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Edgy sport keeps generation in-line

Alternative-sport athletes take in-line skating, skateboarding and cycling to new extremes.

It didn't take long for 18-year-old Tyler Shields to figure out that he could do more with his in-line skates than just roll around neighborhood sidewalks.

"My grandmother gave me a pair of skates for my 12th birthday," recalled Shields, a Jacksonville native. "I went right to the skate park and got right on the ramps."

By the end of his first week on skates, Shields had "dropped" or conquered the 40 or so obstacles the skate park had to offer.

"It was sweet," said Shields, one of the hottest "aggressive in-line" skaters in St. Petersburg for the ESPN X Games Trials. "I wanted to do more."

Shields, like most of the athletes in town for the three-day event, never thought in-line skates were designed for anything but "grinding" handrails (sliding using the skate frames) and jumping park benches.

"We skate wherever we can," said the 5-foot-7, 111-pound hip hop enthusiast. "Hospitals, schools but we always end up getting kicked out."

In-line skating, the heart and soul of the X Games, began in 1980 as a means of off-season training for hockey players.

The activity exploded in the 1990s and today it is estimated that more than 22.5-million Americans are active in-line skaters. But aggressive skaters like Shields have turned what has been widely considered a recreational activity into a heart-pounding extreme sport.

In aggressive in-line skating, athletes competing in the vert discipline get 45 seconds to drop into the half-pipe, a U shaped ramp, and execute "grinds" (sliding on the ramp wall) and "airs" (keeping both skates off the ramp).

In the street competition, skaters must clear a variety of obstacles, including ramps, rails and box jumps (two ramps on either side of a 10-foot deck).

For Shields, risking bodily harm on a half-pipe is no big deal.

"I started racing motocross when I was 6 years old," he said. "I was used to jumping and getting banged up."

"If you are just starting out, it is easier to get into," said Jay Turner, who manages the Skate Crate Central Skate Park in Clearwater. "Kids get hooked pretty quick and next thing you know it becomes a whole lifestyle thing."

On a busy day, Turner's park will draw as many as 200 in-line skaters.

"The core group are the 8- to 17-year-olds," he said. "In-line skating is no longer just a yuppie thing. People are doing a lot more than just cruising down the street kind of thing."

Matt LaCross, marketing manager for K2 Skates, an in-line skate manufacturer, said the transition started about eight years ago.

"There were isolated pockets of aggressive in-line skaters in California, Atlanta and Milwaukee," LaCross said. "I guess the sport started the first time some recreational skater decided to jump a set of stairs. Next thing you know, people are putting skateboard rails on their in-line skates."

As a result, manufacturers battle to meet the needs of the four user groups: fitness, hockey, speed and aggressive.

"It is really competitive," LaCross said. "In-line skaters are some of the most critical when it comes to their equipment."

In case you get the urge to go jump benches or slide along a handrail, get the right equipment.

"Aggressive in-line skates are very specialized," said Rick Campbell, a salesman with Fritz's Skate Shop in Clearwater. "They are not made for cruising. They are made for tricks."

The wheels on aggressive in-line skates are smaller than those on recreational skates. They also have a groove cut in the sole and "grind" plates for maneuvers. A pair of aggressive in-line skates cost anywhere from $159 to $329.

"Most of the aggressive in-line skates we sell go to people under 24-years-old," Campbell said. "If you are older than that, chances are you won't need them."

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