Joe Sales  /  AP
Benny Swedberg, 13, of Seattle, zips his mountain bike down a narrow trail during the YMCA's Camp Orkila Freedom Sports Week, July 3, on Orcas Island, Wash. The non-traditional summer camp specializes in adventure sports including mountain biking, BMX, skateboarding and rodeo.
updated 7/23/2005 7:27:42 PM ET 2005-07-23T23:27:42

There are the requisite tater tots, plenty of kids and massive games of Capture the Flag, but this is no ordinary summer camp.

Instead of walking around downed logs, campers jump their bikes over them. At swimming hour, campers do double flips off the side of the pool. And counselors don’t even bother trying for the traditional after-lunch rest hour.

At the end of a long day, weary campers gather around a fire for what looks like what might be at least a traditional moment. But as they gather, squinting through the last rays of sun, no one is singing “Kumbaya.”

“Go hard or go home!” shout the kids, their voices echoing over Puget Sound.

Their clothes are sweaty, their hair filled with dust, their eyelids drooping. It’s clear that everyone is going hard, and no one is going home.

This is the YMCA’s Camp Orkila Freedom Sports Week, a weeklong extravaganza of jumps and bumps, ollies and grinds, a few scrapes and bruises and a lot of adrenaline.

'Go fast, and faster'
“At this camp we don’t tell them to slow down, we tell them to go fast, and faster,” said Chris Pierce, who runs camping services for the YMCA in the Seattle area.

“Our job is to go where the kids are interested,” said Pierce, “and kids are interested in going fast.”

There’s a custom-built BMX racing track where kids fly through the air on wheels, kicking up dust and spraying loose rocks on the fast dips and rolls. There’s a skateboard park — rated one of the three best parks in the world by industry magazines — where inline skaters and skateboarders drop in on 4-foot drops, swooping and sliding on the wavelike cement.

There are handmade ladders and teeter-totters in the woods where mountain bikers challenge their skills. There’s Ultimate Frisbee, wild west rodeo, sailing, hip hop dancing and an archery program co-sponsored by USA Archery.

It’s not just the sports that are unusual — it’s the coaches. World champion athletes — often wearing their stars and stripes jerseys just for inspiration — take a break from training for the week to volunteer at the camp, running campers through drills, games and adventures, keeping a close eye on their skills and safety.

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“I really love seeing the kids progress, seeing their confidence come up,” said Tela Crane, 18, a two-time national champion bicycle track sprinter who placed 10th in the world last year. “Some of these kids don’t even have bikes, and here they get to ride excellent bikes on nice trails.”

'Meeting kids where they're at'
The camp started four years ago after Pierce, frustrated by drops in summer camp enrollment nationwide, decided to revamp one of the YMCA’s showcase camps into a place that would meet kids at their level. The camp costs about $580 for the week, but kids who can’t afford that can go for free.

“After 125 years, the YMCA has gotten really good at lanyards and leather work, but we’re not meeting kids where they’re at,” he said.

Pierce chose Camp Orkila, a spectacular 400-acre, 99-year-old summer camp set in a sparkling cove on an island off the tip of the northwestern corner of the United States.

He brought in paramedic Jim Brown to run the program. Brown, known around camp as FSD (Freedom Sports Dude) has tattoos on his forearms, bleach-blond hair and a goatee. He manages one of the top junior bicycle racing teams in the country, and has the skills to coordinate the camp, the contacts to bring in the coaches and the hyperkinetic energy to pump everyone up.

“These kids are learning life lessons out on those trails,” Brown said. “They’re learning that it’s all about the journey, not the prize. They’re learning to challenge themselves. They’re learning to try and try and try in order to succeed.”

The camp is supported by an array of donors including Warren Miller, the godfather of adventure sports, whose ski films inspired a new genre of documentary and risktaking.

Now 80, Miller visited Camp Orkila in mid-session, his bright blue eyes delighted as children flashed past on bikes, boats and boards.

“They’re experiencing freedom within the limits of their own physical capability,” he said as a catamaran loaded with campers flew through the wind toward the camp dock. “Everyone, just everyone, wants freedom.”

No easy sell
Even so, the camp wasn’t an easy sell.

The president of the camp’s insurer paid the camp a personal visit, and the board of directors held an emergency executive committee meeting where they fretted over whether skateboarding and mountain biking, and the inevitable accompanying tattoos and piercings, could meet the mission of the YMCA.

Their doubts echoed those voiced almost a century ago when basketball first made its way around this country through the YMCA. And like those ancient doubts, these too soon were alleviated when it became clear this indeed was how to serve kids and the community.

Four years ago, in its first year, just 30 kids showed up for Freedom Sports Week. Word spread, and enrollment increased to 90 campers, then 180. This year more than 200 showed up to play.

“I had no idea what to expect, but everyone here is really with it,” said hip hop dancer Brittni Legendre, 16, who had never had the opportunity to go to camp before. “It’s been great to get away, to just have fun.”

The focus is on the adventure rather than the score. The BMX track is a continuous loop, contests aren’t allowed at the skateboard park and mountain bikers challenge themselves on new terrain rather than race. There are no courts, no tennis or golf. There are no scores. No losing teams.

Some of the campers arrive already committed to their sport — kids such as 13-year-old Jordan Campbell, who sold his XBox computer game a few years ago to buy a bike. He now races with a team, many of whom joined him at camp this summer.

Newbies welcome
Others, such as 15-year-old Leigh Gronfein, are new to their sport. Rubbing a smear of dust from her brow, Gronfein grinned and hummed as she walked the quarter-mile trail to lunch from the archery range.

“I’m feeling great today. I’ve hit like seven bull’s-eyes so far,” she said on her third day of camp.

Gronfein, and most of the campers, come to work on their sport and end up enjoying the nature, the camping and the boisterous company as well.

“It’s beautiful here, gorgeous and huge,” she said. “There’s so much space for all of us.”

Even the skateboard punks — who would never have signed up for a week of weenie roasts and campfire skits — end up having a try at sailing, horseback riding and sleeping under the stars.

It’s clear, however, that most have a passion for their sport.

On a cool morning toward the end of their session, eight kids on mountain bikes zip down a trail called “Psycho.” They’re panting and hooting as they maneuver 4 miles of steep, winding track through a dense forest.

“This is so cool! Can we do this again? This is great!” shouts 14-year-old John Place, his exuberant cries fading as he blazes on.

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