Pamela Zoolalian's idea of fun? Hurtling down a road at 60 or more miles an hour, two inches above the asphalt, supine on her luge board.
Dangerous? You bet. But, Zoolalian will tell you, when it comes to living dangerously, her sport of street luge, an outgrowth of downhill skateboarding and a sort of renegade cousin to the Olympic sport of ice luge, is child's play compared with her day job as a fashion designer. There, she's only as good as her last collection--and failing to spot a trend can be fatal.
Luge and fashion, her two passions, are "the yin and yang of my life," says Zoolalian, who's head designer for Elleven, a new surf-oriented division of Garden Grove-based BodyWaves. When she describes the clothes as young and full of energy, she might be describing herself.
Zoolalian, who'll say only that she's in her late 20s, sits in an office cluttered with racks of clothing and big bolts of fabric and talks about how she got there. Minutes into the conversation, it's clear that there's a good level head under the short-cropped fuchsia hair.
As for that hair, well, she went pink when she started making a name for herself in street-luge competition, where women--who are scarce in the sport--compete against the guys. As she explains, "I didn't want anybody to think I was this little tiny boy winning."
Just under 5 feet, 3 inches and 110 pounds, she is definitely "no 98-pound weakling." Indeed, she is the only woman in street luge history to qualify for the Gravity Games, where she'll compete against 31 men.
The games, the second annual extreme sports competition to be held in Providence, R.I., on July 15-23, and scheduled to be telecast in the fall on NBC, include such adrenaline-pumping sports as aggressive in-line skating, downhill skateboarding and freestyle motocross. The luge course is a half-mile asphalt road, with a 90-degree right-hand turn near the start, several s-curves and a sharp left near the finish line. The winner will earn $12,000 in prize money.
Five years ago, after seeing street luge on a telecast of the Extreme Games (now called the X Games sponsored by ESPN), she marched down to a Home Depot, bought wood, made a board and took it into the hills above Pasadena at 2 o'clock that morning for a test run.
She recalls, "I was absolutely petrified. You're lying on your back, looking over your belly and across your toes," leaning this way and that to steer. At first, "All I could hear was my heart. I could literally hear the blood circulating through my body." But as she relaxed, she "started hearing the wind and the wheels. I was hooked."
Street luge surfaced in the '70s, enjoyed a spurt of popularity, then kind of languished until being revived in the early '90s.
A race begins with riders--called pilots--sitting upright on their wheeled aluminum boards with form-fitting seats, pushing off by paddling the asphalt with leather-clad palms. Once they gain momentum, they lie on the boards, making themselves aerodynamic, heads lifted ever so slightly, hurtling downhill to the finish line.
Between them and the finish is a steep road that's apt to have hairpin turns, with little room for error, all the better for the adrenaline rush competitors refer to as being "amped." There is neither steering wheel nor brakes. To stop, lugers drag one foot on the asphalt.
When she started competing in late 1996, Zoolalian says, "The top guys took a lot of interest in me," somewhat amused that a girl had come out to play. "When I started winning, they stopped giving me hints." San Diego-based Extreme Downhill Games, sanctioning body for the Gravity Games,
ranks her 10th among 49 pros on a points-earned basis. She is one of a handful of women competing at the international level.
Says EDG executive director Grace Quinn, "Her racing strategies are just phenomenal." Outweighed by the men, she's learned to position herself to take advantage of the wind drafts they create. "The boys have nicknamed her the draft queen."
Zoolalian is a familiar sight at major meets, traveling from her home in Pasadena as far as Australia. She's the one on the custom-made pink aluminum board, wearing a pink leather bodysuit with extra butt padding and a pink helmet. The suits scuff and tear, and each racing season she needs two new ones. Her board, customized to her height and weight, loses flexibility and is also replaced annually.
One of her favorite races is the "hot hill" event in the Austrian Alps. "The gnarliest road: a sheer drop on one side and sharp rocks on the other."
Researchers speculate that some people are born with an "I love danger" gene.
"I have to have that gene," says Zoolalian, who as a toddler took off solo on a toboggan at Wrightwood, leaving the adults "freaking out." She also climbed trees and jumped off rooftops. "Everybody used to think my brother and I were twin boys."