SLS 2017 Finals
SLS 2017 Finals
Words & Photos: Zach Moldof
As the internet–and social media–have become a more prominent force in our lives we have all been watching to see what kind of guts and mush will squirt out the sides of the new machinations of our ridiculous society. Time has progressed, and most cultures have smushed under the incredible forces and pressures of the internet. Except skateboarding. This unique mix of sport, art, and lifestyle has exhibited the kind of cultural fortitude that results in brilliant anomalies of clarity and beauty. All of our cultures burned at the onset of web2.0 and in the aftermath we all gathered around the charcoal that was left to celebrate YouTube stars and apotheosize momentary avatars of life lived out of balance. As we all know, the future of our society was not to be found in the ash and coal, but in the diamonds that would be revealed to us in the years that followed. Skateboarding is one of those diamonds. It’s a big one made from all the detritus and happenstance of capitalism in its most oppressive form, and if you peer into skateboarding you can see light being pulled from the farthest corners of the universe. Skateboarding captures nearly everything that is essential to human life, and it makes something new out of it, something that can endure both capitalism and the internet. When the organic human matter of skateboarding met the pressure of the internet, the often-maligned culture of skateboarding was revealed to be riddled with priceless jewels.
The internet has unleashed untold gore and violence upon culture, and I’m not talking about faces of death, or 2 girls 1 cup. I’m talking about the ways that institutions of status quo consumer culture have been upended. As more and more people have started making and selling things the large scale institutions of US consumerism have been destabilized. And the locus of culture’s consumption has shifted from the point of sale to the point of production. People don’t define themselves by the brands they wear, so much as the brands they create (mind you most of these “brands” are not brands at all, and actually diminish the overall value of creative production, but that’s another story). We’ve seen the results as Tower Records, and other long-standing institutions have closed their doors because everyone would rather be on Ableton than at Tower Records. And while we should all celebrate the destabilization of capitalism, some of these forsaken commercial institutions actually played a central role in people’s ability to participate in culture.
The unfortunate byproduct of watching the corporate institution burn, is that most of the very real and tangible infrastructure for our cultures were reduced to coal or ash as well. The most clear example of this is music. Go to just about any town in the USA today and you’ll find that musicians who play shows are struggling. Long standing record stores that acted as the locus of a local music community are closing. In fact, entire local music scenes are struggling. The channels for drawing local crowds to shows and events have been oversaturated with all kinds of culture pollution. Music scenes have been left in shambles, and in many cities there is no localized network for music culture. Instead local citizens get informed about local events by checking homogenized national music media. People don’t care to attend shows that ensure the continuation of their local music community. The most important show to go to is the show that you can share on IG, and get the most likes for. If you’re going to see some local band, then there is no way that an IG user in another country will find you on the discover page. But if you have a picture of The Weeknd on your IG? Oh for sure, you’re gonna be up on the discover page in Russia, and tapping into those extra likes!
Of course, that’s not to say that the internet has ruined all culture. Far from it. Unfortunately most cultures crumbled under the pressure. But one culture that has met the internet head on, and come out the other end even better is skateboarding. That is because skateboarding did not resist the internet. In fact, if you look at skateboarding, and the way skateboard culture was operating in the decade leading up to the internet’s explosion, then it’s easy to see why skateboarding reacted to the internet in the way that it did.
By 1995 this LA and Bay Area based industry had created a diffuse network around the country that delivered both the United States and Canada–and to a limited degree, a varied host of foreign nations–to a single stage. Using magazines and videos, skateboarders created a network with monthly updates that covered what was going on with contests, skateparks, skateshops, skateboarders, and skate companies across the country. When you went out skating in your town, no matter where you were, you were up to date with what was going on with skaters around the country. If someone 360 flipped a 15 stair in bumblefuck in 1995, everyone was going to hear about it. As long as there were photos or videos.
Since at least the late 1980s skateboarders have been accompanied by photographers and filmers. Unlike other sports where achievements are summarized with names and numbers (whether points or stats), skateboarding can only be summarized with visual documents. That is because the achievements in skateboarding are not codified, they’re not quantifiable. If you say skater #1 kickflipped a 5 stair, and skater #2 ollied a 10 stair then you haven’t summarized what went down. That is because skateboarding’s value is largely determined by nuances. Unlike other sports where scoring points is the outcome, in skateboarding the style of how something gets done is just as important–if not more important–than the actual trick.
And because the terrain in skateboarding is far from uniform, some visual reference for the actual terrain is always necessary to tell the story. In basketball it doesn’t matter how you look when you score, if the ball goes in the points are going up. In skateboarding if you don’t look smooth when you do a trick it doesn’t matter how hard it is, it didn’t count. So, in skateboarding, you truly achieve within the culture of the sport when you document yourself performing the absolute best renditions of the tricks you’re capable of. Only the smoothest makes are shared with the world, all the failed attempts, or roughshod renditions are discarded. It’s a lot like musicians who edit together the best takes to create a recording of a song.
