It turned out to be the Eagle Montessori School for 3-to-6 year olds, and the antithesis of what I was looking for. After a bout of head-scratching, I found a door leading into a large room that smelled of sawdust and the burn from power tools. Along with co-workers Jon Scharfencamp, Sara McClure and photographer Bret Hartman, I walked through a cavernous room where, far below the ceiling, sat a skateboard park, complete with a four-foot high halfpipe and a half-bowl about the same height all the way around.
We had reached our destination.
We made our way past the park and into another room, where Steve Teien and Paul Wertin had just finished opening up a shipment of gymnastics equipment. Teien invited us in to show us his project – a 17,500 square foot activities center – he’s titled Upward Athletics. Still under construction, the building had enough toys to keep us interested and had enough promise to have us wondering how and when we can return to see the finished project.
Take the 30-foot by 20-foot hole in the floor, for example. Three built-in trampolines bordered the hole, which, in a matter of days, would be filled with 17,000 cubes of foam. The idea, Teien said, is for gymnasts to learn tricks without the wear-and-tear that comes from repeated landings. And by gymnasts, I mean everyone from a six-year-old learning to tumble to a skier like myself dying to turn the perfect 360.
Teien and Wertin gave a small demo on the trampoline and let us take our turn. By this time, the kids from the school next door had wandered over and sat, legs crossed, waiting for their chance. While we spun and jumped, I couldn’t help but feel foolish. I wasn’t the only one who knew my attempt at a 720 on the trampoline would end up with me flat on my back. When the kids got their turn, it was one backflip after another and a little girl showing me the easiest way to spin in the air.
Every year in Minnesota, thousands of kids learn to skate and play hockey. To them, it’s the real national pastime. After all, Minneapolis is more of a neighbor to hockey-mad Canada than Cincinnati, the city where the first professional baseball team was formed and Pete Rose earned his banishment.
Teien was one of those hockey kids. In high school, he had a coach tell him if he didn’t learn to do the splits, he couldn’t be goalie. So, in order to learn the trick without tearing something important, he took a gymnastics course. It stuck. Teien competed as a gymnast in high school and college and, five years ago, moved to the valley aware that gymnastics, on its own, might not be enough to build a giant indoor playground.
He realized, however, along with part-owner Martha Peck, that the Eagle Valley hosts a slew of people who perform aerobatics – without calling them gymnastics. Teien was a ski patroller at Beaver Creek for a couple years, and during that time, saw injury after injury occurring in the terrain park.
“Most of the injuries were dumb,” he said. “If the kids just knew how to roll out of (a crash), things like that could be avoided. Every time I teleski, I’m basically doing gymnastics.”
So they founded the Air Sense Academy, a place where snowboarders and skiers can practice tricks without having such painful penalties. Imagine launching off a series of pads, down onto a trampoline (which acts like a kicker) and then pulling a trick, all the while knowing a soft landing is inevitable. Even when Teien, to simulate moving snow, throws a mat into the foam pit while you land, the world of hard and icy falls is miles away.
“Most of the time, people don’t know where they are in the air,” Teien said. “They’ll be in the terrain park trying to pull a 360 and midway through say, “please let me get around.’ Here, they’ll learn what it feels like and what it looks like.”
The gym portion of Upward Athletics features more than just a tricks area. A 40-foot by 42-foot Olympic spring floor takes up a third of the room and, on one side, is bordered by the foam hole. On the other side, a tumble area feeds into the pit. The gym combined with Alpine Gymnastics, just down the street, because, Teien said, “I didn’t want to be the jerk down the road, to put them out of business.”
I don’t think anyone will be complaining about the change.
On the far end of the building, which, because of the proximity of the airport, brings images of a hanger, another pit awaiting foam was built for gymnasts on the rings. Coaches will be able to spot an athlete in mid-air, before a tumble can turn into a tragedy. And at night, the gym will feature everything from pilates to yoga.
Back through the door to our entrance point into the skate park, Scharfencamp puts on his shiny red helmet and steps onto his board. Wertin, donning a white helmet, chipped and scarred, began the ribbing.
“You can go rub that in sawdust if you want. There’s some in the corner,” he said.
“It’s for paddling,” Scharfencamp replied.
Wertin designed the park and is responsible for a skull and crossbones spraypainted on the underlayer. As an employee for Vail Recreation Department, his experience lies in youth activities and outdoor adventure, but, it’s his childhood that becomes most useful with this gig. As a kid growing up in Orange County, Calif., he skateboarded, which was about as pastime-ish for the West Coast as hockey is for the upper midwest.
So Wertin oversaw the 15,000 screws that went into the park, the honeycomb corners of the halfpipe and the layers of dust formed from cutting masonite for the top layer. Both riders warmed up and began trying tricks, some of which worked, some of which didn’t.
“It’s designed to be a training facility,” Wertin said. “It’s also something the big kids and come and have some fun on.”
Whether he was talking about the skate park or the climbing wall right next to it, I’m not sure. I don’t think it really mattered, either. Wertin spoke of the wall, yet to be constructed, like an astronaut describes the moon. Perspective was personal. One section he pointed out features a 25-foot climb angled toward the middle of the ceiling.
“It’s actually longer to the middle than to the top,” he said. Nothing was there, of course, but he could see it. After a while, we all began to see it.
The other two sections will feature varied terrain and a 85-degree slope, good for learning, and will begin to be constructed in February. After a few minutes of pointing to metal beams and a big window high on the wall, I got to understand how Wertin earned the title, Extreme Sports Director. He doesn’t need a tie and a business card. He’s got a pony tail instead.
“A lot of people talk about my title,” he said. “As I tell them, I’ve been called worse.”
The finished product
As Scharfencamp put it, as he stepped off the halfpipe to go home, “I almost died.”
That was exactly the thing we are trying to avoid in the first place.
It takes close to 300 repetitions, Teien said, to perfect a trick. Then, he added, a trick can be placed in a rider’s repertoire to be performed on the slope.
Like building up a repetoire, it takes some time to perfect a facility like the one being built in Eagle. Teien has a zip line planned to go across the ceiling of the facility, more gymnastics equipment and a small waiting area with stationary bicycles for the less adventurous. Tack on a climbing wall, another foam pit in the skate board area and a slide rail that will be hoisted and dropped from the ceiling, and, finally, the setup will be complete.
Then the programs begin. Fitness classes, among the other activities, will be offered along side nights scheduled for open-jam-style sessions in the park. Saturdays will be open gym days, which will cost $12 for two hours.
Classes will be offered to learn tricks. Wertin will teach skateboarding classes himself, while Teien will do the spotting for the gymnastics. Wednesday, the Air Sense Academy will have its classes for those, like me, who desperately want to look good performing tricks. If it only takes 300 repetitions, like Teien said, than I’m about 297 away from that dream 360.
How to get there:
Take exit 147 and head south through Eagle. Turn right on Highway 6, traveling west for about three miles. At the Wagner Caterpillar store, take a left. Then take another left on Lindbergh Dr. Upward Athletics is the building with the playground in front. Call 328-1224 for information.
When to sign up:
Registration for classes will begin Monday from 5-9 p.m. at Upward Athletics.
Ryan Slabaugh can be contacted at (970) 949-0555 ext. 608 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.