."
Nate has been riding motorcycles for 11 years, and took up motocross racing at 10.
In grade school, he dreamed of turning 18 and going to World Mini in Las Vegas, the world's biggest amateur motocross race. "That was my goal. I was trying to earn money for that when it was 10 years away," he says.
But by the time he was 14, Adams had grown frustrated with racing. "There were so many fast kids that it just seemed pointless for me to try so hard," he says. "I started to do tricks just to loosen up, and then I met one of the Distler brothers."
Robert and John Distler were already getting established in the new sport in the late '90s, and with John's help, Adams competed in his first contest at age 15. Then in 2000, Adams was dubbed the IFMA Rookie of the Year. From there, his career took off.
For their part, at 19 and 20, Robert and John Distler are old hands at motocross. "Our dad bought us a little Trail 50 and put training wheels on it. I was 3, Robert was 21/2 or so," says John. "Poor Mom!"
John, a big, friendly guy built like a lumberjack, takes over the conversation. Robert, who has a trim build and a mischievous gleam in his eye, sits quietly as he lets his brother speak for both of them.
The boys and their father rode out in the desert most weekends, John explains, at one point dabbling in motocross racing but finding it too expensive to pursue.
Robert and John soon started to experiment with motorcycle tricks that they already perfected on their BMX bikes. Then in the mid-'90s, the first videos of freestyle motocross came out.
"We were just doing it for fun, but then we saw them doing it on videos," explains John. "I was like, Man, I can already do those tricks on my BMX bike. We just have to work up the guts to go hit big jumps on our motorcycles.'"
After that, they say, there was no turning back. "When we got back on BMX bikes, after going from a 10-foot dirt jump to a 60-foot dirt jump, it was kind of boring," John says.
A mutual friend introduced the Distlers to Adams, and the three of them started hitting freestyle at a time when the sport was still considered a novelty for pro motocross racers.
"We were the second wave of riders," says John. "Most of the first guys were ex-racers, and they had a lot more bike skills than we had. Now there's a lot of kids who are just freestyle. Luckily, when me, Robert and Nate got in, they were needing riders. They started out having spots for 25 riders but they only had 15 to fill it."
That was in 1999. Now, just three years later, freestyle motocross has come into its own, and competition is stiffer than ever. There are more than 30 national-level contests yearly, and just about as many pro riders. "Anymore, it's hard to get your foot in the door if you're a new kid," John says.
The Distlers quickly became regulars on the national circuit, even while still in school. Life on the road took them to a different city every weekend, and they spent their free time with their fellow Arizonans in the series, Adams and Doetzer. Before long, one of their inside jokes led to the formation of their own team -- Hessian Aggression.
"A lot of the places we travel to are redneck towns, I guess you'd say," explains John. "There's just mullets flowing everywhere."
The guys got plenty of unwanted advice from "the Hessians." John laughs. "Some of 'em are just pissed off all the time for some reason, and we just started calling 'em Hessian Aggression. Like, Dude, check out that Hessian Aggression!'"
They came up with a logo design -- two skeletal hands forming devil horns -- and a slogan: "Too much metal for one hand."
Just for kicks, they made tee shirts and started wearing them at contests. Hessian Aggression shirts became so popular that a promoter offered to pay them for use of the name. "We were all in on the joke, and we just decided to make a business out of it," says John.
Now the team is planning a whole line of streetwear that's due to come out this fall. Adams and Robert Distler are the designers.
And the Distlers welcome the extra income. Robert and John each have several product sponsors that send them free gear in exchange for displaying their logos, from bike parts to clothing and accessories for riding. But none of their sponsors actually pays them. "Hopefully after this year we'll start getting stuff where sponsors will start paying for more expenses," John says.
Despite the flat fees they collect from doing demos and the prize money they can win at contests, life on the road can get expensive. "When [the money] is in your bank account right away, you think, Oh, sweet, dude.' Then you get a couple-thousand-dollar credit card bill because you have three flights on it and a couple of hotel rooms," John laments. "But I can't complain. I get to do something I love and make some money at it."
