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    Top skaters roll into Tampa

    The draw for skateboarding's elite is a contest with $35,000 in prize money.

    By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 16, 2002

    TAMPA -- The purple wristband, affixed to your arm by a gum-chewing attendant at the door, means you have arrived. You are a pro. You are Wolnei Dos Santos, 22, from Brazil.

    He gets thousands of dollars per month just to wear Vision Footwear T-shirts, sneakers and ball caps and attend skateboarding events all over the globe, including this weekend's in Tampa.

    Adoring eyes of younger skaters -- those in yellow wristbands -- follow him from the metal grandstands. And so do the skater girls.

    He couldn't be happier. While most skaters gripe about the lack of skate space, being harassed by police, stereotyped by the media, shunned by the Olympics -- he doesn't. He is doing what he loves. And getting paid for it.

    "My life is paradise," said Dos Santos, grinning.

    This weekend, Tampa becomes a mecca for skateboard professionals like him, as Skatepark of Tampa, a huge warehouse at 4215 E Columbus Drive, hosts the 2002 Pro Contest. Competition started Friday and continues today and Sunday. Already, weekend shows are sold out, a thousand tickets each day.

    "This competition is one of the biggest in street-style skateboarding," said Dan Pageau, a pro from Montreal.

    There's more. Downtown, Covivant Gallery is hosting Detour show of skateboards decorated and hung on the wall as art.

    The biggest draw, though, is the skating competition, which awards $35,000 in prize money.

    But ask any skater about the commercialism of their sport and they protest. It's not about the money.

    "It's about the freedom of it," said Jeff Williams, an Australian pro wearing Juice brand clothing.

    Phillip Fisher, owner of an Orlando skate shop, came to the Tampa event to see which pros gathered the most applause. He hopes to book them for autograph sessions with young enthusiasts.

    "See him?" he said, pointing to one skater on the floor dripping with sweat. "He's great!"

    In the warehouse, the music of Insane Clown Posse blared from speakers. Stickers of popular skate-related logos -- Grind King, Evos, Wide Beam -- seemed to be everywhere: on plywood ramps, metal rails, backpacks and, of course, skateboards. Skaters likewise seem branded in their logo T-shirts and tattoos, some on their necks.

    Each skater had 45 seconds to demonstrate his might.

    Thrasher magazine photographer Luke Ogden caught the action with his Nikkon. Based in San Francisco, this is his fourth time in Tampa for a skateboard competition. He also travels around the globe.

    He has the war wounds to prove it. He lifted a pants to show a half moon scar. He has been hit six times.

    "Skater flies into a board, board slams into my face," he said. "Part of the job. I got to get close to the action."

    Ogden wore the coveted all-access black wristband.

    Those with the yellow wristbands -- teens -- sat in the stands, many gripping Skateboarding Big Brother program books, leaning through barriers for signatures.

    "Skateboarding is so unique," said Brad Cromer, middle school student from Palm Beach Gardens. "There is no one telling you what to do."

    He begged his dad, LaMarr Cromer, owner of a mortgage brokerage company, for a year to come to the Tampa show. Dad finally gave in.

    "He doesn't do anything but skating," LaMarr Cromer said.

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