The Hiawatha: Secret skatepark of local board legends

Old Timers Club unites select group of skaters over 30

Jay Jensen perches at the coping of an eight-foot drop, his board dangling over the curb. He's as lithe as a coiled cobra, and filthy across the shoulders—after just a half-hour of skating, he's damp with sweat and coated in a sheath of grime from knee slides and bails.

As he plots his line, he has a falcon's presence—a sharp jaw, wary, analytical eyes, a Roman nose—and his face is terse as he scans the double bowl before him. The slope and depth seem hard to fathom.

Then he drops in. He pumps into the pool, descending into its deepest lagoon, building speed. Up along the coping, he goes into a grind, then dives deep once more. Over a pasture of plywood, his wheels roar. In an instant, he is airborne, clutching his deck, skimming the lights, and sending a shower of dust into the still air.

Skating at "The Hiawatha"
Darin Back
Skating at "The Hiawatha"
Left to right: Olaf Gilbertson, Brian Kevitt, Eric Froland
Darin Back
Left to right: Olaf Gilbertson, Brian Kevitt, Eric Froland

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Ripping around the turns of his park, Jensen is as smooth as a silk ribbon. He handles its dips with practiced ease. His balance is uncanny.

But when he kicks his board to his hand to hoist himself out and yield the bowl to another skater poised to drop in, Jensen grunts and favors his left knee. Jensen is 36. Behind him lay almost three decades of skating, years spent building quarterpipes in a disused barn of his father's hog farm.

And before him lies the Hiawatha. It's right there, stamped in black tiling on the farthest lip of the mammoth pool Jensen helped build: "The Hiawatha." This indoor park is the fruit of those decades—a hidden fortress, built by hand, plank by plank—a Valhalla where a cadre of local skaters escape the hassles of adulthood.

The Hiawatha never closes, but only 15 men hold keys to its gate. The Hiawatha is free, unless you count the innumerable hours spent laying the planks, installing the copings, hanging the lights, and outfitting the room with a stereo and a P.A.

But most of all, the Hiawatha is theirs.

"There's no crowd," says Jensen. "There's no bikes, no rollerblades. We're not dealing with a bajillion little kids who aren't watching out. It's a spot for the older guys. It's our clubhouse. It's been a lot of hard work. But it feels like paradise."

   

SPRAWLED OUT ON SOFAS and folding chairs, a dozen skaters sit sipping cans of Mountain Crest and mixing whiskey Cokes, their boards beneath their feet, catching their breath before taking their turns. But unlike the average skate-park crowd, most of the faces here are aged, the elbows densely knotted with scar tissue. Their boards are wider, their wheels flattened in spots from endless power slides. As they dismount from the pool, their groans echo through the rafters.

They are the veterans of the Hiawatha, the very clientele for whom the place was built, and they aren't alone. Throughout the Twin Cities, at parks and street spots statewide, the sport of skateboarding is aging. Within the walls of the Hiawatha, and in skate groups like the Old Timers Club, the hobby of 11-year-old kids from Farmington to Faribault has become a life passion, sustaining this guild of skaters into its adulthood.

"Once you're in it," says co-founder Mark Leski with a smile, "there's no way out. It's the most amazing thing. It's architecture. It's art." He pauses, then shrugs. "It's family."

When Brian Kevitt stalls on the coping of the Edina skate park pool, you can see it flashing on the bottom of his deck—a narrow black sticker that reads "O.T.C.—Old Timers Club."

It's dusk, almost too dark to skate. But Kevitt keeps dropping in. He wants to nail a Madonna, a grab he hasn't tried in years. Each successive attempt finds Kevitt sliding into the basin of the pool on his kneepads, grabbing his deck, and hoisting himself out. "One more," he keeps muttering, even as the sun diminishes to a glowing cinder against the Edina horizon.

You wouldn't guess Kevitt to be 36. He has a fair face—hardly a mark on him—with eyes as clear as polished stones. He's one of those rare skaters who skates hard and high but never seems to break a sweat. He's a natural.

Over the last half-decade, the Old Timers Club has grown to include more than 25 members, all of them above age 30. On an ordinary Wednesday evening, they convene in a great herd on the Edina park to carve and catch air. But tonight at the park, it's just Kevitt and Olaf Gilbertson skating into the settling darkness.

By day, Kevitt is an applications engineer, Gilbertson a CPA. Kevitt has two daughters, Gilbertson one. They both have mortgages. And between the two of them, they've lived half a century on skateboards. Like many in the O.T.C., neither of them went pro. Neither of them got sponsored. They have spent half their lives skating for nothing but the love of it.

"Even if I walked away from it, I always find my way back to it," says Kevitt simply. "I didn't choose it. It chose me."

