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Skateboard's Soaring Superstars

They're actually more down-to-earth than you might have thought

No one with purple hair. No one with piercings all over their body. No one with more tattoos than toes.

In fact, all the skaters at last weekend's Boston leg of the Vans/Hard Rock Triple Crown of Skateboarding looked ... well, respectable. Granted, they weren't bankers or accountants, but to watch these revered practitioners of a sport founded on rebellion and nonconformity is to see a common stereotype debunked.

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And these skaters are indeed professionals. As the sport's popularity has grown during the past two decades, their ranks have swelled so that a score of skaters now travel the world, relying on the sport as their sole source of income.

For many who come to watch, these events are an eye-opener.

"A large percentage of people think that skateboarding is just [done by] kids they see around town - punks and thugs - but a lot of that is that they don't give us a place to skate," says Andy MacDonald, a Boston native who was ranked No. 2 at last weekend's event.

While traditional sports like baseball have fields everywhere, MacDonald says, the stigma attached to skateboarding means that skate parks are hard to come by. But "kids don't want to just play baseball anymore," he adds.

Yet as skateboarding gets more air time on television, it may be slowly gaining legitimacy.

For example, Denis Gagnon, father of the youngest skater at the Boston event, opened a skate park near Montreal six years ago because "my son [Pierre-Luc] asked me to." He travels to some events with 17-year-old Pierre-Luc, who turned pro this year. Mr. Gagnon supports his son's decision to attend college only three days a week, devoting the other four to his skateboarding career.

Pierre-Luc represents the new frontiers of skating in other ways as well.

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Like more and more skaters, he is trying more difficult maneuvers like "flip tricks" - where the skater flips the board away from him while airborne, then catches it and lands on it.

The new tricks just make the act of defying gravity that much harder, says Australian professional Jason Ellis. "There's more nerves because you know you're about to do three different tricks and your board isn't even going to be near you for a couple of seconds. In 1990, you made a bunch of rides, but the board never left your feet."

But progress, skaters say, is what it's all about. Today's tougher tricks may be coupled with more commitments like photo shoots for sponsors, but they are also accompanied by bigger paychecks. The winner of the final leg of the Triple Crown in Hollywood this October will take home $10,000. And that beats flipping burgers.

"There are not many people," MacDonald says, "who can wake up in the morning and say they're stoked to do what they're doing."

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