And so, as the internet democratized the consumption of content by placing all individuals on a single shared network, skateboarders experienced a unique transcendence. Suddenly all of those skateboarders who were outside of the industry’s channels of consumption and broadcast were now placed on a single channel along with the industry. All those people around the country who had been filming their own videos, shooting their own photos, and doing their own rendition of keeping up with the big videos and the magazines, were now in direct contact with one another. The result has certainly shaken the industry up, and changed what goes down, but it hasn’t changed how business gets done. And as a result of all the commercial glory that comes from garnering major web traffic, skateboarders have successfully negotiated long-standing, and seemingly fruitful relationships with major multinational corporate entities. Nike, Levi’s, Monster, Red Bull, and similar corporations aren’t making money off of skateboarding. They’re working with skateboarders, on terms set by skateboarders. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of skateboarders partnering with major corporations than SLS, and the world championship finals that took place at the Galen Center in Los Angeles, on September 15.
For one night a crowd of thousands of enthusiastic, and slightly unhinged fans gathered to watch some of skateboarding’s most potent practitioners unleash their talents on a specially-built course designed by skateboarders. Make no mistake, this is far from the first X-Games where the street course was little more than a deconstructed vert ramp with a 20 stair handrail thrown in the mix. The course here featured actual poured concrete for many of the obstacles, and a layout that allowed skaters to utilize a variety of obstacles in unique ways while flowing back and forth between the 2 sides of the course. I overheard 2 skaters complain that this was “The worst course of the season,” but that was Nyjah Huston and Shane O’Neill.
All of the skaters, both men and women, could be broken down into two groups: those who were there to compete, and those who were there to just have fun and skate. And that dynamic reflects the opposing views that have mounted within the skate community: is organized competition a part of skating? Of course, everyone has some degree of competitiveness within them, but it seemed that Nyjah and Shane train to win these competitions. I don’t say that to take away from what they’re doing, or suggest that there is some kind of essentialist hierarchy within skateboarding that undermines their achievements. Quite the opposite. In fact I think a large part of what they’re doing is actually quite selfless, and heroic. As individuals they will suffer and revel in the ups and downs of competition. But as avatars of the sport, they are doing the brave work of achieving incredibly difficult feats on demand, in order to deliver the sport to the widest audience possible and further the skateboard industry’s prospects. I’m sure there are lots of moments to celebrate, but I can’t imagine the kind of pressures and stresses that come with accepting the personal sacrifices that you have to make in order to be able to achieve consistently at that level. And in the end, I would imagine it can be very difficult to look back on a life dedicated to competitive skating and not have all kinds of regrets. I don’t think anything about what they’re doing is easy, and I don’t think their skills and achievements should be diminished by bullshit essentialism.
And yet, at the same time I can recognize how that level of commitment to the athleticism, that kind of laser-like focus on the sport, really minimizes the art, the lifestyle, and ultimately the culture that has always inspired and defined skateboarding. If you’re skating in the streets and being a skateboarder, do you have time to be training in order to succeed at that level? If you are the skateboarder who can win gold, what happens when you go skate the streets? You won’t be able to always do a better trick than every person at every spot. So on a day when Nyjah or Shane get shown up at a street spot, does it become a news event? Even though I recognize the immense value of what is going on at the highest level of “regular season” competition, I have to question the kind of old world capitalist-institution-empowering-notions that go into gold medals. On the surface, gold medals are entirely antithetical to everything that skateboarding is. And yet as I asked those questions and sought answers over the course of Thursday’s practice, and Friday’s competition, all the answers came back: THIS IS A GOOD THING.
It was clear to see a few factions on the course from the beginning of practice. Obviously there was a women’s division, and a men’s division. Within the women’s division the vibe was pretty cohesive and, “let’s just skate and have fun,” was the dominant narrative except for the Brazilians, and the lone Japanese competitor Aori Nishimura. Leticia Bufoni, Pamela Rosa, and 16 year old Nishimura were clearly more focused on strategy. They rehearsed their runs repeatedly, and used the practice sessions to hone in on a tightly bound quiver of tricks. At any moment you could find any one of them practicing 1 of 15 or so tricks in sequence. By comparison, Samarria Brevard spent the better part of a day trying a kickflip crooked grind on the bump to ledge that she never landed, and didn’t try in the contest. She kept coming close, and she kept trying it. It was almost as if she was just out skating having fun, and really wanted the trick, as if she didn’t even care that she was supposed to be warming up for the world finals of organized skateboarding competition. And that was probably because she was using skateboarding’s oldest success strategy: the best stuff happens when you just skate and have fun with your friends.