Robert, who hasn't talked much this afternoon, adds in a hushed, gravelly voice, "It's better than 9 to 5 -- that's all I really care about right now. You can make a lot of money in it."
But cash flow quickly becomes a big problem if a rider becomes injured.
"John was hurt for like three months, and then he runs out of money," Adams says. "So he has to ride again, and so he's riding on a leg he shouldn't be riding on."
John broke his leg last September. The break required surgery to attach a metal rod and four screws in his bones.
A couple of weeks later, Robert broke his arm. It was bad timing for both brothers -- they weren't able to compete in qualifiers for Gravity Games and X Games.
For sure, between the two of them, Robert and John have had their share of injuries. But the most severe by far happened to Robert last Easter. His raspy voice -- which has earned him the nickname "Quiet Robert" -- almost gives the story away before he tells it.
"I was in the sand dunes, just riding and having fun. I did a jump and went too far, then I landed on the crossbar. It severed my trachea and tore my esophagus -- paralyzed my vocal cords." He had surgery to repair his trachea and was in the ICU for 13 days, getting back to high school just in time for his senior prom.
Now, recovering during the summer while riding on the MD Extreme Moto and Music Madness Tour, Robert and John are both trying to climb back up the ladder of freestyle competition.
The two have different riding styles -- John says he manhandles the bike, while Robert lets the bike do the work. But they push each other to succeed and, just as their injuries seem to coincide, they always seem to share victories. At the two-day X Box FMX Pro, the second round of the Vans Triple Crown of Freestyle Motocross held in Tacoma in early August, both of them reasserted their presence in national competition. Robert placed sixth on the first day's competition, competing in the main event, and 10th on the second day; John placed seventh and ninth out of 15 total contestants.
Bob Walker has the mind of a businessman and the soul of a dirt bike rider. With a shaved head and piercing gaze, he looks serious behind his large office desk. But while he never drops the professional demeanor, his face softens as he talks enthusiastically about his stable of 14 extreme sports athletes -- in skateboarding, snowboarding, motocross and freestyle moto -- and three motocross racing teams, clearly his pride and joy. At one point, Walker reveals two scarred wrists from an old motorcycle accident -- proof that he knows firsthand the daunting challenges dirt bike riders face. He is president of Action Sports Management (ASM), the Phoenix-based agency that has been representing Adams since last year.
Walker discovered Adams two and a half years ago, when he was staging a three-night freestyle motocross jumping exhibition at the Arizona State Fair. Headlining the event were top riders Tommy Clowers, Jeff Tilton and Mike Jones, along with the Distler brothers. A sixth rider missed his flight to Phoenix, and Walker needed a local kid to fill in at the last minute. The Distlers knew Nate and brought him into the event.
"I saw Nate ride, and the first jump he took, he almost came up short," says Walker. "I'm like, This kid doesn't know what he's doing.' But then right after that, he nailed jump after jump . . . he picked it up so quick." Walker realized Adams' potential, he says, and kept him in mind until he founded ASM last year. By then, Walker says, "He was at the top of our list."
It was only a matter of time, after that, until Nate's game went corporate.
Early this year, ASM was contacted by the retail giant Target about finding an athlete who has the youthful edginess that appeals to Gen Y but not the kind of erratic, hell-raiser behavior that would scare away mainstream customers. "In conversations, they're like, This is the type of athlete we're looking for. Is there anyone out there like that who you'd recommend?'" says Walker. His response was, "That fits Nate perfectly."
Target insisted on freestyle motocross -- not motocross racing -- for its marketing, Walker says. Freestyle is much edgier, much cheaper, and is similar to skateboarding in its appeal, he explains. The new breed of riders like Adams has created a distinctly different culture from motocross racing, which attracts more families and the NASCAR crowd.
