Look out, beach volleyball. Boosters of in-line skating events are trying to muscle their sport into the beach scene--and in Venice last weekend, they succeeded.
The occasion was the National In-Line Skate Series World Championship Final, which organizers billed as the first such event ever in the relatively new sport of in-line skating. Sponsored by Taco Bell and organized by Anywhere Sports Production, a promotion company based in Marina del Rey, the daylong event Sunday drew thousands of spectators.
Competitors from as far away as Australia and Japan showcased their talents in a style of in-line skating called "aggressive." The two events were the "street course" competition, in which contestants skated on a sidewalk outfitted with an array of ramps and railings, and the "half-pipe" contest, skating inside a half-moon-shaped ramp.
"There is a niche to be made here," said Mark Billik, partner in Anywhere Sports Production, a group that promotes in-line skating events. "This is the fastest-growing sport of the '90s."
For skaters like Mark Shays, another partner in the company, holding a world championship and searching for sponsorship is a step toward legitimizing in-line skating as a sport.
"Most publicity has come to aggressive in-line skaters by doing shows," said Shays, 23. "We have been called stunt skaters (and) showmen, but none of that has to do with athletics. We really push ourselves to the limits and try really difficult things."
The Venice event capped a three-month-long in-line skating tour consisting of qualifying rounds in Venice and five other Southern California locations.
Sponsors expect publicity from the events to pay off. Said Barry Westrum, field marketing manager for Taco Bell: "We wanted to marry our brand to the sport that is popular among our target audience--18- to 24-year-olds."
Twenty-one skaters competed in the two categories, both of which were won by Californians.
Arlo Eisenberg, 20, originally of Dallas but now a resident of Westchester, won the street competition, receiving a $5,000 personal watercraft and $1,000 in cash. Chris Edwards of Escondido, won the half-pipe competition, taking home about $4,300 in cash and prizes.
Eisenberg, an "aggressive" skater for four years, says he dropped out of the University of Texas to pursue his passion full time. Although his parents are proud of him, they said they hope the sport doesn't interfere with his education.
"He wanted to do something no one had ever done before. But we do want him to go back to school," said his mother, Vicki Eisenberg, who attended Sunday's event.
Eisenberg reckons he will return to school, but for now is quite happy touring the United States and Europe as a professional skater. He, like most in-line skaters, delights in the danger of "aggressive" skating, in which skaters attempt to skate on, down, around or over anything in their path.
"It is an aggressive mentality," he said. "I rely on good old-fashioned adrenaline and fear for good skating," he said.
Usually, the skaters hone their skills on the streets, not in a controlled setting like Sunday's event in Venice. The skaters try to challenge themselves by flying down railings or stairs, whizzing through crowds of people or jumping over trash cans. Parents are scared, but skaters--especially young boys--are always eager to "go for it."
"You grow so proficient that one day you say, 'I want to skate down those stairs,' " Shays said.
"You don't know how great it is to skate down 5th Avenue (sidewalks) at 40 miles an hour!" he said, referring to the crowded New York City thoroughfare.
Asked about the problem of people walking on the sidewalk, Shays responded, "Exactly!"