Sept. 1, 2000 -- It's like a ballet in the sky, and then some ... flipping, dancing, plummeting head-first toward death itself. Call it artistry or athletics ... or just plain nuts: sky-surfing and free-flying are among the hottest Generation X sports, or, as they're more aptly known, extreme sports.
Street luge, bungee-golfing, dirt-bike jumping, mountain skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, and in-line skating ... some better known than others, but all reaching ever more radical limits. And they have taken over the airwaves with the recent X Games, Gravity Games, and MTV features.
Kristen Ulmer -- today's star in extreme free skiing and ski mountaineering -- remembers that adolescent angst led her into sports. She tells WebMD, "I was really, really insecure as a teenager. Sports gives you confidence at a time when you're young and superficial and just want to have fun. Sports are the healthiest way to have fun."
But pursuit of the ultimate persona drew her to extreme sports. "Everybody is searching for an identity, and this is a pretty good one," she says. "Everybody wants to be cool, and how cool is it to be a professional athlete? And how cool to be a professional extreme athlete?"
Another extreme athlete, Elissa Steamer, began skateboarding at age 11 in the streets of Fort Myers, Fla. She's now a superstar, with her own video game character and a signature shoe. Elissa's sport "came natural to her," says her mother, Cheryl Steamer Lawson. "She has a small frame so it was easy for her to do tricks."
Today, throngs of little kids surround her daughter at competitions, Lawson says. "It's pretty cool. Little kids like her, but she's real laid back about it. She doesn't get into being famous."
Steamer came out of it all OK, says her mother. "She's a pretty good kid, never got into trouble, did OK in school, graduated high school ... had two years in college. She's not stupid, not a dropout or anything," Lawson tells WebMD. "These kids aren't necessarily dropouts who risk their lives just to make a lot of money. That's true of some, but not all of them. A lot of these kids are in business for themselves."
Extreme sports are certainly the rage; kids across the country have dreams of going pro. Parents have questions. When they push kids into sports, into competition, are they possibly pushing them toward extreme sports?
"Not necessarily," Robert Schleser, PhD, professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, tells WebMD. "Kids themselves seem to be the ones choosing extreme sports. You don't see the traditional soccer mom or football dad in these sports. It's a generational thing ... like 20 years ago, when martial arts were the rage. On every street corner, you'd see young kung-fuers."
In fact, it seems extreme sports are nearly mainstream, nearly where soccer was a decade ago. "It's reaching the saturation point," says Schleser. "Everybody has become aware of it. Kids are exposed to it on a regular basis. When that happens, the trend toward younger kids getting involved kicks in. We see kids as young as eight, nine, or 10 involved in skateboarding, bikes, doing bike tricks, advanced skateboarding-type things. They're the first generation to fall into this tradition."
Whereas traditional sports are said to build character and team spirit, many parents wonder if extreme sports promote antisocial behaviors. "Antisocial -- I don't think that particular term is appropriate," William F. Gayton, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Southern Maine, tells WebMD. "Even in gymnastics, girls are competing individually. A swimmer is going to swim as fast as they can to beat a team member. Sure, there's team competition, when you talk about your team beating another team. But those members are definitely competing against each other. You see the same thing in extreme sports."
He sees lots of positives in extreme sports. "Clearly these people are getting pleasure out of what they're doing. Last time I checked, that was a legitimate value in our society. Participating in any sport is about maintaining and raising self-esteem. The interesting thing about extreme sports is their uniqueness. In our society, we have ignored that quality, the need to be unique, to be different."
Extreme sports could indeed have a positive impact on kids, says Schleser, "I don't see adults, parents, coaches screaming at young kids because they're not performing as well as they should. From a psychological point of view, that's devastating for a kid. So you've got these kids out there, they're skilled athletes, they appear to be having fun, and they're purely self-paced on this. Kids are working their problems out by themselves. I'm thinking they have a greater degree of commitment to it. In some respects, it could turn out to be healthier than traditional team sports."
