Eight top pro skaters, including Red Bull's Ryan Sheckler, will compete this weekend in the Street League finals, a contest airing on ESPN2 that speaks to the future and honors the past of skateboarding. The prize? An unprecedented $200,000.
Street League was founded in 2010 by skater Rob Dyrdek. It quickly became a prominent force in the sport, drawing top pros with enticements of big money and courses emulating street obstacles, like rails, platforms and stairs. These stretched, lower designs (as found at the Berrics or Sheck’s redesigned private park) are a recent shift in traditional skatepark models built more for vert or “park” skating.
While park designs that echo street spots are new to skateboarding, the evolution isn't a great surprise, considering that street skating -- the genre that encapsulates most of the 8 million skaters in the country -- is barely 30 years old.
Skating’s blip in the 1960s was followed by a brief craze in the 1970s, when skaters crowded parks, hills, drainage ditches and the occasional swimming pool. Rising insurance costs closed nearly every park built in this decade, dissipating skaters onto wooden ramps and into the streets they’d first cruised two decades before.
The difference this time was that street skaters and street skating had begun to get off the ground, first ollieing, then ollieing onto curbs (and then rails), then incorporating '70s freestyle tricks on their bigger, heavier street boards. Trailblazers of this new genre were Natas Kaupas and Mark Gonzales, both devout students of Rodney Mullen’s freestyle footage. Natas and Gonz are widely credited with bringing the first moving ollies, kickflips and railslides into the streets.
The first official street contest was held in 1983 in an actual street (Conservatory Road in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco) and won by Tommy Guerrero, a future member of the Bones Brigade who entered that day as an Am but won as a Pro. The same year, Thrasher ran a cover story titled “The New Etiquette of Street Society.”
Natas got the cover the following September doing a wall ride, and in November the cover went to Gonz, bonelessly launching off a low jump ramp. Both could regularly ollie and slide on handrails by 1988, and a year later Santa Cruz Skateboards released "Streets on Fire," the most important street skating video in the history’s whole archive, featuring Natas’s famed and unprecedented fire hydrant spin (see video below).
The craze behind the idea that skaters could skate almost anywhere quickly spread, especially along the East Coast, where a hard-hitting, harder-riding, 16-year-old New Jerseyan was the talk of a new skate spot called The Brooklyn Banks. His name was Mike Vallely.
Street skating would slowly grow under the guise of the more vibrant, more famous vert brethren, and take over the sport in the 1990s, when vert skating fell to earth and returned to the street, only to grow up and out again for generations to come.
The eight Street League finalists hit the course Sunday in New Jersey. Shecks will be going up against Nyjah Huston, Paul Rodriguez, Chaz Ortiz, Sean Malto, Chris Cole, Bastien Salabanzi and Luan Oliveira in what could be a landmark competition. Tune in to ESPN2 at 5:00 p.m. EST to watch it go down live.
Cole Louison is the author of "The Impossible: Rodney Mullen, Ryan Sheckler, and the Fantastic History of Skateboarding."
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