By 1985, Kevitt and Gilbertson were already skate partners in Bloomington, honing the basics on wood rigs bought from Target—tick-tacking wherever there was smooth tar. They competed against one another, and anyone who survived the cataclysm of '70s fad skating, anywhere there was a sloped curb or a ramp. It was a time when skaters hitched rides to far-flung suburbs on rumors of 10-foot ramps. The adversity forged an ironclad kinship.

"It was the culture of the skate session," says Gilbertson. "You learned about each other, about each other's personal limitations. I knew Brian's bag of tricks. And he knew mine."

In 1987, on Lake Street and 12th Avenue, the city's first indoor space opened. It was called Skate Oasis, and suddenly, small cliques of skaters statewide had a locus. Within a few months, a unified community arose, and Kevitt and Gilbertson found themselves elbow-to-elbow with skaters from Hopkins and Osseo, New Prague and Milwaukee.

"I get goose bumps when I talk about it," says Kevitt. "We'd get home from school and go to the skate park every day. We'd be there from 3 to 10 o'clock at night, and suddenly we'd be seeing what everyone else was doing. It was amazing."

Sponsors began to take note of the upper Midwest, a swath of the nation previously regarded by the skate community as a barren chasm between New York and Los Angeles. Skaters were ditching school to get rides to the Oasis and staying until the doors closed.

One regular at the Oasis stood out to everyone. He was of rough-hewn bulk, a cocky 17-year-old who skated with such precision that there was no doubt what awaited him. He was a power skater who landed on the ramps so hard they'd flex and tremble under his weight, a prodigy who was catching eight-foot airs and turning immaculate inverts with ease.

His name was Justin Lynch, and by 1988, he was Minnesota's first pro.

   

THERE ARE A LOT of hot buttons for Justin Lynch. He doesn't like the term "old school." He doesn't much care for the term "old" at all. At 37, "old" is something he's not ready to cop to. He's wary of the press, wary of gossip, wary of his past. And after 20 years of skating, his body creaks like an old carburetor. He has dislodged vertebrae, snapped sinews, and blown a knee. He complains that sometimes it's a struggle to get out of bed, and he regards his two-year pro career as if viewing it through the wrong end of a telescope—something far away, rendered indistinct by pain and loss.

But on a stormy August evening, he's padded up and bearing through the turns of the Tri-City Park, skying five feet. When he turns an invert, the onlookers clap their boards against the coping.

In the O.T.C. and beyond, his name is always on the tips of local skaters' tongues, for he was their first. Lynch was the kid who dropped out of high school to skate. Who relocated to Nebraska to practice on competition-level ramps, to shore up his talent, and make his name. He was the kid who arrived at a pro competition in Del Mar, nervously shaking hands and introducing himself to the skating elite, whom he recognized from issues of Thrasher. When Lynch shook Tony Hawk's hand, the Birdman simply said "Hey, Justin." No introduction, no nothing—Lynch was one of the boys.

"It was always a big gamble for me," Lynch says. "But my parents didn't get along. My grades were crap. I didn't have anything else on my mind. I thought, 'This is my chance to do this now. If I don't do this now, it's gonna slip away.'"

In 1990, he went top 10, keeping company with Steve Caballero and Bucky Lasek. His future was blinding.

But two years into a promising career, Lynch collided with another skater on a vert ramp and his body scorpioned, his legs flying over his head, the ligaments tearing out a chunk of his spine.

Laid up for 10 months, he saw his career prospects wither. The entire industry was shrinking. Sponsors dropped him. In a fit of fury and resentment, Lynch walked.

"I lost my love for it," Lynch says. "I lost my passion. I had a pure heart for it, and it got squashed. If I hadn't hurt my back, I would have made it. I had the X Games in me. I was headed there. I didn't think I was ever going to skate again."

But he dreamt of it. For a decade, he endured troubling nightmares: trying to drop in, and being unable to take the plunge. Going for air and being pulled earthward, as if weighed down by sandbags.

In 2003, strange emails started to arrive. They were from an old friend from his skating days, a tall vet of the local scene named Olaf Gilbertson. Each week the emails from Gilbertson arrived like clockwork, and they all said the same thing. "Skatin' or hatin'?"

Week after week, every Wednesday, the same question, point blank.

It was spring of '09 when Lynch finally capitulated. He showed up at the Edina park, where Kevitt and Gilbertson had been skating biweekly for years. For the second time in his life, the switch was flipped.

"It was like walking into a lake and having all of your bad feelings wash away," he says. "I didn't have to prove anything. I'd done my proving. I was just skating with my friends."

Since spring, Lynch has skated every week. He's gone to Woodward, a skate camp in the desert plains of California, a place to which he swore he'd never return. He pushes himself, finds himself scared shitless, soaring once more above the coping through familiar air. When he relearns a trick, he gets the rush of a 16-year-old.

