'Heaven is a half-pipe: Making skateboarding – and the strange beings who do it – understood'

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By Douglas Kruger

‘HEY, you wanna see my ollie?’

Here is a conversation you could have at the Island’s new skatepark, but not at work:

‘That was some wicked backside air!’

‘Thanks. I like the way you grind!’

‘You know what you should do? Shove it!’

‘Into a backside boneless?’

‘Well sure, so long as you grab it and don’t bail. No one likes a feeble fakie.’

It’s a brave new world at Les Quennevais. And it may require some translation. Fortunately, some of us speak skater.

I was eight when I picked up a board and headed out in search of my first shin shot. (That’s an injury, for the uninitiated).

My neighbourhood suffered a dearth of skateparks, so street-skating was the order of the day. Sadly, there is no surer way to earn the animosity of adults. One or two even spat at us. You never forget a 70-year-old hocking phlegm in your direction.

We didn’t care. Yell ‘hooligan!’ all you please. We knew they just didn’t understand the freedom of it all; the adrenaline; the wild rush of conquest as we defied the laws of physics to land that impossible flip. Sure, it took a thousand tries and we mangled our ankles in the pursuit. But once you landed it, your life was complete.

Eventually they opened a skatepark half-an-hour’s drive away. My dad took me to gaze up in awe at my first half-pipe. Dropping in on a 12ft ramp feels like stepping off the edge of the Grand Canyon. Maybe you live, maybe you die. Your friends will cheer their heads off if you make it. Or carry you to hospital if you don’t. Either way, you’ve never experienced such a rush.

The trouble is this: viewed from outside, most people see little more than a scruffy kid scuffing up a pavement. He tries some awkward shuffle, falls, and shoots his board through your windowpane. It’s not much to look at and carries a high chance of property damage.

Yet that’s not what’s happening in the skater’s mind. And therein lies the challenge. It’s like watching a five-year-old at play. All you’ll see is a skinny tyke jumping around randomly. But think back to being five. In your mind, you were a brave ninja, single-handedly warding off a rampant horde of evil warriors as they closed in from every side. It was the epic showdown of a lifetime.

If only you could hear the music in his head. If only you could glimpse the dream he’s chasing. And that’s skateboarding.

The reality of the final incarnation is glorious. But the initial pursuit of competence takes endless hours’ effort and casual indifference to serious injury. (Speaking of which, why don’t we go ahead and build the new hospital right next door? Call it synchronicity).

So, if you are new to the sport, and maybe a little hostile, may I attempt to avert a spitting incident? May I nudge you nearer to an understanding of what’s going on? The experiment involves YouTube and a willingness to be open-minded for three minutes.

Type in: ‘Danny Way – Best Of.’ Or copy this link into your internet browser: youtube.com/watch?v=dOYMFemfUh0.

Does that begin to hint at the world they’re chasing?

Between the ages of 8 and 12, my only dream in the universe was to be that guy. Skateboarding was the only thing I did, the only thing I thought about.

My yearning was so all-consuming that even hygiene fell by the wayside. I dreamed about it.

Apparently, obsession pays off. I won our national championships for street, mini-ramp and vert-ramp over three consecutive years, and earned the name ‘Mighty Mouse’ from the bigger kids. I also collected every injury known to pre-pubescent man, some of which you can still behold on my battered carcass today.

It was the most alive I have ever felt. The height, the speed, the defiance of gravity. The rush of kids yelling, ‘yeah!’ any time one of us landed an impossible move, then sped off like a hero.

And sure, the stars were in alignment about that time. AC/DC had just released ‘Thunderstruck’. There had never been a War on Terror, and no one knew you could make a social-media career out of being offended. Tom Cruise looked about as old as he does today. Most of all, guys like Danny Way and Tony Hawk were at the height of their powers, showing the world what could be done ten feet above a ramp, if you only had the guts to try.

OK, so perhaps you don’t have time to watch the videos. What’s it like?

It’s like walking out into a darkened stadium at night. All at once, they turn on every floodlight.

It’s like making an impossible catch, then hearing everyone cheer your name.

It’s like flying for the first time.

It’s a long wait in the dark before that live performance, then you hear the first pounding drumbeat.

It’s like clearing the harbour and seeing the endless ocean opening up before you.

It’s the final moments of a first date, when you’re hopeful but unsure, and then she kisses you back.

Surging high out off a ramp and hanging in mid-air is like touching hands with God, before falling back down to earth.

You see those little skaters in their hoodies, shuffling about with the grace of rank amateurs? They might be chasing the greatest moments of their lives.

Few things ever brought me closer to my dad, either. We didn’t have much growing up, but he carted me all around the country whenever there was a contest. Long drives with your dad can mean more than you’d think.

That’s not to say skateboarding isn’t fraught with peril. Among my favourite injuries was the ‘hip-shot’. I sustained my worst one falling down a 12-foot vertical half-pipe and inconveniently missing the transition. Bam! For three weeks, you could see the blood in a corona just beneath my flesh, beautiful reds and greens and purples. At least that time, my skin stayed on. There was the time I jumped seven steps, landed wrong, and sandpapered the flesh from my back. The worst thing about that was how the scabs tore each time I went skating again.

I couldn’t have cared less.

It’s an easy sport to misunderstand, because it comes with an attitude. It’s all baggy clothes, weird lingo and the outward appearance of little discipline.

Yet at a technical level, skateboarding is an unusually difficult sport to master. It also creates instant bonds of friendship across massive age gaps. It may look like nothing more than a mob of scruffy kids, wobbling and bailing and breaking everything in sight, their kneecaps included.

But give it time. The skill amasses quickly. Awfully quickly, now they have somewhere to do it.

Something glorious happens on the far side of a few hundred hours’ practice. They begin to fly. It may be the most alive your child will ever feel.

The park is now open… and so are the possibilities.

  • Douglas Kruger is the author of 12 non-fiction books and one novel. He is an award-winning speaker and lives with his family in St Helier. Meet him at douglaskruger.com.

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