But when kids get into extreme sports, they seem totally absorbed by it. Are these kids at risk of throwing away their best years, when they should be preparing for college -- and being in college?
"What's new?" Gayton says. "Video games, computers were supposed to ruin the last generation. I don't see that that happened. When it comes to extreme sports, if I were a parent, I would be far more concerned about safety than emotional health. I've seen nothing that triggers concern about emotional health."
"Certainly, any kind of extreme activity outside of the primary activity, which is getting oneself educated and grown up, poses a potential problem," Schleser tells WebMD. "I think parents need to monitor participation in extreme sports just as they would monitor participation in any activity."
Ulmer says she's been "wildly successful" making a living as a spokeswoman for the extreme sports industry. If extreme sports have a redeeming quality, she says, "They teach people what it feels like to follow your passion."
Safety is Schleser's biggest concern. "In traditional organized sports, that's less of a concern about safety because there is adult supervision. In extreme sports, kids are essentially supervising themselves and adults are relatively clueless about what exactly they're doing." However, he says, "I haven't seen a problem with that yet."
"There's tremendous skill involved to reduce risk," Schleser adds. "All things considered, we haven't had an epidemic of injuries coming out of extreme sports. But if you look at injury reports for football and overuse injuries from tennis ... it looks like there should be bodies lying all over the place, but from my perspective, it's been extremely low."
Parents' perception of extreme sports may need some work. "A lot of parents don't think of these as sports," Jack Raglin, PhD, sports psychology researcher and associate professor of kinesiology at Indiana University in Bloomington, tells WebMD. "I think they don't realize that people who are really good at those sports, the role models the kids aspire to, are highly trained athletes. It's a very challenging thing, just like any sport, but parents don't see it that way."
He agrees that extreme sports can be quite safe, says Raglin. "There's certainly a lot of safety equipment associated with it. And if you look at the pros, they're fully dressed out. And these are sports that require physical conditioning and training, so they will be safer. If kids are going to do it and parents want to support them, they need to treat it like any other sporting activity. They need to get into shape and condition for it."
He's seen one destructive aspect: kids on in-line skates are tearing up city parks. "Kids are using steps, handrails to do grinders and all these tricks. They put steel devices on skates; it's utterly destructive," Raglin tells WebMD. However, he's also seen skate parks spring up in large and small cities as a result. "Sometimes parents help kids organize efforts to set up these sorts of parks because these activities have been outlawed."
"I'm not here to justify how safe extreme sports are," says Gayton. "But last week I watched motorcyclists going over a pole vault bar. One can say it's weird or crazy, or one could say it's a unique thing to do. I wouldn't do it because I value my life. At 16 and 24 I did some crazy things, too. All I'm saying is, we need to keep in touch and remember where we were coming from at that age."
From her bird's-eye view at the top of this industry, Ulmer says not all is perfect, but there is still a lot to offer. She says "extreme sports is a superficial world ... [but] these are people who have a lot of something ... a lot of energy, a desperate need for identity. If you are that type of person, it's better to put your life into something like sports than to waste it. It teaches people what it feels like to follow your passion."
Ulmer adds a word of caution. Extreme sports -- especially at her level -- are "pretty dangerous ... life-risking," she tells WebMD. "Certainly anything you see in the X-Games is life-risking. There are infinitely more injuries than people think."
From what she's seen, Lawson has safety concerns, too. "They skate on concrete and metal and don't wear head gear. Elissa could have fallen any day and cracked her head open. ... There are not a lot of places for kids to skate. They end up skating in the streets and getting yelled at by cops. And, granted, they should respect other people's property, but they just have no place to go."
Lawson's words of advice: For girls and women, extreme sports can be an unlikely avenue for success. "If you're a guy, there's a lot of competition. They're lucky to get in. Because there are so few females, Elissa's been lucky. I think a lot of her success is, too, because she has a real good personality. She goes with the flow, just a real nice kid."