Flyboys

Ollies, fakies, and grinds: It's a sick thing, man.

It's Saturday afternoon, and there's a larger-than-usual congregation in front of the TV. It's tuned to NBC, and the network is airing footage from the Slam City Jam skateboarding competition held in Vancouver, British Columbia, a few weeks earlier. As they watch the tail end of the street competition--a timed run around an indoor course peppered with street-style steps, rails, and ledges--the skaters at Fobia are duly impressed: "He's, like, the best contest skater," they insist, and "He's, like, the greatest street skater."

While the skaters in the competition are clearly revered, seeing them skate on a network sports show is another matter. As the commentators shout out statements like, "That is some serious board control!" or "It's bedlam in the stands!" there's a muted groan among the watchers. After the competition, NBC airs a quick-cut montage of interviews with skaters, highlighting phrases like, "Skating is not a sport, it's a lifestyle." Some of the crew at Fobia roll their eyes and guffaw, repeating the phrase in a mocking tone.

"I'm not sure how I feel about that," comments Dan, one of the managers at Fobia, himself a longtime skateboarder who's traveled all over the country. (He declined to give his last name because, as he put it, he's "just into the skateboarding community, you know, not the limelight.") "There's a little bit of over-dramatization, you know, to get people stoked on it. It makes us look like a bunch of burnouts, when that image is so over."

Fobia, Dan explains, is an alternative community center. "Everyone who walks through the door here has something in common," he says. "I can talk about skateboarding all day without it ever getting personal. People come in here and identify with each other and just feel welcome."

The door swings open, and two small, tan, red-cheeked boys come in, carrying skateboards that are almost as big as they are. One of them sports a familiar graphic--the Goat's Tit. A few minutes later, Peterson bounds through the door. He was out warming up with the two boys, Spencer and James, both 13; he gave Spencer his old board just today.

When they're out skating around downtown, the boys look up to Peterson, enthralled by the tricks he tries, banging the noses of their boards on the sidewalk to applaud his ollies and backside 180s. They ask him for advice: What is the best way to get off the rail? Peterson encourages the youngsters to push themselves as he films them for the Fobia video. "Just like that," he shouts to James as he hops from a marble ledge onto a wide, round rail. "Right away, clean! It's gonna look so good!"

It's the skateboarding cycle; just as a young Peterson learned to skate by trying tricks with older guys, so he pushes the next generation to attempt ever-tougher jumps. "These kids are the funnest," he says, nodding toward Spencer and James. "They're so stoked to skate with the big dudes, so it's fun."

Back at Fobia, Peterson flops into a chair and watches videos, sucking on a bottle of water. But the relaxation lasts scarcely a moment before another kid is standing in front of him, yapping like a puppy. He wants to know where there's a square rail to grind with five or six steps. "I'm thinking," Peterson says, and then shakes his head. "I can give you round."

"Is it harder?" the boy asks.

"Augsburg's eight," Peterson suggests.

It's more steps than the kid was looking for. "You can hit it both ways?" he asks, concerned about whether it's possible to skate down the rail facing both forward and backward.

"I don't know. I never hit it the other way," Peterson says. Then, with all the wisdom of his 22 years: "It was seven years before I started skating handrails. When I started skating, no one was doing handrails."

"So maybe I should wait till I have seven years?" the kid asks.

"No," Peterson says decisively. "You're part of a new generation of skaters. Because so much has been done already, you're gonna have to work your butts off to get where everyone is."

This exchange raises an interesting question: At what point does skateboarding become too difficult, too strenuous for the human body? Now that 12-year-olds are doing the toughest tricks imaginable, historian Michael Brooke asks, what's next? In the Seventies, there were several different genres of skateboarding, including street, vertical (or ramp), pool, trick, and slalom, but most of them have eroded, and street dominates. "That's great, but there's another side," cautions Brooke. "Skateboarding is about freedom. Now, freedom is the right shoes, the right board, the right tricks. All of a sudden we have a bunch of lemmings who look the same."

 

Almost 40 percent of the worldwide skateboard market is centered in California. There's a fairly simple reason for that: It's sunny year-round. "Everywhere you go, there's a skate shop, everywhere you go there's a skate park," Brooke says. "There are more kids drawn in, there are more boards sold, there is more marketing." And ultimately, he continues, every skateboarder who wants to succeed has to go there. "It's easier to be in California. That's where everything happens."

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