As a middle-school-age skateboarder growing up in the late '90s, I was conditioned to hate rollerbladers. According to doctrine laid down by skateboarding magazines, this relatively new sport looked goofy, didn't involve as much risk and, hence, was totally “gay.” (It usually went unmentioned that rollerblading also posed an economic threat to the skateboard industry.)
When a rollerblader moved into my apartment complex, however, I learned the joys of “aggressive” inline skating, which involves doing tricks and stunts. Thinking back, some of my fondest memories of those otherwise dreadful adolescent years involve me slapping on a pair of scratched-up blades, rigging a metal rail against a shopping cart and whiling away the hours doing soul grinds—one of the more basic tricks—over and over again.
At the time, aggressive skating had hit a peak, with inline-skate companies raking in millions and bladers competing professionally in the X Games. But as skateboarding culture became increasingly mainstream, the anti-rollerblading propaganda got louder and aggressive inline skating steadily waned in the United States. By the time the X Games dropped rollerblading in 2005, I'd long grown out of the sport.
Today, most professional bladers make meager salaries. And though skaters have formed a truce with many skateboarders, they're still haunted by bad publicity. Dre Powell, 28, a world-renowned pro skater who lives in San Marcos, told me that a pack of skateboarding kids recently threatened him and his friends at the skate park in Poway.
“I got into the action sports to not have coach yelling at me,” he says. “And then we got into [rollerblading] and we're like, Wait a minute, skateboarders don't like us?”
But as it's gone underground, skating (by now, most skaters have dropped the “aggressive” label) has reached creative new heights. Skate companies have come up with innovative designs and rollerbladers have gotten bolder with technical tricks and record-breaking stunts. They've also honed distinct, visually striking styles.
“They're attached to your feet, so the possibilities are limitless,” says Damien Wilson, 27, a pro skater from Santee known for his artful technique and wild antics. “I can do a lot of difficult tricks, but I don't like doing anything I can't make look good.”
Since the '90s, San Diego has been regarded as a mecca for inline skating. A number of professional skaters live here, and it was once home to Daily Bread, an influential skating magazine that went out of business in 2006. Popular local skate spots have shown up in countless videos.
One of them is San Diego City College, with its tantalizing gaps, rails and ledges. On a breezy Sunday, I visited a well-skated set of stairs near the Saville Theatre with local blader Hayden Ball and Justin Eisinger, the editorial director of ONE skating magazine.
Most of the handrails had been capped with skate-proof bolts, but somebody had removed them from a rail leading down a 10-stair set. As Eisinger snapped photos, Ball, 26, worked like a veteran, making the rail sing as he pulled off various grinds.
Later, we headed across the street to San Diego High School, another popular spot. First, Ball took on a treacherous-looking gate in the parking lot, launching from a bump on a curb to grind it. Then, he started working a long ledge that spanned over a grass lawn, landing a grind after more than a dozen tries.
That day, he took several spills against the rough concrete, but pain is a fact of life for seasoned skaters: Last week, both Powell and Wilson were recovering from serious ankle injuries. Ball has also taken some beatings.
“I've broken my ankle, my hand, my fingers—what else?” he says. “I've smacked my dome a couple times, which isn't bad considering I have been skating without a helmet since I started, almost.”
When his elbow started bleeding after one fall, he nonchalantly glanced at the scrape.
Last week, I squeezed into a pair of skates at Escondido's San Diego Skate Foundation, the only pro skate shop in San Diego County. It was the first time I'd bladed in years. At the adjoining skate park, I rolled around on the flat concrete as Powell, the pro skater, hit the ramps. I didn't dare soul-grind, but I managed a simple trick where I roll on the front wheel of one skate and the back wheel of the other.
I tried to go up one of the ramps and took a bruising spill. When I got back up, a beaming Powell slapped me a high five. It felt great to be rolling again.
Correction: We incorrectly referred to ONE magazine as Believe in One magazine. We're sorry for the error.