By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
In the early 1980s, just as a young kid from Gainesville named Rodney Mullen was turning heads skating for Walker, skateboarding hit a second bust. The newness of the sport's late-'70s innovations had worn off, and nothing had come along yet to reinvigorate skaters. Facing injuries and -- now being old enough to drive -- distractions, Gelfand dropped out of the sport completely in 1981. "If he had stayed longer and ridden out that five-year storm, he could have been a champion skater all the way through the '90s," says Michael Brooke, author of The Concrete Wave, a book on the history of skateboarding. But Gelfand, enthralled with his driver's license and his new Volkswagen Scirocco, bought with money he earned skateboarding, turned his attention to autocross, racing the Scirocco in the Florida state autocross championship in 1982. Then in 1983, a friend turned him on to go-cart racing; Gelfand won the Florida state go-cart championship that same year.
Meanwhile, deep in a recession, skate teams everywhere, including Walker's, began slashing budgets. Most skate parks closed in the early '80s, and the sport went underground, taking Mullen with it. In that economic climate, it was no longer feasible for Walker to fly skaters out to competitions in California. He had to downsize his manufacturing operations for his company to survive. "I knew that I couldn't afford to do for Rodney [Mullen] what [Powell Peralta] could do for him," Walker says. "So just like you would with your own child, you want to set up the best circumstances for them." Mullen had won over 30 first-place victories in three years' time and was already considered one of the world's top skaters in 1980, even before he turned pro. A dentist's kid whose father made him wear so much protective gear that his skate friends called him "the human pad," Mullen was a straight-A student who many today still consider to be the greatest technical skater ever. Called "the King of Freestyle" in Brooke's book, Mullen took Gelfand's ollie to the ground, creating more tricks than anyone cares to, or can, name.
By the time the sport became popular again in 1986, Mullen was a full-fledged star, even flying to Europe on the Concorde for a skateboarding demonstration. And he was skating for Powell Peralta's Bones Brigade, on the same team with a young, dynamic Tony Hawk -- arguably the most influential skateboarder ever. Hawk, a San Diego native, took Mullen's street-skating flair to the vertical ramp, twisting his board and his body into positions never thought possible. "I remember in about 1982 was the first time I saw Tony Hawk," Weir says. "He was the skinny little kid that showed up with Stacy Peralta, and when we saw him ride, we were all like, 'Oh no.' We knew he was going to be huge."
While the sport of skateboarding experienced its second fall and third rise, Gelfand found increasing success riding four much faster wheels. Eventually he worked his way up to Formula Four racing, which he describes as "mini Indy cars," finishing tenth in the nation in 1992. Satisfied, he stopped racing in 1993 and opened a Volkswagen repair shop in Hollywood. He would race again, driving a Porsche Boxster in 2000, but the expense of racing became too much for him to continue. So after Mike McGill sent him a ticket to an "Old School Skate Jam" in 2001, where lots of veteran skateboarding stars like himself were gathering, Gelfand turned his attention back to skateboarding. Forty pounds overweight and still plagued by the same knee problems that forced him to quit 20 years earlier, he cautiously eased his way back into the sport, hiring a personal trainer to help get back into shape. Today, minus those 40 pounds, he's lean and wiry, with short-cropped hair and the same fidgety mannerisms that earned him the nickname "Ollie" as a teenager.
A lot can change in 20 years. Besides dealing with his own age-based physical limitations, Gelfand has come back to a sport that bears little resemblance to the one he left. When he quit and the skate parks closed in the early '80s, Mullen and others adapted ollie-inspired vertical (or "vert") tricks to streets, curbs, and handrails, the only places still open to skaters. Then, when skateboarding died a third time in the early '90s, it was Tony Hawk who performed CPR. Hawk combined street technical proficiency with vert drama, creating a hybrid that mesmerized kids and adults, skateboarders and nonskateboarders, and, perhaps most important, TV producers. Extreme sports became popular, and Hawk-style skating epitomized the trend. Popularity for Hawk and his "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater" game grew, and audience members at Hawk demonstrations became more specific. "Kids would yell, 'Do a 900!' at him," Weir says. "I heard Tony say that these kids want him to do things he can't even do in real life because in the video game he can. So he says he just does a 540 and they don't know the difference."
Skateboarders today split pretty clearly between vert and street, old and new, with a small but growing number of skaters practicing both. "The only vert guy making a lot of money is Tony Hawk," Transworld's Brittain says. "You go to a skate park now and the vert ramp is empty." But to the average observer, street-style skating, with its almost imperceptible nuances, is dull. The gravity-affirming board switches and "goofy" riding (when a skater who normally skates with his right foot leading leads with his left instead, or vice versa) are the athletic equivalent of key changes in music: technically proficient but boring to watch. Lay audiences aren't as impressed by munky flip-outs, nollie hardflips, crooked grinds, and darkslides as they are by a classic McTwist.