Grampas: Tony Hawk, Shuan Palmer and Laird Hamilton

01 Feb 1999, Posted by Steven Kotler in

They don’t look like old me. Not in any way we are used to measuring age. Not in common marks of time, or in the things that leave bones brittle and back bowed. In fact, there is little that betrays so much life already lived. If you were to look closely at Tony Hawk or Shaun Palmer or Laird Hamilton, you might miss it altogether. They ride skateboards, snowboards, and surfboards, but these guys are not just pro athletes, not just starts. Theyíre legends – legends in the way the word was originally meant: something that persists through time, that is passed down; something that, in the end, is slightly miraculous, Hawk is 30, Palmer 20, Hamilton already a creaky 34. Although they donít look much like grampas, that is precisely what they are. They are grampas because theyíve survived the passing of time, because the things they do on their boards and in their lives speak as sagely about the present and future of their sports as they do about the past. They are grampas because they command respect and evoke awe.

Tony Hawk stands atop the halfpipe during the 1998 X Games, tall and lanky and awkward even from a distance. He’s handsome, but looks like a computer programmer who somehow got way lost and ended up far from Silicon Valley. He’s the fine, upstanding citizen of the grampa bunch: eyebrows unpierced, hair undyed. When he’s not skating, he runs a successful business, a skate and clothing company called Birdhouse that brings in some 14 mil a year. He’s in a Gap ad, and he produced The End, a skate film that opened last October in an actual theater. Even he’s willing to say: “Oh yeah, I’m Mr. Commercial now.” There’s even a chance-albeit a small one-he owns a tie.

For all of the ’80s and some of the ’90s, Tony Hawk was the No.1 skateboarder in the country. No. 1 when skating had a degenerate reputation, and then when it had no reputation at all. He was No.1 for 13 seasons (1981-93) and then he retired and started Birdhouse. (His nickname is Birdman; the guy soars.) When he was told by his partners the best thing he could do for the company would be to return to pro skating, he did. At the 1995 X Games, after a two-year hiatus, he took a first place, beating a bunch of guys who weren’t even born when Hawk took his first title. Even 22-year-old Bob Burnquist, a guy many consider the future of the sport. says, “You can’t understand how much I looked up to Tony when I was a kid. I mean, he invented half the tricks out there.” So when Burnquist tries a Kickflip McTwist. he understands he’s attempting a trick first done around 1984 by a skater named Rodney Mullen in an empty pool in California. It was taken into the pipe by Hawk, where he added the McTwist. He’s still one of the only guys who can even think about doing it.

The kids at this year’s XGames understand this too. They love him for being here now, almost as much as they love him for having been there then. “He fell off his board, got back on, threw a sick 720 and then an Ollie 540; says one long-shorted 14-year-old. “Man, no one else in the world can even do those tricks,” says his friend. “He still placed second,” says another. “That’s so rad.”

Atop the ramp, the light is too bright, and he squints at the drop before him. The only sound now is a small thwap as Tony leans his board over the pipe’s edge and compresses his skinny legs and roars down the headwall. The awkwardness vanishes and he is power and grace. The crowd goes from full-throttle to frantic gaping, screaming, crammed up against the fence, harassing the squad-car-sized security guards, wanting a moment with their hero, beating their hands, the ground and each other in raucous chorus. Forget the competition; Tony is just warming up for the warm-up. He soars down one side of the pipe and up the other, and when he pops off the edge of the ramp, a voice from the crowd screams: “OLD-SCHOOL BOY!” And that pretty much says it all.

Shaun Palmer is the real deal too. The Palm. The crotchety old man, the grampa with attitude, the last real bad boy of snowboarding. Yeah, at 30, Palmer’s done all that bad boy stuff. He’s covered in tattoos and has a rep for salacious party tricks. Old-school boy? He started boarding back when Mount Rose was the only mountain in California that allowed such things. He started boarding when boarders were punk rockers who drank beer on the lifts. He started boarding before anyone was willing to pay a thin dime to see him huck off a cliff. He didn’t care.