To put it into perspective, Walker rattles off the long list of demands from another major sponsor for Adams that ASM is currently working on: "We want someone younger than 23, we want someone that's clean-cut, good-looking, says the right things. We want the boy next door, and we want him to ride freestyle motocross," he says. "Oh, and by the way -- we need him to medal, too."
Walker says there's only one guy who fills that bill -- Nate Adams.
Walker and Todd Hahn, ASM's boardsports director, are confident that Adams has the talent and the attitude to make an extremely successful career out of freestyle -- provided he avoids getting seriously hurt.
"Knock on wood," says Walker, "he hasn't had a major injury yet. I mean, I hate to say it, but I think with any of the extreme sports . . ." His voice trails off.
"It's not a question of if -- it's when," adds Hahn.
"So you have to make your money while you can," Walker concludes.
Injury might seem inevitable for any rider. "I'm seeing guys jump off the bike in the air more and more now. They're snapping ankles and breaking backs," Walker says.
But Hahn thinks Adams' remaining relatively unscathed is more than sheer chance. "There's a lot to do with your abilities. You create your own luck," he says.
Two weeks later, Adams made that first attempt at a backflip in California -- and wiped out.
Adams has to prove himself at two X Games motocross events: Freestyle and Big Air. As the current WFA champion for both events, he has to withstand the pressure of his own reputation -- an event announcer describes him to the crowd as having "a ridiculous future in this sport." He also has to get back up to speed after being in recovery. "It was my first time back on a bike since my injury -- it's been about five weeks," he says.
For the Freestyle Finals, riders have one 90-second run to do as many tricks as they can. Judges evaluate the performances on criteria like fluidity and technical difficulty, but the audience reaction is clearly a factor. Before their runs, the announcer introduces each rider through an echoing loudspeaker.
"Philly, it's time to get off the hook!" he proclaims, as people yell and wave their hands for the TV cameras. "And now, one of the most consistent forces in all of freestyle moto X . . . Nate Adams!"
Adams, clad from head to toe in an armor of red, white and black, speeds up onto one of the dirt ramps closest to the bleachers, stopping briefly at the top to survey the fans. Packed shoulder to shoulder in a sweaty, sweltering mass, the fans look up at him as they scream in unison, clapping their hands above their heads. Then Adams coasts down the other side of the ramp to head back for the beginning of his run.
Glaring, grayish sunlight drenches the dirt track. The thick air is motionless and dense, as the crowd waits for the clock to start. Suddenly, one and a half minutes start ticking away as Adams shoots onto the course with a loud roar. The audience breaks into wild applause as he launches off the ramp where he just stood moments ago. He pulls a Rock Solid, sliding back on his bike as he flies upward, grabbing the back of his seat and kicking his legs out, then letting go of his bike entirely, to the audible gasps of the crowd. In a split second, Adams is back on his bike and heading toward a smooth landing and on to the next jump. The mesmerizing succession of tricks comes in waves as he approaches each mound of dirt, moving so smoothly that he seems to have defeated gravity.
Then, approaching yet another jump as time is quickly running out, he races up the slope, and inexplicably heads right over the peak without doing a trick. Loud gasps burst out from the audience. Then a dull chorus of disappointed groans.
"Ouch, it's a Dead Sailor!" exclaims the announcer.
At this point, Adams is at the far end of the track, barely visible. For a few seconds, the audience stands bewildered, confused. Then Adams makes the turn and finishes his run with one of his favorite tricks, a Double Nac Indian Air -- holding the handlebars as he flips his legs out to one side with a scissors motion. Fans cheer for that one last move, but they're cheering in relief. They already know that the Dead Sailor -- Adams' aborted trick -- will surely take its toll on his score.
"I hit a funny spot on the lip, and it just threw me a little funny," Adams later explains. "So being hurt and everything, I just decided not to do a trick."
