Monday, May 24, 2004

Brazilian da Silva blazes
a trail in in-line skating

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Full name: Fabiola Oliveira Samoes da Silva.

Born: June 18, 1979.

Hometown: Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Residence: Santa Ana, California.

Height/weight: 5 foot 2, 112 pounds.

Major sponsors: Rollerblade, Mountain Dew, Fifty/50 (skate frame manufacturer).

2003 ASA rankings: vert, 12th; women's street, sixth.

X Games medals: Women's vert - gold 1996, '97, '98, 2000, 2001; silver 1999. Women's park - gold 2000, '03.

Cincinnati finishes: 2002 - vert, seventh; women's street, fourth. 2003 - vert, eighth; women's street, fifth.

Billie Jean King's 1973 exhibition with Bobby Riggs drew a then-record TV audience for tennis. Jockey Julie Krone won a Belmont Stakes and is in racing's Hall of Fame. Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher have had modest success in auto racing. Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie each were in range of making the cut last year in PGA Tour events.

Yet perhaps the most significant foray by a female athlete in a man's world plays out weekly at the nation's premier skateparks. In the extreme sports version of can-you-top-this, a 5-foot-2 woman steams up the side of a halfpipe and spins 21/2 times while 18 feet in the air, challenging the men to top her tricks.

Meet Fabiola da Silva. The 24-year-old Brazilian, one of the headliners at the Mobile Skatepark Series event beginning Friday at Sawyer Point, has so dominated women's in-line skating that the sport's governing body eliminated her top discipline - women's "vert," or halfpipe - to make her compete against the men.

Now she's beating most of them.

"It's almost difficult to make a comparison to sports outside of extreme," said Mark Shays, vice president of ASA Events, the aforementioned governing body.

"Remember the hype about Annika last year? It was incredible, and she did OK. But with Fabiola, we're talking about someone who's consistently top-10 against men."

Da Silva is the most medaled X Games athlete ever, with six golds and one silver. Her popularity transcends in-line, which trails skateboarding and BMX in the public eye.

She is to star in a Warner Brothers movie, to be filmed next year, that's based on her life. In 2002, she ranked seventh in ESPN's list of the World's Sexiest Female Athletes. She and boyfriend Sandro Dias, the world's No. 1 skateboarder, are the glamour couple of extreme sports. One Web site describes da Silva as "the most famous Brazilian export since salsa dancing."

In short, she's Fabiolous.

"As far as I'm concerned, she's the best female skater ever, and the most respected there ever will be," said Fallon Heffernan, 17, who ranked No. 2 last year in women's street skating, the only remaining female discipline since women's vert was eliminated in 2002.

Da Silva ranked sixth last year in street. Winner of the 2003 X Games in that event, she would have ranked higher if she did more events.

She simply prefers vert, and the challenge of beating the boys.

"Women are capable of competing against men," she said. "I know in some sports it's not possible, but in extreme sports it is. I really believe one day I can be as good as the guys."

She hasn't won a men's event. Her best finish is second, at the Latin American X Games Qualifier in 2002. She was also third at an ASA tour stop in Dallas that year.

She ranked 15th overall on vert in 2002 and 12th last year.

Da Silva's athletic career began in kickboxing, in which she was Brazil's junior champion at age 12.

"Kickboxing is so hard; you get kicked in the head," she said. "I like sports like that. I was never into the dull things. I was into aggressive sports. ... For sure, they can be a little crazier."

She began competing in in-line in 1995. Between 1996, her first year competing in the X Games, and 2001, the last year there was a vert division for women, she placed first every year except 1999, when she was second.

The lack of competition had stagnated that division - and even da Silva's skating, ASA claimed when it discontinued women's vert.

"The level of skating was not progressing, because (with few competitors) women were showing up for events and saying, 'I'll be one of three women, so I'll automatically get a medal,' " Shays said. "We had to say, 'The women need to either take it seriously and realize that they have to hit a certain level to compete as a premier professional, or do something else.' "

Shays said da Silva's skating has progressed immensely by challenging herself against men.

It's hard to read what effect her success has had on women in skating. While most up-and-coming women cite her as inspiration, da Silva is the only woman to compete on vert, and numbers of women in the sport haven't notably increased.

"So many women think girls can't compete against guys," she said. "It's hard. If they see me skating really hard and not making top three, I don't think many girls are going to be motivated."

Money is awarded only to top finishers - between three and 10 skaters, depending on the event - so even da Silva would struggle for cash if not for four sponsorship deals, including one with Rollerblade, the sport's dominant brand.

The X Games, extreme's premier competition, cut numerous events this year - including men's and women's in-line street - so da Silva will be the only female skater eligible to compete.

"I could see women growing in the sport, but it doesn't seem like sponsors and magazines and organizations - MTV, ESPN - want to let the female industry grow," Heffernan said.

Perhaps da Silva's ultimate impact won't be measured solely in skating. Maybe a girl watching her this weekend will be inspired to take up a sport, or to challenge herself against boys in her endeavor.

"What people will see (in Cincinnati) is a clean-living, top, respected athlete competing against men at something that's just crazy - doing flips and spins on a big ramp," Shays said. "She attacks that challenge. More than anything, that's the inspiration."


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