While other skaters were having a fun time, and just skating the course, seeing what might come out of it, the 3 strategists in the ladies’ division seemed focused on committing the facilities to muscle memory, and that strategy paid off when it came to points. They didn’t spend time trying tricks that they didn’t land. Every trick that they were doing on the course was a trick that they were prepared to execute on command, and it showed during competition. What was less expected during competition was Mariah Duran’s push for 3rd. Throughout practice she had a number of tricks that were clearly dialed in, but she didn’t seem to have as much of a strategy together. There were tricks that she landed all through practice that never made their way into competition. But when it came to her hardflip she recognized her strength, and threw a properly tweaked one down the 9 stair that shook the stadium. Everyone rose to their feet, their chests bellowing with whoops of atavistic human exuberance that are normally reserved for more institutionalized feats. As someone who was born in 1981, and started skating in 1994, it was an incredibly surreal experience to be at an indoor stadium full of people cheering for a woman landing a hardflip down a 9 stair.
Televised skateboard championships are definitely a new thing, and the general vibe at the Galen Center–from the event staff, to the venue staff, to the fans, the competing pros, the media, and everyone in between–was one of new experience. Skateboarding has only found a place in these types of spaces in recent years. For Alexis Sablone’s board sponsor WKND–along with most other skateboard companies–the television exposure that comes from these events is immeasurable, and otherwise unaffordable. Alexis turned pro a week before the competition, and she was certainly prepared to leave it all on the course for herself and her sponsors. During practice she was incredibly focused, but unlike the other skaters with an athletic strategy, Sablone wasn’t as regimented. She clearly grasped the gravity of the situation, she was dialed in on her trick selection, and she seemed to have a good strategy, but it just didn’t align for her in competition. And that’s the nature of skateboarding. In my opinion she was the best skater to watch in the women’s division, and her time on the course stood out across both divisions. She had the tricks and the strategy to place, and I don’t think anybody else took as many slams. She may not have won, but she had one of the best stories of the competition.
By contrast and comparison Vanessa Torres was in a very different position. She also recognized the gravity of the situation, but was unable to truly compete because she was recovering from an ACL hamstring reconstruction. That didn’t stop her from taking each of her runs, and bringing her enthusiasm to the event. “My knee is super temperamental and I have to be cautious about how hard I go on it. It’s a work in progress, and will be for quite some time. But it’s important for me to go out there and support my fellow ladies of shred, whether I podium or not,” she told me. There’s much to be gained from her perspective on competition, especially her dedication to the greater good in the context of competition. That level of dedication is what makes great competitors, and Lacey Baker–who would take first–clearly had no lack of dedication. She seemed to employ the strategy of sticking to tricks she knew she would land for sure, but she didn’t seem to be committing the course to muscle memory. She clenched the win with a lengthy nose manual nollie heel that I didn’t see her try once in practice. That’s saying a lot about her focus because manual tricks with a flip out are among the most precarious tricks in all of skating. When it came down to the wire Lacey put it all on the line with one of the riskiest moves possible, with the pressure of a lot of eyes on her, and she came out on top. It was truly a televised championship performance. Lacey was probably the most focused skater on the course across both divisions. She seemed to spend the least amount of time socializing, and I don’t think anyone practiced more than her–but she didn’t skate the handrail.
Skating the handrail, or the accompanying stairs was the most obvious attention-grabbing strategy on the course. The hang time, the sound, the risk of injury: they all combine to pull the audience in, and most of the skaters stepped up to the plate. Even the most casual participants of the competition were bringing their best game to the stairs and the rail. Tiago Lemos sought out the parts of the course that he wanted to skate, and seemed to have very little regard for competitive strategy beyond having fun on his skateboard. And yet, he was still doing tricks that brought the crowd to their feet. When the guy who doesn’t care about the competition is doing a nollie inward heel back lip down a handrail during practice the advertisers have got to be very pleased. And that’s the kind of unique win-win scenario that skating can present. Even though Tiago wasn’t there to score points, he had the whole crowd transfixed on his every move. Under normal circumstances a daring point guard dropping a three brings the people of this stadium to their feet. The people cheer for points, and for winning. But at SLS Tiago showed that the crowd cheers for pure achievement. Some of the best moments of the event took place outside of the scored runs. Against the backdrop of competition skateboarding’s power as an art, a culture, and a lifestyle come into sharp contrast, but also clear focus. And even though this event was a competition, I would argue that skateboarding’s power transcends any attempts to compartmentalize it into pure sport. Even when you restrict it and present it through the institutions of organized sports you cannot diminish the power of skateboarding. If someone lands a crazy trick during practice the people will scream just as loud as if that same trick is landed during competition.
