Crash Course 

Longboarders at the U. and elsewhere lead with their passion—and often their unprotected skulls.

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Janet Cortez has a beautiful view from her front windows. That view has increasingly become gut-wrenching, though, as longboarding becomes more popular.

A registered nurse who runs the trauma program at the University of Utah, Cortez sees a fair number of injured teen longboarders who are using her street as a launching point. But some of her patients had also been using the campus as a summer ski slope.

“It’s kind of a fine balance, between getting the rush people their age look for and being safe,” said Cortez, who lives in the Avenues. “Professionally, it’s horrible to see, though. ... Future’s so bright, and they run the risk of ending up paralyzed or dead. It’s really not worth it.”

Longboarders generally don’t think they’re taking as much risk by seeking out places like the vast, smooth parking lot at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Go to the west side on any evening, and watch neophytes and veterans weave their way around a smattering of parked cars, light poles and foot traffic. Word of mouth has traveled far, and for good reason. The whirring sounds made from the wheels and the smiles on faces are a joy to behold in the twilight on the Hill.

The U, to the surprise of those who despise longboarding, actually brags about its cement trails. A school-related Website lauds the “Hyper Highway,” which cuts right down the middle of campus. Riders can go from the top of the TRAX line—site of the hospitals (go figure)—through campus and enjoy a path that leads all the way to the downtown library.

“The University of Utah campus makes for a prime longboarding spot,” says a post on the school-promoted “RedThread” blog. “With each path on campus weaving down toward Salt Lake, riders are able to take many routes both challenging and versatile. The greatest thing that riders witness is the euphoric view of the valley while speeding down campus.”

“The greatest thing that riders witness is the euphoric view of the valley while speeding down campus.”

Longboarding is a little different than skateboarding. Longboards may be up to twice as long as skateboards, which makes them more about speed than tricks. Riders can reach speeds in excess of 20 mph. The campus path route is not for beginners, as noted, but the blog also mentions the stadium parking lot as a perfect place for newbies. A number of beginners on a balmy July 30 evening agreed, even though accidents aren’t too hard to witness.

Emerson Sanchez, 17, had been to the stadium before, and this time, he brought along four friends. They took a bus from West Valley City to the nearest TRAX station, which dropped them off at the stadium. The convenience is as fine as the setting. “And if you need to stop, you just turn back uphill,” said April Call, 16, a friend of Sanchez’s.

Everyone in their group wore sturdytoed shoes, but that was about it for protection. Same goes for other groups, including U student Tye Watkins, a Dallas native who loves the hilly terrain. Riders agreed they generally knew the risks, which were often justified in comparison to skiing or snowboarding.

Sanchez and three of his similarly aged friends saw another pal take a nasty spill about five minutes before City Weekly asked to interview them. He sat on some grass by the stadium TRAX stop, clutching a shoulder and fighting back tears while his friends spoke of their fondness for this type of recreation.

It brings out all types, from those in baggy pants and iPods blaring heavy metal to pretty girls in designer jeans and flowing tops. Boards go for about $200.

A manager at local dealer Lenitech estimates “probably 80 percent” of regulars wear safety equipment, but Cortez the nurse isn’t so sure, as she sees the occasional crash victim at her hospital. While not as statistically likely to require an ambulance ride as motorcycle riders or bicyclists, she still wonders whether it’s considered a “sign of weakness” for longboarding teenagers to protect their heads.

She estimates one or two yearly deaths related to longboarding. Sean Armstrong died June 25 in a University of Utah hospital bed after severe head trauma. Cortez hates to be the pothole in the road of good fun but says it’s hard to see kids longboarding—especially when they’re not being safe.

“I’ll see a group go by, and there’s sometimes one who is wearing a helmet,” Cortez said. “I’ll always bet it’s someone who has either been hurt before, or they have a friend who has, and they don’t want to go through that same experience.”

She compares the issue of getting people to wear helmets with the same struggle that has made it difficult to pass state laws requiring helmets for motorcyclists. Just a few months ago, Cortez was at home when she witnessed a boarder crash on the upper part of Third Avenue. But a lot of kids—perhaps it’s a rite of rebellious youth?—see road rash as a rash excuse to squash their fun.

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