Scenes from the Gorge Games, and looking for the new face of adventure
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ONE A.M., THE RIVER City Saloon, Hood River, Oregon, fifth night of the 2001 Gorge Games. The band finishes blasting its cover of “Eurotrash Girl,” the drummer throws his sticks, the applause dies out. I’m standing near two conspicuously fit and blond young women.
Blonde One to Blonde Two: “God, it was nuking today! Did I spy you up at Rufus, pulling a vulcan on your 4.0?”
“Musta been another watermama,” Blonde Two replies. “I was at the Hatch with my 4.3 getting slammed just duck-jibing. Saw a homeboy out there though. Ummm-ummm! He stuck a Spock once and the willy-skipper twice. Even tried the worm-burner, but augered bad.”
They toss their hair back and glance over their shoulders to check if I’m listening. They must have mistaken me for a local. I am utterly perplexed. They start laughing and admit they have no idea what they’re talking about.
“We’re from Portland. We come out to Hood almost every weekend. Neither of us windsurf. We just know the lingo. It’s good for guy-trolling.”
“THE WORM-BURNER is something I picked up just before this competition,” says Nathan Mershon, 19, winner of the Gorge Games men’s freestyle windsurfing event. “I didn’t invent it.” (The worm-burner is a brand-new, 360-degree mast-swinging maneuver performed on the tail of the sailboard.)
Mershon is handsome, husky, polite. His grandmother sits on a rock, clapping, next to his mom, who cheers him on with one eye against the video camera.
“I started windsurfing when I was nine. My dad’s a commercial salmon fisherman. We lived in Homer, Alaska, in the summer and Hawaii in the winter. Wave-sailing was all I knew until I heard about the Gorge Games and started to train really hard. I got fourth last year. This year I’ve competed in Austria, Spain, all over. I think it’s the young guys who are really going to shine in this discipline. They’re the ones inventing all the new moves.”
PAT KELLER,15, youngest competitor in the Gorge Games’ head-to-head white-water kayaking competition: “I’ve been kayaking since I was six years old. But I was also doing other sports. Downhill skiing, gymnastics. Then I hurt my knee real bad skiing, totally tore my ACL, so my dismounts in gymnastics really, really hurt. I was like, well, can’t ski anymore, can’t do gymnastics anymore, I’ll just go full-time into kayaking. “The hard part was doing school and kayaking. But then when I was 13 I went to Adventure Quest. It’s a school where you travel all around the world kayaking. I left my family and went to Canada to train. I competed in the Ottawa rodeo and got tenth place; then we flew down to train in New Zealand. Then we flew up to Vermont to train, then down to Chile. After doing rodeos all over the East Coast, I went home to North Carolina.
“My mom home-schooled me over the winter so I could keep kayaking. I have the youngest descent of two really hard creeks at home, the West Prong of the Pigeon and the Raven’s Fork, both Class V. I’d like to be the world champion in rodeo. I’d like to put my name out to all the extreme creek boaters, like Tao Berman.”
Carrie Keller, 49, Pat’s mom, former rafting guide in the summer, ski instructor in the winter: “Adventure Quest is like a prep school for the best up-and-coming kayakers. Pat had the drive and the talent and he loved it. But he missed his family. I’m glad he did it. But it was expensive. Very expensive.
“I don’t watch him when he goes over the falls anymore. I watch the videotape after it’s over and I know he’s OK.”
THE COLUMBIA RIVER Gorge is as gorgeous as a fjord, with massive black basalt walls rising on either side of a mile-wide, sea-like, deep-blue river. Less than an hour south is the white-crusted cone of Mount Hood; its big brother, Mount Rainier, rises two hours north.
Hood River is like Maui and Crested Butte and Burlington all in one. For obvious reasons—where else on earth can you windsurf, sail, kayak, climb, bike, hike, or ski right out your back door?—a young, hip, outdoor-obsessed community is rapidly displacing the loggers, miners, and rednecks. (Never mind the monstrous lumber trucks still hauling loads of old-growth down Route 14.)
