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In the air again after an epic fall

Times Staff Writer

A year ago, skateboarder Jake Brown proved from which height a man must plummet, onto an unforgiving wooden platform, to have both shoes fly from his feet on impact.

Answer: 46 feet. Or about 4 1/2 stories.

That’s the vertical drop the skateboarder endured during his fifth and final run of the big-air competition on the mega-ramp at the 2007 X Games.

Brown’s flailing as he plunged, as if tossed from a burning building, is Generation Y’s version of “the agony of defeat,” a highlight reel for the ages.

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The resounding thud, followed by an intense Staples Center hush, was something eyewitnesses may never forget.

“I thought he was dead,” recalled Pierre-Luc Gagnon, a competitor and Brown’s close friend. “At first I thought he was going to have compound fractures of both legs. I thought he was going to be paralyzed.

“Then I rolled up to him and he wasn’t breathing. He was completely out and I didn’t know if he was still alive.”

Miraculously, Brown, who regained consciousness minutes later, sustained a mild concussion, small fractures in his spine and wrist, and bruises to his liver and lung.

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He was hospitalized for three days and began skating a few months later, on a traditional vert ramp.

Tonight, as the X Games begin their 14th season -- with a four-day competition at Staples Center and the Home Depot Center -- the diminutive Australian skateboarder will resume big-air competition on the daunting mega-ramp.

“I’ve tried to put it aside and just move forward,” Brown, 33, said this week before practice. “Obviously I still remember it, but I’ve got a lot of energy focused on what I’ve got to do now.”

What many may not recall is that Brown won the silver medal last year, based on a remarkable third run that included a 360-degree spin across the 70-foot gap and a 540 above the quarterpipe wall.

The difficulty factor is unfathomable for fans and casual skateboarders. Mega-ramp skaters drop almost straight down a 70-foot roll-in, then sail across the gap with nothing but hands or gravity pressing the boards to their feet.

They land on a downhill ramp at nearly 40 mph and must compose themselves to launch up and above a 27-foot quarterpipe, perform another trick, and get back in position to negotiate a near-sheer drop down the quarterpipe wall.

Brown, on that third run, earned a 95.33 to vault ahead of Bob Burnquist, a veteran skateboarder from Vista, Calif., who had scored a 94.33 on his second run. In third place going into the final round was Gagnon with a 93.00.

There seemed to be voltage in the air. The level of competition on this crazy contraption had been raised markedly since big-air made its debut at the 2004 X Games.

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The mega-ramp’s creator, Danny Way, who won gold the first three years, and who had begun back-flipping over the gap, was sidelined because of knee surgery.

Burnquist, who in 2006 built the world’s only permanent mega-ramp in his backyard, was favored to win. He and Way had spent more time than anyone on the mega-ramp. Burnquist learned to front-flip over the gap, and to spin 180s and 360s without holding his board.

But his backyard had become a virtual circus, a gathering place for the dozen or so skateboarders qualified to ride the mega-ramp. The progression of tricks was steady and slams sporadic; it seems a minor miracle that nobody was paralyzed or killed on the mega-ramp.

Nobody has been, Burnquist said, because skateboarders have learned to fall on the down-slopes, and to abandon tricks -- and skateboards -- early if they’re not working out.

Brown held the lead going into last year’s final round, but he and Burnquist were the last performers, respectively. Brown knew he needed a bigger trick to keep the lead.

Down he rolled, and up he flew, spinning a 720 -- that’s two rotations, in mid-air. He stuck that landing but was too far left and tried to veer more toward the center as he approached the quarterpipe.

He began to wobble and compressed his body. Atop the wall he stretched out and that flung him upward and outward, over the flats.

What spared catastrophe was the way he turned at the last instant, to absorb most of the impact with his backside and feet. His shoes blasted to opposite sides of the ramp.

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“The thing that made Jake’s fall different than others was the sound when he hit, followed by the silence of the entire Staples Center,” recalled Chris Stiepock, X Games general manager. “That is something I’ll remember my whole life.”

One of Brown’s first statements after regaining consciousness, before being helped to a wheelchair, was, “Do I get another run?”

Burnquist, meanwhile, waited 15 minutes before making his final run.

His legs were “cold and trembling” as he stood atop the roll-in ramp and “all I could think of was, ‘Get this done and don’t fall,’ ” Burnquist recalled.

His run was a switch roll-in to a 180 over the gap, to a front-side 540 above the quarterpipe. Technically, it was off the charts because to ride switch means to stand unnaturally, or with the wrong foot forward.

Burnquist stuck everything and judges gave him a 95.66. He stole the gold from his fallen pal, who had nonetheless stolen the show for all the wrong reasons.

The intensity of the moment was overwhelming. Burnquist caved and sobbed, and said later that big-air skateboarding had been elevated so high on that surreal night that the gold medal he earned seemed more like a team effort.

“That was for all of us,” Burnquist restated this week. “Now I’m kind of going after mine.”

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pete.thomas@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

X Games 14

Where: Staples Center (and Event Deck at LA Live) and the Home Depot Center.

When: Today-Sunday.

Tickets: $10-$20 for all-day entry. Available on site or via Ticketmaster and Ticketmaster.com.

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OU WON’T WANT TO MISS THESE

Tonight: Skateboard Big-Air -- Will Jake Brown overcome last year’s frightful slam? Will Bob Burnquist repeat for gold or will Danny Way, coming back from injury, reclaim dominance in event he created? Moto X Best Trick -- Not the same without Travis Pastrana in the lineup. He recently backflipped, on an FMX bike, an in-flight rally car driven by Ken Block, for a magazine cover shot.

Friday: BMX Big-Air and Skateboard Street men’s final -- Kevin Robinson, last year’s athlete of the Games, is fresh from setting a world record above a quarterpipe on a bicycle: 27 feet. Paul Rodriguez, from Chatsworth, is fresh from a $100,000 payday as winner of the inaugural Maloof Money Cup street competition, and a $25,000 triumph at the AST Dew Tour stop in Cleveland. An X Games victory would be worth another $50,000.

Saturday: There are nine finals, all at the Home Depot Center. Perhaps most intriguing is the inaugural Moto X Racing women’s final. A strong favorite is Ashley Fiolek, who is deaf. It’s a disadvantage, but once out front she enters a zone in which she cannot hear the others in hot pursuit, and that removes some of the pressure. The BMX Superpark course, for the inaugural competition, has been criticized by some athletes but the show should still spellbind. Daniel Dhers is coming off a second consecutive Dew Tour triumph, which he attained by pulling off four 720s -- one of them a corked-out no-hander -- on the same run. In skateboard men’s vert, Shaun White and Pierre-Luc Gagnon, who dominate this sport, will battle for gold.

Sunday: Rally Car Super Special final. Pastrana, et al, going ballistic in a caged missile on an obstacle course littered with jumps and ridiculously tight turns. It’s the perfect capper.

-- Pete Thomas

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TODAY’S MEDAL EVENT FINALS

4:30-5:15 p.m.: BMX Freestyle Street final -- Event Deck at LA Live.

5:45-7 p.m.: Skateboard Big Air final -- Staples Center.

7-8 p.m.: Moto X Best Trick final -- Staples Center.


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