The world of extreme sports has once again descended on the city of Los Angeles for the X Games, which runs through the end of July.
Now in its 17th year, the X Games has become an annual summer showcase of the biggest and brightest stars in skating, motocross, BMX and rally car racing, with the likes of Shaun White and Travis Pastrana wowing audiences around the globe with the latest tricks of the trade.
There's no doubt, though, that the X Games wouldn't be what it is today without the pioneering efforts of Tony Hawk.
The man known best for landing the 900 and spreading the gospel of the grind through his video-game franchise has long since retired from professional participation in the X Games but still serves as an integral contributor and an ambassador for extreme sports.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Hawk himself at a fundraising event for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation.
Read on to see what he had to say about the X Games, the future of skateboarding, who he enjoys watching today and more!
We started off our conversation with a brief discussion of Tony's involvement with Laureus.
Tell us about how you first got involved with the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation.
Originally, I was nominated for a Laureus award. I think it might’ve been the first ones they did, and I had been in touch with them and heard a couple academy members saying they would like to include me in the academy and have me in that segment of sports as well, and eventually they voted me in and I’ve been to a lot of different events and just about every awards ceremony since.
What’s your experience been like as a member of the Laureus academy?
It’s been really rewarding. First of all, it’s a big honor to be considered in the same light as all these athletes who I looked up to most of my life and the fact that I came from a relatively underground sport that wasn’t popular or considered cool or positive at the time, to come this far and be accepted into a group like this.
But mostly, the reward has come from actually visiting projects and going to places like Sierra Leone and Cambodia and South Africa and seeing how sports truly can be a positive influence on kids who have relatively nothing
Slowly but surely, we segued into skating, Hawk's sport of choice and the one that made him a worldwide superstar.
What does being accepted into the Laureus Academy say to you about the growth of skateboarding and extreme sports?
It speaks volumes to how far skating has come in terms of acceptance and public perception and, you know, there still is that stigma out there that somehow it’s this rebellious, outcast activity but that’s fading.
There’s now more support than ever. There are now more facilities. Parents are encouraging their kids to skate—that just didn’t happen when I was a kid. To have a skateboarder in this kind of academy just shows how far we’ve come.
How do you see skating as a potential agent for social change?
I think skating can be huge. I think it really crosses a lot of boundaries in terms of sociological and economic backgrounds. You know, people that don’t speak the same language, people that aren’t the same country speak the same language in terms of skateboarding.
You know, you can go up to almost anyone that skates and say, “kickflip-backside-tailslide” and they will know what that means, you know, but you might not speak their native language, and the whole sharing of ideas and the art form as well as the sports aspect, I think, is huge.
I then got a chance to ask Tony about the X Games and where he sees them going from here.
What’s it been like for you to see how far the X Games has come since you first got involved?
It’s super exciting. There’s part of me that is amazed and, you know, in disbelief that it’s as big as it is, but there’s also a part of me that thought, “why couldn’t people have figured this out before?” You know, we’ve been doing it for a long time and we all thought it was incredible.
It gave us a sense of self-confidence and we knew that the physical feats were incredible and unparalleled in a lot of ways, and then to see it this popular, part of me is thinking, “Finally, they’ve figured it out!”
Where do you see the X Games going from here? Do you think you’ll ever see a half-pipe at the Olympics?
Yeah. Honestly, I think if the IOC gets a clue as to what the young viewers are into, they’ll include skateboarding. I think, at this point, they need it more than skateboarding needs them because I feel like they need that cool factor.
Their viewers aren’t getting any younger, and if you look at how important snowboarding is to their winter games now, that’s what skateboarding can be to their summer games.
Of course, I had to find out if Tony still skates...
What’s your involvement with the X Games these days?
I usually go and do commentary, so I’m doing the MCing of all the skate events, and I jump in and skate once in a while. I can’t stay away from it.
Do you skate often in your free time?
Yeah, all the time. I do a lot of exhibitions. In fact, that’s what I spend most of my time doing. I travel and I do a lot of stuff around the world, like big skate shows and such.
How are your tricks these days?
I’ve got about the same bag of tricks.
Can you still pull them off as easily?
Let’s put it this way: sometimes, you’ve got to dig deep, and sometimes it takes a little while. Yeah, for the most part, there are certain things I did in my career that I only did a couple times because they just took to long to finally make, and I knew that if I got it on video once, that’s all I wanted.
I don’t want to say I don’t do that anymore because I’m old; I don’t want to do it because it’s a hassle.
...and while I was at it, I figured I'd quiz him on the 900.
When was the last time you landed a 900?
Last summer, in July. We were doing a demo in Barcelona on the beach and there were probably about 40,000 people there.
Literally, Quiksilver put a ramp on the beach and the place was packed, and I figured, if I was ever going to do a 900 again, it’s going to be here. It took a few tries but I did it.
What’s that like for you to land a trick like that in front of such a huge, enthusiastic crowd?
I mean, it’s such a thrill. For me, the big thrill is to land something for the first time, so it’s not the crowd, the adulation. For me, it’s about the progression and the sense of validation that I get from doing something for the first time.
Even if someone else has already done it, I don’t care because it’s a goal of mine, but to do in that kind of venue is surreal. You know, to have that appreciation in a public setting is not something I ever dreamed of. It didn’t exist when I was starting out.
What was it like for you when you first landed the 900 at the X Games?
It was just a huge relief. I really didn’t think it would resonate. I didn’t think that many people cared but it was something that I had been pursuing for almost 10 years, and had tried it literally on a ramp with no one around, trying to do this trick and breaking a rib, and just thinking, “It’s not possible, I can’t do it.”
Is gravity your friend or your enemy?