Since he forfeited the one jump, he finishes in eighth place. Adams dismisses his last-place finish. "I didn't think I was even going to be able to make the finals," he reasons. But clearly he's discouraged that the pain has gotten in his way. His pensive eyes are shadowed by disappointment, tinged with resolve to try harder next time.
The second-to-last rider, Kenny Bartram, is someone Nate says he admires for his skill and speed. Bartram's 90 seconds of tricks are almost up when he goes for the clincher: He slows down as he approaches the ramp, giving the crowd a split-second hint that he's about to try a backflip. Then he shoots up, hurling himself upside down as fans start to clap. But something goes wrong. As his front wheel hits the top of the ramp, he collapses onto his side. He lies still and the bike slides away. Everyone in the audience goes silent as they strain their necks to see. A few minutes later, he slowly hobbles down the ramp with the help of six men. The crowd breaks into nervous applause.
Mike Metzger's run is the last of the Finals. He was seen doing perfect backflips during practice, so it's a given that he'll do another. He punctuates the entire minute and a half with crowd-pleasing tricks, but saves the big one for his finale. With just a couple of seconds to go, Metzger buzzes slowly up the ramp, flips and lands smoothly -- then, before the audience has a chance to cheer, immediately speeds up the next ramp to do a second backflip. It's never been done before, and the crowd leaps, pumping their fists in the air and shrieking in surprised elation. There's no question that he won the gold medal.
"We've just seen history in the making," the announcer states grandly.
The pit area at the southern end of the track becomes mobbed with people excited to see the victor.
Adams, who was the object of adolescent adulation just a while ago, becomes lost in the crowd.
Adams lists broken fingers and toes, broken and chipped teeth, a dislocated shoulder and a bruised back among his injuries, none of which took him out of competition for too long. The broken clavicle and separated shoulder are the most serious he's had so far.
But the severity of the injury is only one issue. Timing is another.
Adams' first attempt at a backflip was in early July. With a minimum of four to six weeks required for healing time, the injury has already kept him from competing in the Gravity Games and Vans Triple Crown. Now at X Games, he has to compete against his pain as well as the other riders.
His father Tandy says it's unfortunate, but it's the nature of the business. And he would know.
Like an older, more weathered version of Nate, Tandy still has the muscular build of an athlete and eyes glittering with enthusiasm. Casually, he pushes on his own shoulder, pointing out an old injury that was never operated on. A detached collarbone. The wound is almost identical to his son's.
Tandy grew up around motorcycles and started riding at about age 7. "I'm kind of like my boys," he says, grinning. After high school, he became a professional dirt track racer, which took him all over the country. "I was gonna be the next Kenny Roberts," he says proudly. He managed life on the road for about five years, until life as a family man started to take over.
With his own business as a carpet layer, he would work hard between races to save up money, just in case he hurt himself.
Tandy's departure from racing was unexpected.
"I just happened to be out at Manzanita one night, on a local track, and fell. It caused a big pileup, and it just completely destroyed, just totaled, my 750 racer," he says.
A good friend of Tandy's was seriously hurt in the accident and had to spend 12 weeks in the hospital. "I didn't even get hurt. And I just thought to myself, You know, this is enough.' That was the end -- that was my last race ever."
But Tandy never stopped riding, and he encouraged his kids to ride as soon as they were old enough. "We're just a two-wheeled family," he says, beaming. "It's a great family sport, but it's also very dangerous."
His wife Sandy, a vice principal at Highland Lakes School in Glendale, is supportive of Nate's career, but Tandy admits that she's "scared to death he's not gonna go to college."
Up through his high school graduation this past spring, Nate managed a 4.0 grade point average while still missing one or two days a week to go to weekend contests. Involved in every step of Nate's career, Tandy functioned as his manager, making travel arrangements and going along to almost every event.