This year there were about 50,000 spectators and more than 1,500 participants at the Gorge Games, held in mid-July. Half of those participants weren’t competitors, but outdoor enthusiasts taking clinics in which world-class outdoor athletes taught ordinary people how to bunny-hop their mountain bikes or duck-jibe their sailboardsor cartwheel their kayaks.
TO WATCH THE adventure race—an 81-mile course that includes mountaineering, hiking, biking, rappelling, kayaking, and navigating, practically an outdoor decathlon—I station myself below the Tyrolean traverse, next to the NBC cameras. Waiting for the first two-man/one-woman team to come sliding down the ropes, I interview Arlene Burns, 41, an NBC commentator for the Gorge Games. Arlene’s an original hardwoman bombshell (and was Meryl Streep’s instructor and stunt double in The River Wild). “I bought my first kayak for $30 when I was 16. The nose was busted off, so I fiberglassed a Clorox bottle over it.
“In college, I kayaked evenings, weekends, all summer. I used to get so many fiberglass slivers in my arms it looked like I had some kind of whitewater disease. “At 21 I had a degree in geology and an offer to work in the oil industry, but then they said I’d only have one week off the first year. I couldn’t imagine anything I needed money for that bad—to work a whole year to get a week off. So I bought a one-way ticket to New Zealand. I had 600 bucks in my pocket. I worked as a river guide in New Zealand, Nepal, Siberia, Thailand, Tibet. I was gone 13 years.”
When the adventure racers still haven’t arrived, I go back to work on my attempt to classify the various species of athletes who have built this odd world of outdoor sports unfolding in the carnivalesque spectacle of the Gorge Games.
THE PIONEERS: Rock climbers in Yosemite in the sixties. Hang gliders in Crested Butte in the seventies. Windsurfers in Maui in the eighties. Arlene Burns. They were visionaries driven by passion. They were inspired by exploration and took great risks. Their equipment was so primitive they were obliged to design and build their own. There was no money, no audience, no acclaim beyond a raucous toast from the tribe around the campfire. They defined and codified the rules, the ethics, and the aesthetics of their nascent sports.
THE DISCIPLES: The second wave, the refiners. Rock climbers in Colorado in the seventies. Mountain bikers in California in the eighties. Windsurfers in Hood River in the nineties. They too are driven by passion, but they may have regular jobs, even careers. They love the sport, but don’t live it. They spread the gospel. Some become guides, instructors, writers, photographers. Fame is free gear. They interpret the rules, the ethics, the aesthetics.
THE HERETICS: The apostates, the neo-pioneers. The first sport climbers, the first downhill mountain bikers, the first extreme kayakers. (Thesis-antithesis; see The Lifestylers, below, for synthesis.) They are highly talented specialists who abandon preconceived notions of the sport and blow open old boundaries. They are sarcastic and disrespectful and exactly what their sport needs. There is money, for a few rubbernecking crowds are starting to gather and gawk. Fame is a foul mouth. They rewrite the rules, the ethics, the aesthetics.
THE LIFESTYLERS: The followers. Anybody who lived in his VW van just to do his sport (plus alcohol, sex, drugs, and rock and roll). Anybody who made real money (doctors, lawyers, software engineers) and moved to Steamboat to ski or Jackson to climb or Hood River to board and drives an Audi. Anybody who made no money but moved anyway. They usually start out as single-sport participants but eventually cross-pollinate to become multisport aficionados.
THE PROFESSIONALS: Paid athletes. They are often the sons or daughters of the lifestylers. They embrace the sport when they are very young. They excel almost instantly. They get interviewed, photographed, filmed, sponsored. They understand media. They are telegenic. They are practical, clear-thinking. They have agents and contracts.
“I’VE ALWAYS loved the water and I’ve always loved heights and I’ve always loved danger and speed,” says Tao Berman, 22, stocky, crew-cut, alert, holder of three world records for extreme kayaking.