In the men’s division most of the skaters were keeping it casual and just having fun. The obvious exceptions were Nyjah and Shane, who were strategically committing the course to muscle memory by keeping a small selection of high impact tricks in tight rotation on the scoriest (sic) obstacles. The less obvious exceptions were Louie Lopez, a young Angeleno whose win at Tampa Pro earned him a spot at SLS, and Kelvin Hoefler who has earned a reputation for winning contests with crazy tricks and the kind of exuberant focus that Brazilians are known for in skateboarding. Like Shane and Nyjah, Kelvin has his own training facility. And like his Brazilian counterparts, Carlos Ribeiro and Tiago Lemos, Kelvin is primarily focused on the streets, and contests are just another place to have fun and skate. When I asked Kelvin what advice he might have for younger skaters he said “Just have fun.” When I pressed a bit more and asked what advice he has for skateboarders who feel like they’re not having fun he said, “Quit. Do something else.” It may seem blunt, but it’s really not any more complicated than that. Skateboarding is fun, or do something else, whether you’re a total novice in a lonely parking lot, or a top-ranking pro at the biggest contest in skating.
Much like Lacey Baker, Louie Lopez was riding around the course practicing his bag of best tricks, but unlike anyone else on the course Louie was straight shredding at high speeds. Where Shane and Nyjah seemed to have a conservative strategy of testing the relative thickness of the ice, Louie seemed to be intent on bringing enough fervor to keep going whether the ice held up or vaporized beneath him. They’re 2 very different strategies that look very different on the course, and it’s amazing to think that these 2 distinctly different versions of the sport can be placed alongside one another to contest for greatness. Kelvin rested somewhere in the middle of these 2 styles, and it would ultimately land him 3rd place and an excited urgency to be done with the season and focus on the streets again. He spent his time exploring the whole course, and continued to try different tricks. But, it was clear that Kelvin was focused on carving out a subtle and supple strategy that would balance him between being in the moment having fun, and doing the tricks that guarantee him points. Whereas Shane and Nyjah seemed focused on winning, and Louie seemed focused on intensity, Kelvin seemed focused on landing his tricks. Dashawn Jordan and Kelvin had a similar strategy, but Dashawn is certainly the greener of the two. Dashawn was actually skating in the pro contest as an amateur, and he is only the second to do so in the men’s division. After he won Tampa Am he got an opportunity to skate in the SLS Pro Open qualifiers, and he placed high enough to compete in the SLS regular season.
As of the competition Dashawn had no board sponsor, which was another factor setting him apart from the other competitors. But the thing that makes Dashawn stand out is not his status within the industry, but the sheer and incomparable stature of his skating. Like Shane, and Nyjah, Dashawn has the control, the finesse, the power, and the focus to do anything he wants on his skateboard. But his approach sets him apart amongst the emerging wave of “super skaters” who seem to be influenced by Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater as much as Eric Koston. Dashawn’s skating boldly conveys a kind of exuberance and excitement that instills every push, pop, and catch with the bristling joy that is the essence of skateboarding.
Where Shane and Nyjah seemed confident and comfortable in their ability, Dashawn was overcome with an ecstatic commitment to some higher truth. Dashawn was uncertain, but he was not uncomfortable with the unknown, and his ability to engage the unknown imbues his skating with a kind of energy and spontaneity that is incredible and unique. The nuanced brilliance of his skating is truly a marvel of the contemporary era, and as we all watch this young man develop I can only hope that his level-headed demeanor and his positive candor will deliver him to untold heights on a skateboard. And ultimately, we only get to share this experience with Dashawn because of organized competitions, and more acutely because of SLS. Skateboarding can only go so far when skate contests are organized by skateparks and skateshops. But skateboarding won’t automatically benefit from big-budget televised contests, they have to be done in a way that is culturally accurate. And that’s what SLS is doing: pushing the envelope of what’s possible by giving skateboarders access to mainstream avenues of contemporary culture on our own terms.
Again, I want to be clear that I don’t intend to portray anyone as engaging in something that is less worthy. All of the skaters were doing much more than I could do when I was at my best–I’m just trying to get at some of the nuances. And again, this is an instance where skateboarding deviates from traditional institutionalized sports. You can’t win a tennis match by focusing on hitting the ball. You can’t even win a golf match by just hitting the ball. In skating the only goal is skating, and that’s why a guy like Kelvin can win 3rd place by focusing on just having fun and landing his tricks. That’s why a guy like Tiago can bring the entire stadium to their feet during practice. That’s why a lady like Alexis can give one of the best performances on the course and not medal. The mystery has been shocked out of just about everything around us, except skateboarding. Skateboarding continues to overflow any system we use to measure it. Is SLS good or bad for skating? It may be tough to discern from where you’re looking. After spending two days running from the lower levels beneath the seats, all through the catwalk in the rafters of the Galen center, and everywhere between and around the place, I can say without a doubt that the 2017 finals were more glorious than anything I ever could have imagined for skateboarding on television after the shock and disgust of watching the X-Games in 1995.