For now, freestyle motocross is a full-time job for Nate, earning him a solid six-figure income, sometimes bringing several thousand dollars in one weekend. "Our experience with the whole thing has been very good," Tandy says.
The explosion of freestyle has not only led to more opportunities for riders to make money, he adds, but also to a more professional, better-quality sport. Just a few years ago, conditions at demos and contests were far less than ideal, he says.
"When I look back on it, we did some really sketchy stuff that was just not set up right," says Tandy. "But he wanted to jump so bad and put a show on for people." He speaks sympathetically to that desire, as if reminiscing on his racing career. "So knowing what I know now, I would never go back to some of the stuff we did early on. Today it's a lot safer in a lot of ways because promoters and the guys that are into the sport know what they need."
Still, he's well aware of the threat to life and limb that his son faces every time he goes out on the track.
"When I'm on tour, like the IFMA Series, virtually every weekend you see broke bones." He continues matter-of-factly, "I've seen both legs broken, both tib-fibs, broken femurs, broke necks, concussions, guys just knocked completely unconscious and just wadded up.
"I mean, that's the reason I've traveled with Nate the last two and a half years. Because I don't want to be here, get a call from Cincinnati and Nate's in the emergency room and we're not sure what's wrong with him. I'm not gonna do that," he insists.
"Because I've told myself and my wife, whether he falls and skins his knee, or if he's breathing his last breath, I was gonna be there."
Nevertheless, experience has shown Tandy that confronting danger, without any hesitations, is crucial to a rider's best performance. Fear isn't part of the equation. He speaks knowingly as he explains why anyone would want to jump the equivalent height and length of a house. "It's almost like the bigger, the better."
Twenty-three-year-old Jeff Doetzer, the oldest member of Hessian Aggression, stares at the freestyle videos on his TV like a kid looking gloomily at friends playing at recess while he's stuck inside. With his shaggy black hair, tattooed arms and punk-rock vibe, Doetzer looks every bit the part of an extreme sports athlete -- all the way down to his wrists.
One's in a cast; the other's tightly bandaged.
It happened at an outdoor demo in Utah at the end of June, on a windy day when none of the riders wanted to jump. The event organizers moved the ramp in 50 feet, and Doetzer overjumped it.
"Usually you can overjump, but the way I landed kinda made my wrists just buckle," he says, without looking away from the TV. He dislocated and broke both wrists. "They were just hanging there, like dangling."
Doetzer speaks with authority about broken bones. He's had more than most people ever will, including two broken ankles that laid him up for a year. Only a few months ago, he got out of the hospital for a lacerated spleen.
But in spite of his injuries, Doetzer gets back on a dirt bike the first chance he gets.
He started at age 8, then took up motocross racing at 13. He made it all the way to the 250 intermediate class -- one step away from pro -- then quit racing when he was 18 because it got to be too expensive.
After that, Doetzer would still go riding in the desert, doing jumps for fun. "We'd steal tractors," he says. "I met this guy who made jumps out in the desert -- it was called a six-pack -- and it had three sets of doubles. That's how I met John and Robert."
Around the same time that Adams took up freestyle, Doetzer started learning more and more tricks from the Distlers. But finding a place to jump was a constant challenge.
"They would kick us out at places to jump, saying it was too dusty or something. Then later you'd go back and there'd be a housing development built there," he says.
But soon they met guys on the pro circuit who had their own ramps. Here in Phoenix, Hessian Aggression has its own jumps on a private property at a location they keep secret.
Doetzer's fledgling freestyle career got a major boost two years ago, at the Phoenix IFMA event. "I was a nobody," he says, "and finally I was at a big contest and I got fifth."
He compares the sudden leap in status to becoming an instant rock star. "Then I got invited to go on a Lear jet with Nate. This guy that owns Warner Trucking flew us to Nebraska, put us up in a hotel, gave us a thousand dollars, and we just had to jump ramps at this motorcycle rally. It happened really fast."
