Back to the boards: Adult skateboarders brave injuries for thrills

Men from California, Washington, New York, Carolina, Kentucky are taking up skateboarding after years away for exercise, to bond with their kids and to recapture the spills and thrills of their youth.

In a rickety warehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that houses a members-only skate park called the Autumn Bowl, four men with skateboards catch up before they take on the 2,500-square-foot wooden expanse.

Robb Nordstrom, 34, wants to know where Darren Barany has been the last few months. “I had a kid,” Barany, 37, shouts across the bowl. “Yeah, I've got a 5-month-old boy,” yells Bill McGee, a 43-year-old Californian on a business trip. The kid can't skate, he said. “He just cries, and I’m like ‘Just stay on the board!’”

McGee picked up the sport four years ago, when he bought his 13-year-old son a skateboard for his birthday and got hooked himself. Now he packs his own skateboard when he travels and boasts of skating in 99 skate parks nationwide.

Since taking up the sport, McGee tore his rotator cuff, then he tore the other shoulder. He’s broken a toe and a bone in his ankle. “It was a stupid, stupid thing to take up at 39,” he laughs.

Once a sport for teenagers, skating is attracting an older crowd, albeit one where a 35-year-old is considered a geezer. Old Man Army, a company that designs and sells skateboard equipment for older skaters, has 800 members posting on its Web site. They discuss the difficulties of balancing skating with family life and the impact the sport has on their older, stiffer bodies. The “MASH Unit” section of the site features graphic pictures of scrapes, bruises, scars and X-rays, as well as updates on skaters’ various injuries and surgeries.

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Darren Barany, 37, prepares to drop into the Autumn Bowl, in Brooklyn. The Autumn Bowl is modeled after the drained pools Southern Californians first skated in the early 1970s. (Photo by Neil Munshi)

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Robb Nordstrom, 34, rips a 50-50 grind on the coping of the Autumn Bowl in Brooklyn, while 43-year-old Bill McGee looks on in full pads. (Photo by Neil Munshi)

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Bill McGee, 43, carves the Autumn Bowl in Brooklyn. The Autumn Bowl is modeled after the drained pools Southern Californians first skated in the early 1970s. (Photo by Neil Munshi)

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Chris Kole, 32, slides the coping at the Autumn Bowl, in Brooklyn, while 37-year-old Darren Barany (left) looks on. The Autumn Bowl is modeled after the drained pools Southern Californians first skated in the early 1970s. (Photo by Neil Munshi)

There are a lot of injuries. Dr. Christopher Ahmad, an orthopedic surgeon at Columbia University Medical Center, warns that older skaters need to condition their bodies before taking up a strenuous sport--a phenomenon he sees mostly associated with skiing, which shares some of the motions with skateboarding.

“Impact activities and high twist activities [like skateboarding], where your body is changing direction rapidly, pose the biggest stress for joints,” which is a big risk for injury, he said.

Skate parks first began cropping up in the late-1970s and early-1980s, when many of these now-middle aged skaters were in their teens, but interest in the sport faded. But starting in the 1990s, with the advent of ESPN’s X Games and skateboarder Tony Hawk’s videogames, parks have again been sprouting nationwide. And skaters, primarily men who left their boards behind when they went to college or got married, are getting back in the game.

Some never quit. Mike Furst, 37, of Tempe, Ariz., works full time credentialing doctors into a healthcare network. He also co-owns Old Man Army with a friend he’s been skating with since they were teenagers. The company markets to people like himself, selling wider boards with wheelbases that provide better stability.

Nik Dawson, 35, now uses those wider boards. Dawson, who works in the University of Louisville printing department, is a member of the Concretins, a collective of 30- and 40-something skaters who convene at parks around Louisville for regular skating sessions on weekend mornings--before the kids show up. One member, 28, is called “Junior.”

On their Web site, the Concretins post pictures of homemade ramps, and pictures of their children. Dawson recently posted a picture of his newborn son, Indiana, to whom he hopes to pass on the skating bug.

“If he wants to play football, he can play football, and I’ll have to learn how to play football,” he says. “But skating is definitely something we could do together.”

Tom Max, 37, who works in operations support at Comcast in the San Francisco Bay Area, bonds with his 4-year-old daughter, Frankie, over skating. His wife bought Frankie her first skateboard two years ago. And he has turned his love of skating into a side-job, consulting for skate park design firms, including a 67,000-square-foot skate park that will open soon in San Jose, Calif.

Such new parks are helping skaters like Dan Hughes, 44, a custodian in Renton, Wash., rediscover skateboarding. A dedicated skater when he was younger, he gave it up in 1983. “I was in college and my son was born a couple of years later, life got so different that my skateboards were used for moving furniture,” he said.

Then, in 1999, he saw a skate park being built across from the baseball diamond where he coached his son Jeremy’s team. Hughes checked it out on a Tuesday and was back on his own board by Saturday, with his son and his son’s friends in tow.

The first thing he noticed was how quickly he got tired. “Around the same time, I was looking for a treadmill because I was putting on weight, and I said, ‘Well, this is my treadmill,’” Hughes recalls. Now Hughes, 44, skates at least three times a week with other over-35-year-olds. Injuries are inevitable, but he attributes his ruptured disc to a poorly landed trick as much as his age.

Ross Poole, 45, knows well the effects skating can have on an aging body, having overextended his knee and elbow after a fall in 2005. It was skating with his sons, Ross, 17, and Garrett, 14, that made Poole dust off his old board after 20 years. In 2001, his sons wanted to go to a skate park in Raleigh, N.C., and Poole decided they needed a lesson in skate park etiquette. “It didn’t take but one time out there with them to get hooked again” laughs the insurance claims adjustor. “I guess it’s like an ex-smoker, you take one hit of a cigarette and suddenly, you’re buying a pack.”