On this night, Lynch goes for a backside ollie, and somewhere midair, the trick goes wrong. He is in freefall, unable to turn into a knee slide, and when he collides with the basin of the bowl, a muted, troubling thud echoes against the concrete walls. He's slow to rise, and in minutes, he's stripped of his pads, clutching a bag of ice to his knee.

But he's grinning, mugging with Jon Baugh, another old-schooler, musing about the bail. Somehow, even the pain is a joy.

"It's overcoming demons and fears," Lynch says. "I know I'm never gonna be in the X Games. I know I'm never gonna be top 10 again. But to come back to square one and remember why you did it in the first place...." There is a long pause before he returns. "I've had the summer of my life."

   

BESIDE THE EDINA YMCA is a serpentine pit of sculpted concrete embraced by a chain-link fence. By anyone's measure, the park is impressive—a park, as Gilbertson says, to make a man of you. The deep end is empty, save for Gilbertson and Kevitt, who are skating hard, getting big air.

By the shallow end, where the banks are more gently graded, a handful of kids in pads and helmets carve through the turns, their wheels hissing like gas from a pilot light. Perched on the bleachers, a middle-aged man in olive cargo pants gazes out at the park, adjusting his spectacles, his elbows resting on his knees.

They call him "Woody." He says more people know him by that name than by his birth name, Eric Froland.

The bleachers are the closest Woody has come to riding a vert ramp in a decade. His feet haven't touched grip tape in as many years. But at 44 years old, Woody is a man still hailed as a master.

He was a New Prague kid who crawled out of skateboarding's most primordial age in 1975 and cut his teeth on driveway competitions. He spent summers raiding construction yards of lumber scraps and building half-pipes in suburban cul-de-sacs.

And tonight, he's at the Edina skate park, just to see it. To bullshit with Kevitt and Gilbertson. Just to be near the action.

"Back then, skateboarding was different," he says, squinting into the sun. "It was backyards. It was before sponsors. You knew you were risking life and limb, and that you could get hurt. But the excitement...." He trails off, shakes his head, and massages his knee with a knuckle. "It was like a drug."

There was a time when Woody was the best skater anyone knew. No one skated harder or higher. In 1988, two years before Lynch went pro, Woody became the first Minnesotan to net sponsorship, to get floated Gullwing trucks and Vision shoes by the boatload, who, with his massive air and effortless style, never had to pay to skate.

"I was living my dream," he says. "It would have been nice to go to school and stuff. But I was flying to contests. I had packages coming every month with shoes and boards. It opened up a lot of opportunities."

But every skater has an expiration date. It's the grim prospect that haunts each member of the O.T.C.—the spectral threat of the big injury. Woody's expiration date was the summer of 1992. That winter, he'd blown out his knee snowboarding and undergone three surgeries. But it couldn't keep him off his skateboard. He was at a vert ramp in Winona, simply finding his legs. His speed was still there, and he could still catch air. Going into a knee slide, he felt a pop. The doctor's diagnosis chilled him: "Everything that happened to your left knee just happened to your right knee."

Recalling the moment he realized his career was over, Woody smiles ruefully. "That was it," he says, opening his hands as if releasing a bird.

Only it wasn't. By the late '90s, skating was in boom times. Board sales were skyrocketing. A celebrity culture was fostered by the X Games and ESPN. And Woody found new life designing skate parks.

He'd spent two decades building what he skated—if there was a ramp somewhere in the city, chances are Woody's fingerprints were on it. And suddenly, seemingly every city wanted a skate park.

"My whole life, my parents were asking when I would put down the board and get a real job," he says. "All of a sudden, I'm building parks. Cities are calling. People from all over are asking me to go build."

By 2000, Woody was in business with Jensen. He was building mini-ramps at Pearl Jam's practice space, traveling the nation on assignment, erecting skate parks wherever he landed.

Most importantly, Woody found a life in skating even after his body failed him.

"What can I say?" he says now. "I lucked out."

Standing near the curb of the pool, in which Kevitt carves a tight turn, Woody seems discomfited, as if, without a board beneath him, he's invisible. Watching the skaters pump, he reflexively mimics the motion in his own legs, bobbing gently from the knees, bearing into imagined turns in a soft pantomime.

For veteran skaters, Woody is the embodiment of their hopes and fears. In him, the great dream is alive—of an entire life spent on skating, a success by any measure. And in him, so is the tragedy of the sport—the more you love it, the more it can take from you.

"It's hard," he admits, watching the teenagers sprawl through the shallow end of the park. "It's hard to watch, because I don't get to do it anymore." Then he shifts his gaze to the deep end, where his friends Kevitt and Gilbertson are skating, doing stalls and grinds along the coping in the waning light. "But I get to come here and see the kids I knew 20 years ago still riding," he says. "Whether I can do it anymore doesn't make a difference. I'm 44. I've had seven knee surgeries. I wouldn't change one thing."

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