It happened in Disneyland, of all places, in 2010. I was at an exhibition, and I hadn't been taking care of myself, and I was drinking too much in the evenings. I went to do a relatively basic move — a McTwist — and I took it for granted. I fell on my way down the ramp, so all the force and momentum went right into my hip and I sheared my pelvis. It was devastating. I was 43, and at that age, the injury would usually be a career ender.
There had been warning signs — but I was way too caught up in the celebrity hype to realize it. In my thirties, I was into partying more than I should have, just going along carelessly, feeling invincible. I thought fame was the goal. I was going to these red-carpet events and trips, using painkillers liberally, and I figured out I could skate hungover. There's this state you get in where you're sort of numb. One time I was skating at this exhibition super-hungover, half-assing it, and I landed this trick lazily, and I flew off the ramp.
It wasn't always like that. Back when I was younger, skating was the priority, and I wasn't going to let anything interfere with it — not partying or any other responsibility, for that matter. I was a hyperactive kid. I played basketball, Little League. I was looking for something to do nonstop. When I found skating at nine, it hit all the marks.
It was challenging, I felt like a daredevil, and I could do it on my own terms and at my own pace. Skating was this empty canvas: Do something strange with my skateboard or my feet and it was a new trick — and I got to name it. I could claim a stake in this new world. That's what I loved then, anyway.
After the crash at Disneyland, I got off painkillers and stopped drinking so much. It wasn't easy. The biggest challenge was learning to be OK being uncomfortable — in social situations or anywhere else — knowing that I had the tools to cope on my own. And a thought occurred to me: What is all this glitzy partying for? I don't have anything in common with a lot of these famous people. I realized I couldn't burn the candle at both ends and that I love skating. I don't love partying. I want to be able to get out there and learn a new trick, get it on video. I'm not gonna do that if I'm sluggish or hungover. And it wasn't fair to my loved ones, to be functioning only when I wanted to skate. I want to be a good father. I have a 23-year-old son, four teenage boys, and an eight-year-old daughter.
So these days I'm trying to be healthier in all respects — eating, traveling, making decisions that keep my family the priority. On a typical day, I’m up at 6:45 a.m. to make breakfast for the house — scrambled eggs, avocado on tortillas. In my twenties, I was hard-pressed to get up before 11 a.m. Now it feels great to get so much done before lunchtime. For most meals, I stick to a Mediterranean diet: hummus, black beans, salads. When I travel, I seek out healthy, fresh stuff. I'm so obsessive about it, my wife makes fun of me. As soon as we land somewhere, I'm looking up restaurant options.
While the kids are in school, I'll hit the ramp in my backyard. I like to skate with three or four guys I grew up with — we'll all try to bring back some obscure '80s trick. I've never really needed to do anything else to stay in shape but skate. Skating a ramp demands short bursts of intense power. For 30, 40 seconds, I'm firing most of my muscles, then I rest for a few minutes and go right back in. There's no cruising — as much as you go downhill, you have to work to go uphill. That's why my left calf muscle is 50 percent bigger than my right, because that's my back leg. I probably should lift weights, but I don't. The last time I was at a gym was four years ago, and that was just to pick up my stepson from his workout. For recovery, my secret is to just get back out to the ramp as soon as possible and start moving again. Active recovery seems to be the fastest way for me to recuperate.
I plan it so I finish skating and work before 3 p.m. This way I can spend time with my kids. With my teenage boys, I can identify with the awkwardness, being less confident than you project, and the need for belonging. When I was that age, I had support for my skating, but I didn't have anyone campaigning for my personality. So I try to instill in them that they are funny and interesting, and to be curious about the world.
Making Every Ride Count
I still live for the high of doing something new, of setting up my own challenge. Even if it's a relatively small trick, that buzz gets me through the day. This might sound shallow, but it gives me a sense of validation and self-confidence. I still have this ego that is dictated by my prowess in skateboarding.
In the past, I did tricks spontaneously. It was something that happened when I was feeling good, the crowd was good, and the ramp setup was good. Today I have to be more methodical, structured. I think, “What if this goes wrong?" I guess it's a by-product of being an adult.
But sometimes that feeling gets me even more fired up because I know I have only a finite amount of time. Last year, for example, I was in Mexico City, and I did a 720 [flying off a ramp to complete two circles in midair]. The crowd was excited. I thought, “Maybe I can do a 900 [two and a half circles]." I gave it a good eight or nine tries and got close. That was the spark. I saw that the 17th anniversary of the first time I did the 900 was coming up — June 27 — so I set that date as a goal. In the week leading up to the day, I made an effort to do more spins when I skated, trying to get the spatial awareness down. The day before, I went out to my ramp and skated alone, full loner, and spun a bunch of 720s to prepare. I don't normally do those in practice because they're hard and there's a good chance you're going to fall and maybe get hurt. The next day I pulled off the 900 again on my own ramp, nearly two decades after the first time I did it, and probably for the final time. That felt good.
-As told to Burt Helm