It’s both. Gravity allows you to feel the exhilaration of flying and knowing that you have to come back down. You know, if you’re just floating, you’re not really flying, right? But it’s your enemy when you hit the flat and you break your pelvis like I’ve done.
A lot of pain involved in those tricks?
There can be. The pain is when you think you have it and suddenly your board is not turned the right way, or what if something comes out, you know? If you anticipate a fall, you can kind of deal with it, but when it sneaks up on you, that’s when you get really jacked.
What’s the next frontier in skate tricks?
There are always new tricks. There’s such a huge selection of tricks that can be done into other tricks. You can combine so many things now. It’s rare that a brand new singular trick takes place anymore, but to combine things is still happening all the time.
The franchise himself was also kind enough to give me the inside scoop on his wildly popular video game line.
What’s your role in the development of Tony Hawk: Pro Skater these days?
I test and I give feedback and I just give more direction, but really it’s about the authenticity for me. That’s where my most involvement is.
Do you play it often?
Yeah, of course. I walk the walk.
Are you good at it?
Yeah, I’m good. I’ve finished every game legitimately without turning any cheats on, so I feel pretty good about that.
What’s the next step for the game?
We are going to start working on something soon. It’s pretty early so I can’t really say, but let’s just say the next game is going to utilize the newest technologies that are out there, you know, because there’s all kinds of new apparatus that you can buy for your consoles.
I then asked Tony whom to watch for in this year's X Games.
Are there any athletes in particular that we should be watching for this summer at X Games 17?
Well, you can always count on Travis Pastrana doing something in some sport, doing something spectacular. As far as skating, Alex Pearlson is the guy that’s really pushing vert skating now. He’s super fun to watch.
He’s young, he’s like the fifth or sixth person to land a 900, and he’s working on new variations of that. In terms of street, there’s just so much new talent. It’s tough to say who’s going to rise to the top.
Tony Hawk also gave me his thoughts on the most popular extreme athlete of today, Shaun White.
Are there any guys that you’ve mentored over the years?
Well, I definitely helped Shaun White quite a bit when has coming up in the skate world. I wouldn’t take any credit for his success in snowboarding, but I think a lot of people were, I don’t want to say wary of him, but weren’t sure of him because he’d come from the snowboard world and the style was more in tune with that, so they thought he couldn’t be a serious threat in the skate competitions, and I just knew it, I knew he had something.
He has was driven and once he started gaining his strength in skating and his confidence that he’d be unstoppable. I still feel like that. It’s just that his time is very splintered with, obviously, snowboarding, which should be his first priority. But if he could spend a little more time skating, he’d be unstoppable.
Do you enjoy watching him go?
Yeah, I love it. I love seeing how far he’s come and how he’s refined his style and how he really is, you know…it’s undeniable, his talent and his progression.
Are there any other guys, past or present, that you enjoy watching?
I’ve always been a fan of Bob Burnquist. I think he’s one of the most progressive skaters of our day.
He’s taken the “Megarat” movement and made it his own little tinker toy. It’s incredible to watch.
As tremendous a pioneer as Tony Hawk has been for skating, even his greatness is not without inspiration.
Who inspired you to become a great skater?
My first inspiration from skating was a guy named Eddie Elguera, who was the most progressive skater of his day. He was the best skater at a time when skating was at its worst popularity, like right place, wrong time. But I was there skating and I was watching him and I had to learn all of his tricks.
When I started coming into my own, my first tricks that I learned were Eddie Elguera’s. Front side rock n’ roll, Elguerial. And then after that it was Steve Caballero, because he was generally the same age and size as me and he was inventing stuff like that, so I had to learn Cab’s tricks too.
What do those guys think of you and what you’ve been able to accomplish?
I think they’ve really enjoyed it. I mean, Eddie Elguera has voiced to me that he had no idea that he was an inspiration to anyone back then because it just seem that he was doing this sport that was dead, and so he appreciates that I give him that sort of attention, or that honor, that I mention him a lot because he really was, he was an inspiration to me because I just saw that you can take this further than what it is already.
These guys are flying in and out of pools, but this guy is doing stuff that’s really progressive.
What’s next for you?
I really want to work on the projects that I have going already, like Birdhouse Skateboards. I really want to cultivate our team more, put us out in the public more.
I have this website, Shred or Die, that I’d really like to make the hub of action sports. And I have a couple of TV movie things that I can’t really go into because they’re not inked yet.
If you had to pick a different sport, which would you have pursued?
I was good at baseball, so I think I may have gone that route. Even though I was good at baseball, I enjoyed basketball more because of the constant action, which is exactly why I found skating because it’s constant action.
You get on a board and it’s game on. It would probably have been one of those. That’s definitely where I had the most support as a kid.
To close out the interview, I asked Tony about the wide world of sports and what it means to be a sports celebrity.
Do you ever see pro athletes today who you think would make great skaters?
Yeah, I never think about it in those terms really. It’s hard to cross over. I do see people and I go, he’d be good if he’d have chosen skating because of his determination and his perseverance and his professionalism.
What do you think about the state of the sports celebrity in this day and age?
I think there’s a false sense of “role model” with athletes. Just because they’re good at a sport doesn’t mean you have to emulate everything they do. They’re just people.
I think the one thing that I’ve noticed being a pro skateboarder is that I see jaded professionals in other sports that just take their career and their fans for granted, and they’re not accessible. It’s almost like they think of themselves as on a different level. In skateboarding, you’ve got to walk the walk.
You have to get out there and get dirty and skate and do the thing, you know what I mean? You can’t just rely on accolades or press or the team.
You’ve got to get out there and do it yourself, and so I enjoy the fact that, in general, professional skateboarders are approachable and are interactive, and I think that’s how you have to shine in this day of new media.
You’ve got to be interactive. You’ve got to be engaging and not just someone that sends out PR statements.