Tony Hawk plans to keep skateboarding 'Until the Wheels Fall Off'
Hawk elevated his sport. But in middle age, it's become hard on his body. NPR spoke with the skateboarding icon about his new documentary, Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off.
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
Few athletes can say they're so good at their sport that their name becomes synonymous with greatness - Michael Jordan in basketball, Tiger Woods in golf, Serena Williams in tennis. And then there's Tony Hawk. The skateboarding icon has seen the sport grow in a remarkable and long career, from shredding backyard bowls as a kid to reaching incredible heights on the half pipe to being a global ambassador for the board. A new documentary on HBO chronicles Hawk's Life and the growth of a once-derided trend. It's called "Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off." Joining us now from his home in San Diego is the Birdman himself, Tony Hawk. Welcome.
TONY HAWK: Thank you very much.
RASCOE: So you have been skating most of your life, and we saw that in the documentary. Can you tell us about the first time you got on a board?
HAWK: Yeah, I was about 9 years old. And my brother and his friend were in the alleyway skating, and his old board was just lying there. And I said, oh, can I try this? And I remember yelling, how do I stop? How do I stop? And then I ran into the fence. I got a couple splinters in my fingers. And then a few of my friends started skating as a hobby, and we started building ramps and stuff. And that's when I got more serious about it.
RASCOE: Let's talk about the Bones Brigade, because even though when you first started skating, you didn't think of it as going to be this big thing - but there was this group of some of the most talented young skaters in the '80s, and you became a part of it. Like, how did it feel to be a part of the Bones Brigade at such a young age?
HAWK: It was scary because they were considered the most elite team. And so when I got put on the brigade, it was more, what am I doing here? I don't belong here. This is too much. And then I just suddenly had to step up my skating, really, just to validate the fact that they wanted me on the team. And before long, we were traveling the world and doing exhibitions and doing iconic skate videos. And I was so honored. It was the right place, right time at that point.
RASCOE: I have to say, looking at those videos, y'all look really cool. Y'all had really cool hair.
RASCOE: And it was, like, very '80s. But it looked - like, y'all looked like a group I would want to be a part of, right?
HAWK: You know, skating, even though it was - it got somewhat popular in the '80s, it was still very underground counterculture, and that was the goal. We were already set apart because we skated. We might as well look the part, too, because we're not trying to fit in anywhere.
RASCOE: Well, in the '80s, you were competing around the country and internationally. And then you started winning consistently. But then you found yourself at a point where you felt empty and kind of missing something. And so let's play a little clip. And we hear from skater and friend of yours Stacy Peralta and then you.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TONY HAWK: UNTIL THE WHEELS FALL OFF")
STACY PERALTA: People calling him a clown skater because of the tricks he does, people saying, you don't deserve to be doing this. Christian should be winning - and at the same time, achieving his dream. He achieved his dream, and he got up there, and he realized how lonely it is.
HAWK: I felt like I was losing myself, losing my passion. None of the money or fame or success was worth that.
RASCOE: I think some people might have a hard time understanding, like, OK, if you're winning, why did you feel empty at that point?
HAWK: Because I love skating for what it provided me in terms of my feelings and my mental health and my adrenaline. And when I would go to a competition, I was in a mode that was much more conservative. It was - it was less fun. It was more like, you have to hit this mark. You have to do these tricks. And then guess what? There's another one next weekend. And that became this formula that was sucking the fun out of skateboarding for me because I love the spontaneous aspects of skating. But the only way to have success in skateboarding at that time was to compete. So I played the game, but at some point, it burned me out.
RASCOE: When you came back to it, it was all about not being so worried about winning. You have to be willing to lose.
HAWK: Absolutely, and it was - it was liberating.
HAWK: It allowed me to to enjoy skating and compete. And that was the balance I needed at that time in my life.
RASCOE: But even though you were willing to lose, you still won a lot even after that (laughter).
HAWK: I did, yeah. I mean, and I think because, suddenly, I was released of this tension.
RASCOE: And there was a point where you got the fame and the money and all of that but still had to go through this point of reflection and determining, like, the man that you wanted to be. And you decided to put that discipline that you put into skateboarding into your life.
HAWK: Yeah, and that seems easy to say, but it took a lot of work because I was always easily distracted with the trappings of fame and at some point sort of fell into that. And so to pull back from that and to put all of this discipline and energy into being a present father and husband was something that I had to work on. But when I did figure it out, life was just so much more enjoyable. I mean, now skating is not my distraction and my escape. Now, it's just - it's my enjoyment. For me, it's just, like, that's my relaxation. That's where I feel in control. And I'm goofing around. And, sometimes, it goes bad, and I break my leg.
RASCOE: Well, that's not as great when you break your leg.
RASCOE: But, you know - and I've never talked to someone who is the greatest at their sport. So since I have you, and you are the greatest (laughter) at skateboarding...
HAWK: Oh, thank you.
RASCOE: ...Is it - is it the determination and drive, or is there something else?
HAWK: The idea that I - it's not that I want to get hurt. And it's not that I'm trying to prove that I'm tough, but I don't mind getting hurt along the way for the sake of progression. And if I take a hard fall and I'm still able to get up, I'm going to get up, and I'm going to try it again. One of my earliest falls was I fell from the top of a pool. I got a concussion and knocked my teeth out. Someone found me laying in the bowl. I was 11.
RASCOE: Oh, my gosh.
HAWK: And when I woke up, my first thought was, well, I'm not going to do that trick in that way again.
RASCOE: (Laughter) That is a difference.
RASCOE: That is a difference. And you're not retired from skating, to be clear. But you have been retiring certain tricks in the last few years, including that 900, which is 2 1/2 rotations in the air. Last year, you did one last Ollie 540. What does it mean for you to retire these tricks? And why do that? Why retire them?
HAWK: Because I can still do them, and I know I won't be able to do them for much longer. And why not have some finality to that? I feel like very few athletes or performers get the chance to realize that they're starting to get too old and maybe that this might be the last time.
HAWK: So why not just do one for the last time while I still got the skill set? And to share it - to share that process because it was really cathartic. It was fun for me. I'm thankful to have done that, and I hope my leg gets better so I can do a couple more.
RASCOE: How did you hurt your leg at this point? Was it skateboarding?
HAWK: I was skateboarding, yeah. It was three weeks ago. I was skating my ramp, doing a trick that I've done many, many times, and I didn't have the usual amount of speed. I thought I could compensate for that like I used to when I was younger, and I couldn't. So in all that force and chaos, my femur broke.
RASCOE: Speaking of these injuries, you're 53 now. Skateboarding is not a gentle sport. Do you plan to keep on going?
HAWK: I don't make ultimatums. I would love to get my leg in working order and see if I can get back to some version of the skill set I had before I got hurt. And if I reach even half of that at this point, I'll be happy.
RASCOE: That was skateboarding legend Tony Hawk, who stars in the new documentary about his life called "Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off." It premieres April 5 on HBO. Tony Hawk, thank you so much for joining us.
HAWK: Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.