Skateboard riders have this thing about air. Listen long enough and you'll hear about frontside airs, backside airs, rocket and judo airs. There's even an air maneuver called Madonna (because it takes your breath away).
But air also means space, and space means freedom. Freedom to soar six, eight, 10 feet into the sky (that's called pulling big air), to fly as free as a bird. But ornithologists take note: In skateboarding's showcase event of vertical riding, there is only one bird worth watching—a high-flying Hawk named Tony.
Since turning pro in 1982, Tony Hawk, an 18-year-old from Carlsbad, Calif. has flown straight to the top. He has won 18 of 29 sanctioned pro events and the only three National Skateboard Association series titles ever contested. And with just one NSA event remaining (Dec. 14 in Anaheim, Calif.), he is virtually assured a fourth. "Tony is the best skater around," says veteran pro Steve Caballero. "He's consistent, never falls, and does moves no one else can do."
Hawk's Big Bird body—a gangly six feet, 140 pounds—runs counter to the compact, powerful physique of his closest half-pipe rivals, Caballero and the captivating Christian Hosoi. That's of no consequence. When Hawk swoops down from the top of a U-shaped bowl and starts digging into his bag of tricks—720s, 360 varial inverts, finger flips—he's a sight to see, an aerialist who is equal parts gymnast, acrobat and ballet dancer. He often concludes his show with an electrifying 720 aerial; Hawk is the only skater in the world who can complete two midair somersaults and somehow still land on a 31-by 10-inch hunk of hardwood. Said one competitor after watching Hawk win a world title in Vancouver last August, "He's the Wayne Gretzky of skateboarding. It will be a long time before anyone like him comes along again."
Stop us if you've heard this one before: Skateboarding is on a roll—for the third time. The first wave hit in 1966. That's when Jan and Dean urged us to "grab a board and go sidewalk surfing with me." That fad faded after three years. Then, in 1976, new technology (polyurethane wheels and fiberglass boards) turned a fad into a frenzy: 30 million skaters, $300 million annual sales and, of course, thousands of broken bones. By 1979 the sport itself was in pieces, damaged by skate park owners charging exorbitant fees and by city ordinances banning riding everywhere but in one's own backyard.
But every 10 years or so the wave seems to return. Today annual skateboard and accessory sales are again approaching $300 million. Models pose in Macy's catalog in skateboarding garb; MGM moguls are talking feature-length movies. But the sport is still struggling, split right down the middle. Anarchists to the left. Little Leaguers to the right.
The Defiant Ones—artistic, almost poetic in many cases—live to skate the streets of San Francisco, Santa Monica or Miami. They're turned on by the breeze blowing in their hair and the nihilistic, satanic songs of hard-core or speed rock groups like Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer. Pictures of skulls, skeletons, bats—what one pro called "the Creep Show thing"—abound; so do the color black, two-tone hair, shaved heads, tattoos and T-shirts that read DEATH ZONE or BRAINWASH VICTIM. Six-year-old San Francisco-based Thrasher magazine (circulation 165,000) is their medium. "Competition to us means better terrain, better ramps," says Thrasher editor Kevin Thatcher. "We don't want to see skateboarding in the Olympics."
Across the fence stands the NSA. Its members are no less artistic or inclined to plaster their boards with skulls or skeletons, but the NSA strives for a more clean-cut, competitive and organized image, an attitude reflected in stylish Trans-world Skateboard magazine (three years old, circulation 165,000). "The parents are the ones who buy the stuff," says its publisher, Larry Balma. "They have to be happy with what we're doing."
Tony Hawk admits he sits "right between" the two magazines in this culture clash. "I like how Thrasher makes certain points, but I like how Transworld is put together," he says.
Hawk certainly seems to be in sync on this late-summer afternoon, alone, roadside, surrounded by the lush hills that frame picturesque Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Hawk is checking out a slalom competition held in conjunction with Expo '86. The night before, he won Expo's vertical event, edging Hosoi on the final run. Four weeks later he would win the Chicago NSA stop in similar style—finishing a spectacular 50-second session with an unprecedented four straight McTwists (a 540 spin with a twist). "Tony's very creative," says Steve Hawk, 31, who taught his brother his first tricks 10 years ago. "But the thing about Tony is he's always had the presence to hold off his best tricks until the end. He has brought strategy to the sport."