“I started kayaking when I was 14. By high school I was essentially kayaking full-time, doing first descents in the Cascades. I set my first world record right after high school, an 83-foot waterfall in Mexico.
“I hold the world record, a 98.4-foot waterfall. I’ve been on Dateline, Fox, Guinness Prime Time, Ripley’s Believe It or Not; the list goes on and on. For the last seven years people have been saying I’m going to die. I’ll let my track record speak for itself.”
Berman—a Heretic morphing into a Professional—places fifth in the Gorge Games extreme whitewater kayaking competition.
DOWN AT THE Hood River marina, now showing on the Gorge Games’ Jumbotron, kayakers are cartwheeling in boiling river waves that could drown a salmon. You catch only the flash of a helmet or hull before the minuscule boater is consumed by a collapsing wall of whitewater…only to miraculously pop out of the liquid avalanche seconds later, alive, upright, in control, even getting off a grin for the camera. The sound track is a roaring, in-your-face screecher titled “Kill the Jocks,” from a band named Ethel My Love.
The crowd sitting on the grass watching the screen is composed of tan, fit people. Dads in Oakleys with microbrews in hand listen while their 15-year-old daughters describe the tricks the kayakers are performing. Moms with the dead-giveaway midquadriceps bike-racer’s tan line bounce their sleeping toddlers in bright-colored joggers. Shirtless adolescent boys with impressively ugly tattoos and ripped torsos project cool for girls wearing halter tops and belly-button rings. And of course, assorted writers, photographers, and other freelance outdoor devotees swarm.
It’s a miniature Left Coast Olympic village, the Gorge Games being the closest thing we have to an Olympics of the outdoor world. There are nine disciplines (so far): adventure racing, sport climbing, whitewater kayaking, kiteboarding, windsurfing, outrigger canoeing, 24-hour mountain biking, 49er sailing, and trail running. These competitions have their roots in adventure, but they are no longer adventures. (Just like, say, fencing or archery or judo or Greco-Roman wrestling, which were all life-and-death disciplines for several thousand years before they became Olympic events.) Adventures take too long and can have unpredictable results, and they are hard to turn into TV.
Along the perimeter of the arena are the tents of the Gorge Game sponsors, including Irish Spring, Paul Mitchell, Nautica, Yahoo! Sports Outdoors, Leave No Trace, and SoBe. In the center of the circus is a four-sided, steeply overhung sport-climbing cube and, beside it, the premier sponsorship location, festooned with banners and impressive signage, reserved for the title sponsor of the 2001 Gorge Games: Subaru.
“We’re here because all of our consumers do these sports,” says Isabella Patty, 29, promotions and sponsorship specialist for Subaru of America. “It’s our way of supporting them, supporting the athletes, giving back and saying thank you. Subaru owners are so loyal. I can’t tell you how many of these kayakers and windsurfers are in ten-year-old Subarus.”
“You’ve got to have a big title sponsor to pull off an event like this,” states Peggy Lalor, 43, former competitive windsurfer and founder of the Gorge Games. “It takes a lot of money to run the event, and it takes dough to have significant prize money to draw the top pro athletes so that you’ve got a story worth telling on national TV. If you don’t have the pros, you don’t have TV. If you don’t have TV, you don’t have exposure. If you don’t have exposure, you can’t get a big sponsor. You’ve got to have all the pieces to make it work.”
THAT NIGHT PEGGY takes me to Jack’s, a locally celebrated bad-decor bar, where we drink “scorpions”—fruit bowls of alcohol. Everybody’s out on the town again. Athletes, sponsors, groupies. It’s one big party.
I strike up a conversation with a guy named Will. He has a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and a law degree, but he tends bar in Hood River—the classic lifestyler. “I would flip burgers to live in this town. I would! Bartending’s actually perfect. Short hours, good money. A three-sport day is always the goal. Mountain bike in the morning, windsurf in the afternoon, the bars at night. Five years ago there were ten guys for every girl. Now, I gotta tell you, it’s good, it’s real good.”