The big money didn't come soon enough to prevent Doetzer and his jobless roommates from getting evicted from their apartment, but he was happy to lend his friends a hand after they got kicked out. "I wasted all my money on having fun. That's my big deal," he says, laughing.
Doetzer has continued to make a name for himself, coming in fifth place in final point standings for the 2001 IFMA Series. But injuries have made it a rough road to success.
"I'm not as big-time as Nate," he says. "He took off. He hasn't even gotten hurt yet!"
Since saying this, of course, things changed for Nate, in California.
Doetzer hasn't been as serious about his career, he claims, because he just enjoys the moment, hanging out and having fun with other riders. "We'll be at contests, and [Nate] will have his headphones on, by himself, thinking about his run. And I'll be screwing off with somebody. I know I don't have as much dedication as him."
The thing that keeps Doetzer going, he says, in spite of the setbacks, is the enjoyment of riding. "I've been doing it for so long, it's like walking," he says.
But even while Doetzer moons at the TV screen playing freestyle videos, you can tell that his most recent accident has dampened his enthusiasm for the sport. He adds, "I think I'm gonna take a break for a while." His optimism cracks for a moment, revealing exhaustion. "I'm not gonna rush into it. . . . I don't wanna hurt my back or something. You know?"
Three days after his Dead Sailor run, Adams has to face 14 other riders for the Big Air Finals -- the last, most dramatic event of X Games. Walker gravely announces, "He's gonna medal tonight."
Philadelphia's First Union Center, an enormous indoor arena that's at the heart of X Games, is packed to the rafters with noisy fans waiting to see the final competition.
The lights go dark as the menacing sound of a clock tower tolling the hour echoes through the arena. Roars from the crowd become deafening, and the air is thick with exhaust fumes, fine dust and billowing clouds of dry ice smoke. Strobe flashes and colored lights pierce the darkness. The wailing strains of Guns n' Roses grow louder, and two announcers standing atop the giant mountain of dirt in the center of the floor call out for the 2002 WFA Big Air champion.
Adams zooms out of the blackness and up to the top of the ramp, where the presenters hand him his award, a huge, shiny belt that he holds up in the air. It's a moment of victory, and the competition hasn't even begun -- this award is for ranking number one at the X Games qualifiers, held earlier this year.
In Big Air, 15 riders will get three turns to hurtle down a platform ramp at one end of the floor, launch off of a steep metal ramp, then pull their most impressive tricks before landing on a dirt ramp.
During round one, Adams waits atop the platform, gripping his handlebars and slightly lowering his head, showing off the shiny Target logos and gleaming chrome on his helmet. As the announcer introduces him, fans start to shout in a frenzy of applause. Adams gets the signal to take off and plows toward the launching ramp, a streak of red, white and black. He pulls another Rock Solid, the same trick he used at the start of his Freestyle run. While it's greeted with loud approval from the audience, it's quickly eclipsed in score by subsequent riders, putting him in 12th place.
Finishing the round is Metzger, who is introduced as "The Godfather of Freestyle Motocross." A video screen centered high above the ramps displays his unprecedented double backflip from Friday, making fans go crazy. The entire arena vibrates from the burst of deafening sound. Then the loud, scraping rev of his engine cuts through the noise, and he rockets down the platform and up the ramp into a flawless backflip, setting the bar impossibly high.
For round two, Adams flies skyward into a No-Handed Can to Sidesaddle Lander: As the sleek bike hurtles off the ramp, Adams brings one leg to the other side of the frame, then grabs the handlebars and lands seated with his legs off to one side. The spectators give loud approval. However, the judges aren't as easily moved, and they keep him in 12th place.
"I hate doing those because I think they're really lame," he later admits, "but other guys were in the top five for doing it, so I tried it and it didn't get me any better."
Again, Metzger finishes the round. He's greeted by the same ear-splitting roar of encouragement, and he lands another perfect backflip. He doesn't budge from first place.
