Monday, May 20, 2024

“I Didn’t Have Any Peers”: Tony Hawk Reveals Why He Almost Left Skating in New Doc

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Everything was going a little too well. It was the mid-1980s, and Tony Hawk, the gangly runt of skateboarding team the Bones Brigade, had finally come into his own as a professional skater. After years of obsessive training, he had become the one to beat on the continental circuit—taking the top spot at skateboarding competitions across California, in Chicago, in Vancouver, setting records and winning thousands of dollars along the way. It got to the point where other skaters could only dream of placing second, because Hawk’s win was a foregone conclusion. 

There was just one slight problem: Hawk was miserable. 

“I felt like I was losing myself,” Hawk says in the newly released HBO documentary Until the Wheels Fall Off, directed by Sam Jones. It’s a period of his life that’s rarely discussed, in which the then teenager, only a few years into his career, almost walked away from professional skateboarding for good. The revelation may come as a surprise to cursory fans of Hawk, considering the skating legend—now 53, still shredding—has gone on to become the greatest skateboarder of all time. He’s also played a crucial role in mainstreaming the sport, via video games and creating skateparks across the country. 

But if he had things his way as a teenager, none of that would have happened. As Hawk tells it in the film, he’d grown bored with his “methodical and robotic” performances after becoming the youngest professional skater ever at 14. By 17, he had perfected a skating routine with an array of exciting and varying tricks. He also was so familiar with the circuit that he knew how to perform for certain judges, modulating his skating in order to surprise them. Until the Wheels Fall Off gives way to montage, showing Hawk winning competition after competition, and offering snippets of interviews with other skaters who consistently name-checked him as their toughest competition. 

“I didn’t have any peers,” Hawk said, looking back at that time. It’s not a boast, but a fact. No one had managed to surpass him on a technical level. He was so successful that he was able to buy his first house at 17; a 1997 Los Angeles Times profile estimates he was making upward of $200,000 a year. But Hawk was lonely at the top. Stacy Peralta, who helped form the Bones Brigade and was the Yoda-like presence in Hawk’s life, describes the young skater as being practically “catatonic.” The film backs up this claim, rustling up archival footage of a young Hawk being interviewed at a competition. He’s talking about how happy he is to be there, but he’s expressionless. The kid who was once thrilled and scared to zoom around empty pools with the older, wilder boys had become a joyless functionary. 

The higher Hawk rose, the more taunts he also had to take from other skaters. After Hawk took interest in skating as a kid, his father, Frank, founded the National Skateboard Association, which presided over numerous competitions. “Frank represented authority to Tony’s friends,” fellow skater Christian Hosoi told Sports Illustrated back in 1986. “Skaters had to listen to his dad. You can see what type of position that put Tony in.” That, coupled with the fact that Frank was a tough, bullish presence, meant his son got accused of winning by default. 

Hawk was mocked for his tricks as well, called a “clown” skater by traditionalists. “Who’s this little robot kid doing circus tricks with a skateboard?” Hawk said in a 2021 interview with The New York Times, characterizing his reputation at the time. “It was so crushing.” After a few years, all of it combined was enough to make him want to leave professional skating altogether.

Hawk eventually confided in his older brother, who took him to Peralta so he could confess that he wanted to stop competing. Peralta heard him out, then asked Hawk to talk to Rodney Mullen, a fellow skater who had quit competing, but still had love for the sport. He called up Mullen, and the two commiserated over the ways in which competing had become rote. Mullen reminded him that the competition and the form were not the same, easing him away from his perfected routine. He helped Hawk get reinvigorated once again, encouraging his sense of play and creativity.

“Detachment. Freedom. You can breathe,” Mullen says poetically in the documentary, recalling that conversation with Hawk. “We skate with our hearts.”

That was a turning point for the skater, who would go on to become a defining legend of the sport. He’s now an elder statesman of the industry, recently tapped to be a commentator—and, in a way, a skating ambassador—at the 2021 Olympics, where skateboarding made its debut as part of the competition. And despite his stumble in the ’80s, Hawk didn’t actually retire from competition until 2003. As for skateboarding itself? He never stopped. 

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