It’s all happening wicked fast now, this rise to glory stuff. Already there’s talk of the next generation and the one after that, and the companies are lining up to sign them young, real young. Ben Rice got a deal. He signed on for free gear with Palmer Snowboards at the ripe old age of 10, when he rode for the legend, the Palm, who still wears gold lame on the winner’s podium after 17 years of riding and eight major titles. Last year Palmer spent seven weeks drinking beer and watching the tube, and then finally managed to pry himself from the couch to head down to Crested Butte and take a first place at the X Games. Or at least that’s how he told the tale, after crossing the finish line with a thumb hoisted to his lips in a beer drinker’s salute. It wasn’t the first time the Palm pulled a shocker. Last year the boardercross champion did something even Michael Jordan couldn’t do successfully-he switched sports. “I was so bored with the lack of serious competition in snowboarding,” he says, melodrama intended, “I started downhill mountain bike racing.” No one believed he could do it, including his sponsors. He got no funding. No ballyhoo. So Palmer hired his own mechanic and spent $50,000 riding on the pro circuit. And a funny thing happened: He nearly came in first. Not just in one race, but overall, for the season. So the legend continues. Because the Palm has proved himself in more than one sport, and because his team and his line of boards are like a lifeline tying him directly to the kids, and to the future.

Shaun White is the future. Signed by Burton Snowboards at age 8, he’s now pushing 11, and this year he won every event on the U.S. Amateur Snowboard Association circuit. If you ask him, he’ll tell you all about the Palmer legend. He uses words like sick and rad and cool because he’s a kid and he’s a snowboarder, and that’s the way kids and snowboarders are supposed to talk. When he talks about Palmer, he talks about crouching low and fighting out of the gate and pumping for that extra inch of air. He talks about all the tricks Palmer does, all the secrets he knows, and all the ways he’s passing all that sick, rad, cool stuff down to all the kids. Which is, after all, what we’re really talking about.

As long as we are talking about the need to ride something faster than feet can carry you, we have to talk also about surfing – surfing in the Hawaiian waterman tradition. Laird Hamilton is the heir to that tradition, which stretches back to a time in Hawaii’s history when tribes were ruled by kings, and those kings rode waves in dug-out canoes and the best wave-riding, current-swimming superhero of a man got to be boss. A waterman does everything in the water, and he does everything well.

Laird was raised in the water. His father, Bill Hamilton-one of the most revered of the early Hawaiian surfers-taught Laird to surf when he was 3. At 8, he was jumping off 60-foot cliffs. At 22, he entered a windsurfing contest and defeated a heavily favored champion, breaking the European speed record in the process. At 25, he crossed the English Channel on a paddleboard. But what puts Laird in another category altogether-besides his marriage to beach volleyball goddess Gabrielle Reece-is tow in surfing.

When waves grow to the size of mountains, they are too big to paddle into. Laird solved the problem by hooking a tow rope to a jet ski, adding footstraps to a surfboard for stability and taking turns with his friends towing each other into giant waves. That was back before any board company could afford to throw a $50,000 bounty up to the biggest big-wave rider, before anyone had thought of such a thing.

It’s cool that he did all this first, but he could have gone the way of the buffalo if he hadn’t been able to hold on throughout the rise of the Xbiz, when the surf industry alone was growing from a California cult thing to a $2 billion a year business in the U.S. He could have disappeared during the ’80s, when extreme sports went from garage band to stadium act. But Hamilton did hold on. And if you are in Southern California in midsummer, when there are something like seven different surf contests in as many weeks, and kids are piled waist-deep in surfboards and sleeping bags, you can bet they will attest to the debt they owe to the grampa who led them to the big waves. “You can’t measure the immensity of his impact,” says Chris Baiata, 18, who took fifth in the ’98 U.S. Championships. “By continuing to surf bigger and bigger waves, he’s pushing everyone’s limits. Still. At 34. No small feat for an old dude.

When you ask Laird about this, he says, “A grampa, huh? You’re going to call me a grampa?” Then he smiles that toothy smile, gleeful and at peace with his place in the universe. It’s the same smile he wears when he talks about the great surfers of old, the same smile he wears just before he screams down a mountain of water the size of the Chrysler Building. “I like that,” he says. “A grampa is what you get when there’s nothing else left to prove.”

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