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It Has Been Quite a Trip

Times Staff Writer

If Bob Burnquist’s life were to have flashed before his eyes as he leaped with his skateboard from the wooden ramp onto the steel rail arching out over the Grand Canyon, the images produced by his brain might have appeared something like this:

... A spindly kid born in Rio de Janeiro and raised in smoggy Sao Paolo, he trades a soccer ball for a skateboard and becomes a contest junkie, brushing aside bumps and bruises but rendered breathless all too often by asthma....

... Skating, skating and more skating ... turns pro at 14 ... more winning, more bruises, more broken bones -- and more gasping for air en route to the hospital. Perseverance becomes his hallmark....

... Moves to the U.S. and is an instant star, falls for a fellow skateboarder and they produce a beautiful daughter, buy a dream home and surround it with wooden ramps ... Modern-day hippies, they become outspoken health nuts with their own organic farm....

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... Soars ever higher as an action sports hero, innovator, X Games star ... takes up skydiving, then flying, then BASE jumping before the idea sparks to blend these skills and make headlines ... travels to Arizona and takes a flying leap for the ages....

But Burnquist’s life did not flash before his eyes on that chilly day last March, when he skated down a 40-foot ramp and flew onto a 40-foot rail and nailed -- after five tries -- what’s being called a perfect 50-50-grind-to-Grand Canyon, because he was not afraid.

Like many action sports athletes, Burnquist thrives on thrills and challenges -- despite a broken-bone count in the dozens -- and attempts no tricks he cannot see through to completion in his mind’s eye.

“I’m not suicidal,” assures the 29-year-old, a favorite in today’s X Games big-air competition at the Home Depot Center -- he has already won a silver medal in vert and a bronze in vert best trick at these games.

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“I’m doing this because I love what I do and I love living -- and because once something is in my head, I won’t sleep until I do it. I knew I could do it, but everyone else was tripping.”

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What a long, strange trip Burnquist’s life has been, and continues to be. He and fellow X Games competitor Jen O’Brien, with 6-year-old daughter Lotus, reside on 12 acres in what would be an idyllic setting were it not for all the wood structures.

They have a pool for swimming and another made of wood for skating. In the backyard, under construction, is a giant wooden mega ramp similar to the X Games’ version, with towering roll-in ramps and flying gaps of 50 and 70 feet, leading to a downslope and 30-foot quarterpipe wall.

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Shaggy dogs Ruby and Dois patrol the perimeter. Star the rabbit and Tinkerbell the turtle occupy a small enclosure and goats Sarah and Cleopatra share a larger one. Rattlesnakes abound so caution is the watchword.

On the entryway floor is a tile mosaic depicting the sky, ocean, earth, sun, stars and moon: the handiwork of Burnquist’s mother, whose vibrant portraits of Bob adorn the walls. Standing sentinel in Lotus’ room is a life-sized “Lego Bob.”

The vegetarian family is so famously “organic” that Bob proudly lists Whole Foods and Stonyfield Farm among his many sponsors. “It’s for the sake of longevity,” he says, while sipping orange-blossom tea. “I was breaking myself all the time and I wondered, ‘How can I heal faster?’ I’ve got to eat better.

“My priority is to skate -- and I want to skate so badly that anything that keeps me from skating I weed out.”

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Sao Paolo, with its smog and dust, was not healthy, but it was home -- Bob’s father worked in the coffee industry and married a Brazilian -- and it was near a skate park that fostered careers of many Brazilian stars.

Burnquist, who holds dual citizenship, started as a child when a friend lost his soccer ball and replaced it with a skateboard. He was a natural and became known for performing difficult tricks in both a regular and switched stance.

“I knew he was a top-caliber dude the moment I first saw him skate,” says Jake Phelps, editor of Thrasher magazine, recalling his trip to Brazil in the early 1990s. “He was wearing two different types of shoes, but he was light years ahead of what others were doing.”

On good days Burnquist could easily negotiate prolonged routines on the U-shaped vert ramp. On bad days he collapsed in a heap, sucking for air. “I couldn’t even cry,” he says.

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But there was no quitting. In the United States, Tony Hawk and Danny Way were among the few taking the sport to new heights -- and getting paid for their efforts. They were Burnquist’s inspiration.

He was skating against pros at 14 and got his break at 17. Thrasher paid his way to San Francisco, then to the Slam City Jam in Canada. Burnquist won the event and moved to the U.S. with a promise to his father -- now fulfilled -- that he would obtain his high school diploma.

He relocated to North San Diego County, the heart of the vert movement, and his career took off. His first sponsorship deal was worth $800 a month, but it seemed like a million bucks.

“I had no idea that I could potentially make a living at it,” Burnquist says. “I mean it was a dream to do so, but I was really looking at the videos and saying, ‘I’ve got to skate that place or I’ve got to meet that guy.’ I was star-struck.”

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Burnquist, who now earns a mid-six figure annual salary, became a podium regular on the contest circuit. He became even more famous for innovation -- and for his dogged persistence.

In 2002 at the King of Skate, during which six skateboarders invented tricks and were judged on creativity, difficulty and execution, Burnquist built a topless loop, which spiraled to the right. Skating “switch,” he completed the loop -- clearing the open hatch upside down -- after two-plus hours and nearly 50 body-slamming attempts.

The vert scene was progressing to previously unfathomable dimensions. Way created the mega ramp and set world records for distance covered on a skateboard -- 65 feet -- and height-from-a-quarterpipe -- 18-3. He shattered those records at the 2004 X Games, where he traveled 79 feet and 23 1/2 . Last summer, he used the ramp to leap China’s Great Wall.

Burnquist, one of five athletes who have competed in all 12 X Games, was growing restless. He fell in love with skydiving, then with BASE jumping -- parachuting from a fixed area. A spiritualist Christian who believes in reincarnation and is not afraid to die, he penned the Grand Canyon experiment.

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The cliff plunge, to be aired later this year on the Discovery Channel, was carried out in Arizona at a remote 1,600-foot-deep section of gorge. Once beyond the rail, Burnquist would need to assume flying position and track away from the canyon walls.

Transworld Skateboarding magazine’s Keith Hamm wrote that “while most tricks are make or break, this cliff jump was do or die,” but talk of death, while the possibility weighed heavily on the minds of the crew, was taboo.

Burnquist made two test jumps from a helicopter. He calculated risk repeatedly, concluding that the greatest danger was hitting his face on the rail and free-falling unconscious, unable to pull the ripcord.

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On his first attempt he intentionally missed the rail and ditched his board, which tracked into the abyss and out of sight. On his second he didn’t have enough height to clear the 12-foot gap and land atop the rail, so he pushed away from it with one hand and flailed briefly before pointing himself downward and away.

O’Brien recalls that she “didn’t realize how gnarly it was until I walked to the edge of the canyon wall, with my heart beating faster, and got a clearer perspective.”

Burnquist made the connection on his third try but came off his board and quick-stepped off the rail for another free-fall. His fourth try was wobbly but successful, bringing about a tangible sense of relief among the crew -- until Burnquist requested one more try.

It was a perfect run, as he had envisioned, leaving the rail in tucked skating position, the board staying under his feet well out over the void, disconnecting like a rocket booster as he leaned forward and tracked beyond the canyon walls.

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“I’m just happy he pulled it off,” O’Brien says, watching Lotus at play in the yard. “But I wasn’t really that worried because Bob usually makes the things he sets out to do.”


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