(CP) - The best times for Pierre Luc Gagnon are when he's soaring above the ramp, the wheels of his skateboard leaving tracks on the clouds while he does something the other riders only dream about. It's in these moments, those split seconds between artistry and disaster, that the money, the magazine photos, the sponsorship deals are forgotten. It's back to the basics, a return to the time when you were chased off sidewalks and away from buildings by adults who thought you were nothing but a punk kid.
"Skateboarding is a way to express yourself," said Gagnon, 22, a Montreal native who now lives in Carlsbad, Calif.
"There are no rules. It's just about being your own individual. It's about coming out with your own style, with figures that have never been done before."
Doing what no one can do on a skateboard is what Gagnon does best. He's ranked as the top vert or half-pipe boarder in the world. And, if you're over 30 years old, you've probably never heard of him.
Go to a skateboard park though and kids there want to be Pierre Luc Gagnon, the same way players at the rink practice to be Jarome Iginla or the kids on the basketball courts work on their best Kobe Bryant moves.
"He does things on the board that make all the other riders pale," said David Hawkes, of Vancouver's Masev Communications, producers of the Canadian Open World Cup Skateboarding event to be held this weekend in Mississauga, Ont.
"He's another level. The stuff he does is beyond what others do. He's fearless."
With $50,000 US in prize money up for grabs, and around 100 pro skaters expected to compete, the Canadian Open will be the largest skateboard event ever held in Eastern Canada. It's purse is comparable to major U.S. competitions.
There will be both street and vert competitions. Gagnon, coming off first-place performances at both the X-Games and the Gravity Games, will be one of the top draws. Over 10,000 fans are expected to watch the two days.
"It feels pretty good to be in Canada and skate," Gagnon said in a telephone interview.
"It feels good to go back up there."
Since the 1950s, when the first clay-wheeled skateboards rolled down California streets, the sport has enjoyed waves of popularity. Advances in technology and exposure through the Internet, magazines and all-sports television has given birth to a new cult following.
According to American Sports data, participation in skateboarding has increased over 100 per cent between 1995 and 2000.
"Nowadays kids don't want to play baseball or hockey," said Gagnon, who received his first skateboard as a birthday present when he was eight.
"They want to be skateboarder or BMXer. They want to do something different. Those sports really appeal to them."
There's no teams in skateboarding. There's no required elements, like figure skating. It's just you trying to beat gravity.
"Skateboarding is about being original," said Gagnon.
"It's about being your own individual and being different from everyone else. If you just do what the others do, you're just copying. It's about coming out with your own style."
A good skateboarder can earn up to $30,000 US a month at competitions. Throw in money for endorsements and sponsorships and there's a very comfortable living to be made.
"I just bought a house," said Gagnon.
The money and television puts skateboarding at a crossroads. Does the sport go mainstream, maybe try to get into the Olympics like snowboarding and freestyle skiing, or does it remain on the fringe?
Gagnon said there's already talk of a skateboarder's union.
"It's good to be organized, it's good to be good business people," he explained.
On the other hand, "you can't be a skater who doesn't care and doesn't give a damn."
Hawkes said credibility is more bankable than cash to most boarders.
"Elephants and boarders never forget," he said.
"At one point in your life, if you've ever been a skateboarder, the man has told you to get off the property. The boarding community doesn't forget that.
"They all want to be a star, a lot of them want to make money on their sport. They are willing to progress forward if it means they can keep their integrity. It's all about keeping your cred. It's all about not selling out."
Even the competitions are different.
"There is a sort of unwritten thing that part of their prize money has to go to make sure everybody has great party the night after the competition," Hawkes said.
For Gagnon, there's one truth about skateboarding.
"I don't think I would be doing this if it wasn't fun," he said.
"If you don't like something there's no way you can be good at it. If it gets like a job or something you have to do, that's not fun. It needs to be fun to get better."
© The Canadian Press, 2002