“I LEARNED HOW to climb at a mall in Indianapolis,” says Tori Allen, 13, professional climber and winner of the Gorge Games women’s bouldering competition. Tori is four-foot-eight, weighs 78 pounds, can do 42 pull-ups, and started climbing only two and a half years ago.
“My parents were Christian missionaries in Africa,” she explains. “I spent four years there. Now my dad owns Climb Time Indy, a climbing gym in Indianapolis, and my mom home- schools me and my brother, Clark.
“I train in the gym four times a week, four hours each time. I don’t have a climbing coach. My dad’s my belayer. I’ve never actually placed any pieces before, just clipped bolts. I also do weights and cardio, like kickboxing, three times a week.
“After college I want to open a kindergarten-preschool, an all-girls private school. And I want to be a spy and get married and have kids.”
“Tori’s first year climbing, she won the national championships in the junior division,” says her father, Stephen Allen, 35, an ordained Southern Baptist minister. “Then she won the international championships. The next year she won both again. At 11 years old she said, ‘I want to compete with adults.’ She started getting phone calls from people wanting to make deals. I didn’t want to make deals for Tori. I didn’t want to negotiate contracts. I didn’t want to be her agent. I’m her dad. I want to be her dad. That’s why I contacted Todd.”
“I see Tori really using her personality and her success in competition to springboard into some major marketing and sponsorship deals,” says Todd Melloh, founder of Total Sports Marketing of Indianapolis, whose firm also represents NFL athletes, including Jason Belser and Adam Meadows. “Our whole mission is to connect the athlete to the fans. Every-body asks me why I got into extreme sports with Tori, but the fundamentals are the same for all sports: recognize what the athlete wants, recognize what the sponsor wants, find a happy marriage between the two.
“Tori’s a magnificent kid. Her main drive and passion is to promote the sport of rock climbing. It’s done wonders for her, and she knows it can do wonders for other little girls and boys. She can really be a role model for these kids. She can be a spokesperson for companies who are trying to hit that demographic. I mean, the younger generation, they’re interested in things that you and I weren’t ever interested in, and these are the same things that those major national sponsors want to cater to. A Mountain Dew, a Sprite, a Pepsi, a Coke. It’s a natural fit.”
“JUST VERY ROUGH, round numbers of course, but Tiger Woods could be making 80 million a year,” says Paul Sunderland, 49, another NBC commentator at the Gorge Games, whose regular gig is the play-by-play for NBA broadcasts.
“Arnold Palmer’s probably still making maybe 40. Michael Jordan, maybe 60 million. Look, the minimum salary for an NBA player is 347K. But remember, basketball is a mainstream sport. Millions and millions of Americans watch basketball on TV. Outdoor sports are not mainstream, and maybe they never will be.”
THE GORGE GAMES last nine days. On the final evening of the competition, right before dusk, there is a dyno competition on the climbing wall. A large, good-natured crowd is rooting for their favorite climbers. NBC is filming. The climbers are competing for cash—hanging from a single hold, feet dangling, then suddenly flinging themselves straight up into the air and grasping the next hold.
When the announcer calls Tori Allen’s name, she comes bounding out like Peter Pan and throws a handful of little red plastic monkeys to the crowd. A stuffed monkey dangles from her chalk bag. Before her next turn, she sprays the crowd with pink Silly String. On her last attempt, she again flings plastic monkeys into the audience, falls off, bounces back to her feet, and waves, just like Nadia Comaneci or Oksana Baiul.
Tori places third in the dyno contest.
After it’s all over, after all the applause has ended and the cameras have stopped rolling, I find myself filing out of the arena behind a little girl, perhaps five years old, holding hands with her mom. She’s talking to her mom, excitedly yet earnestly, about the climbing competition. In her free hand she grips a red plastic monkey and an autographed picture of Tori Allen.