In round three, Adams has one more chance to break out from the bottom rungs of the contest. He still can't do his daredevil Tsunami, but he has to do something more complicated than anything he's done before at these games. Bursting off the launch ramp at full speed, he pulls a Rock Solid with a No-Hander Lander -- the same trick from earlier, where he allows the bike to fly ahead of him as he hangs on to the end of the seat, lets go in a complete leap of faith, then pulls himself back on to the bike. The difference this time is that he lands perfectly -- without touching the handlebars at all.
People scream when he touches down. The announcer acknowledges it as a "technically difficult trick." Now the judges are impressed, and Adams leaps up to second place. It's the most stunning mix-up the scoreboard has had all night.
But then fellow rider Carey Hart pulls up to the platform. He was the first to attempt the backflip at last year's X Games, but didn't complete the rotation. Now the pressure's on for him to make up for it. Everyone in the arena is reminded of the infamous wipeout as it's replayed on the giant screen overhead. They clap furiously as if it will somehow help him succeed. Then, Hart breaks through the tension and guns down toward the steep ramp and vaults up, circling around in a complete flip. He lands, eliciting cries from relieved spectators, then coasts into the pit area where friends and fellow riders pat him heartily on the back. Hart's move puts him into second place, pushing Adams into a four-way tie for third.
For the last run of the night, the announcer shouts, "Get on your feet for the Godfather!" Up on the platform, Metzger stands astride his bike, looking around the stands to acknowledge the legions of fans. As if he could do them all night long, Metzger clears a third backflip just as gracefully as the first two. The only difference in round three is the tornado of sound echoing throughout the arena: Instead of cheering encouragement for a stunt that might fail, the crowd roars for something it's quickly come to expect. Without a doubt, the stunt seals Metzger's gold medal.
All the riders stream out of the pit onto the dirt ramp, and photographers swarm around Metzger. Adams wanders out, looking confused -- he still doesn't know if he's taking home a bronze. It takes a few minutes before someone informs him that the tiebreaker is determined by performances in previous rounds and that he's been knocked down to fifth place.
But he's all too aware that the stunts at this year's X Games just upped the ante for future competitions, and he's facing pressure from all sides. It will be a couple more months before he's healed enough to attempt a backflip again. In the meantime, his only regret about X Games, it seems, is getting injured in the first place.
"I was out for five weeks, so I didn't get a chance to try anything new, to come there with anything big," he explains. Then, with conviction, he asserts, "I think if I wasn't hurt, I would've been doing backflips."
Adams doesn't talk as if he might not land a backflip. He knows he can pull it off -- when he's healed.
Tandy adds assuredly, "He hasn't gotten the backflip yet, but he will -- in short order."
It's a sentiment shared by Nate's agent, who had hoped to get a medal out of his athlete in Philadelphia. "If you're gonna wanna win, you're gonna do a backflip," Walker says. "It's that simple." But he's also keenly aware of the stakes. "You are literally taking your life in your hands," he says.
"I would've loved to get a medal," Nate confides. "I've been to three X Games and one Gravity Games and haven't gotten a medal yet. So I just want it really bad. I was just bummed that I was hurt and I wasn't riding 100 percent."
But Adams takes comfort that everyone, including his dad, felt good about his final standings at X Games. Considering his injury, he says, "no one can really expect anything out of me."
"There's about a half-dozen tricks that he can't do now, so to pull out something that got him into the Freestyle Finals was great," his father notes. At Big Air, he reveals, the pain was so bad that Nate almost didn't enter the competition. "He wasn't even sure he was going to go through with it, so I was stoked that he wound up getting fifth."
"A lot of people say, Well, you have to do it now,' like my agents," Adams says, about the trick that, for now, eludes him. Then he becomes visibly more animated, even for a freestyle rider. "I'm gonna backflip because I want to backflip on a dirt bike. . . . I'm not here for anyone but myself."
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