1.) You are without a doubt, one of the most active freestylers from the 60s/70s. How did you start skateboarding and what keeps you going at such an active pace today?
Skateboarding began for me in 1958. We made our own boards from metal roller skates and 2x4’s. My friends and I were into SkimBoarding and Surfing as kids and Skateboarding was a natural progression. The Sport was given nicknames such as “Sidewalk Surfing” and “Surfing’s Little Brother”. I continued to Skateboard into my college years where I graduated with a Math major, but switched to Physical Education. One of my Community Service Projects was to develop a program within my neighborhood and I started to teach Skateboard Safety at Bixby Park in Long Beach. The kids learned quickly and one of them showed me a poster of an upcoming contest in Del Mar called the Bahne/Cadillac Nationals. I wasn’t interested in competing, but the kid’s mother asked me to drive him to the contest and I entered to keep a watch on him. I ended up winning the Senior Men’s Freestyle event that weekend. Skateboarding had always been like a good friend to me, and I saw the opportunity to pay back some of what the sport had given me. My parents reared me with the belief, “If you want to be great, you must become a servant.” My goals were never motivated by greed or fame; but rather to serve Skateboarding and the people involved.
2.) My first skateboard was a Grentec. I then found out decades later that you rode for them. What other companies have you skated for in the past? Also, can you give us a brief history on freestyle skateboarding since you've been there from the start.
Part One: The April 1975 Del Mar Bahne/Cadillac Skateboard Nationals introduced me to Hobie Skateboards. They offered me a free T-shirt after doing well in the Semi-Finals and later used my photo in one of their ads in Surfer Magazine (July 1975) stating I was on the Hobie Team. That was the last time I heard from them. My early involvement with Skateboard companies ran the gauntlet of misfortune. I never received any money for use of my name and contract agreements were broken consistently. Companies such as Grentec, Bengal, Power/Paw, Speed Spring, and others used my name for years without compensation. Decomposed gave me the first honest offer: a couple free boards for every signature deck produced – I was stoked! Dusters produced a signature Cruiser board with my name a couple years ago and although it rides great, it didn’t sell many decks.
Part Two: Skateboarding has been around for more years than most of us realize. I have created a Web Page in cooperation with Jim Goodrich covering the evolution of Skateboarding. (http://www.skatewhat.com/russhowell/WebPage-SkateboardHistoryTimeline.html) Life Magazine (May 14, 1965) called Skateboarding: “The Craze, The Menace”. Skating equipment was primitive and kids were getting hurt. Safety concerns crushed skateboarding and it went into a dormant stage for ten years. The introduction of the urethane wheel gave new vitality to the sport and companies were quick to promote skateboarding again because of the opportunity to make money. Skateboard contests were being held almost every weekend and news coverage increased to cover the exploding popularity. Working with city councils to build safe skate parks and not place widespread restrictions on skateboarding was crucial to keeping the sport alive. Skateboard Magazine was published by Jim O’Mahoney as a monthly magazine along with a book on Freestyle. SkateBoarder started publishing again under the direction of Warren Bolster and soon dominated the sport’s coverage. I began PRO (Professional Riders’ Organization) with the purpose of securing paid engagements for skaters who wanted to earn a living at skateboarding. This would further promote the legitimacy of the sport and recruit new disciples. Skateboarding was exploding and there was a great responsibility to direct the sport in a positive direction. This was not always a shared sentiment. The internal alliances between magazines, skateboard manufacturers, and skaters would dictate the direction of the sport for years to come. The best interests of the sport did not always prevail and eventually skateboarding would go dormant again due to the widespread drug use anti-social behavior among skaters. Corporate sponsorships disappeared because they were unwilling to align their products with an activity plagued with drugs. Skateboarding has rebounded as more city councils are willing to build Skate Parks within their communities. The future of any activity depends upon the commitment of its participants. Michael Brooke of “Concrete Wave Magazine” once said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Skateboarding will always needs servants who are willing to give back to the sport. We need real PROs, not CONs.
3.) Your remarkable 360s spins are mind blowing. You set a very high record of 163 revolutions that I don’t think anyone will beat anytime soon. Describe how you first found out you had the gift for spinning. Also, please tell us how you developed the first ever wheels designed for spinning.
Spinning 360’s did not come natural to me. I was the worst skater in my neighborhood and had to work at learning tricks much longer than any of my skate friends. My best spin for twenty years was only three. My motivation to learn and improve my skills came when Skateboarding offered me the opportunity to become a spokesperson for the sport. I have always considered the needs of Skateboarding to be more important than my own needs. Having something more important than yourself to work for somehow increases your determination. You can tell the level of commitment a person has to a task by the results of their actions. I began devoting hours each day to learning how to spin and within a few years was able to do over 100. My personal best came while I was volunteering to judge at a CASL Contest which was held at an outdoor roller skating rink. The concrete was smooth and cold that morning. I hit over 150 five times in a row and finally hit 163 360’s. Many of the other skaters were watching and counting, but unfortunately nobody took film that day. Nowadays, one of the strongest motivations to continue to spin comes from Bill Robertson who issued a challenge to me several years ago: “Spin Your Age”. I was able to spin 70 last year at the age of 66. I’m discovering that getting older makes this challenge much more difficult, but no less motivating.
Spinning 360’s was the benchmark of a skater’s ability in the 1950’s. The California FreeFormer World Skateboard Championships were held in 1976 and 1977; both had a 360 Spin Contest. Bob Jarvis won in 1976 with 15 ¼ Spins; I came in last place. The placings were reversed in 1977 due to a new Spin Wheel design. The design for a high-performance Spinning Wheel came about by mistake. While riding for Power Paw Wheels, I tried the 50/50 wheels which were a blend of two types of urethane. The hard inner side gave a faster ride while the softer outside of the wheel would flex and give more control in turns. Unfortunately, the wheel would often separate and only the hard inner side was left. This happened to both rear wheels one day, and it was discovered that a narrow and hard wheel increased spins. I modified the wheel design and won the California FreeFormer World Spin Contest in 1977. Power Paw never paid me for using my name for two years and I left the company. They took my design and marketed my Spin Wheel design to Hobie.
4.) You also hold the record for longest handstand on a skateboard. I've seen you do handstands on everything from handrails, stairs and even on George Douville. You also have an impressive variety of handstands on a skateboard; none of which look easy. How do you keep yourself physically fit at this young age (late 60s).
I was walking home from school one afternoon and passed by a neighborhood park where I was a young fellow doing handstands. This was something I had never seen before and it amazed me. Learning this new skill became an obsession with me and I failed for almost six months. Once I could keep my balance upside down, I applied this new perspective to any object that presented itself: park benches, tree limbs, parking meters, and even skateboards. Skateboard handstands were immediately magical and then the focus shifted to discovering new ways to get inverted. I used to challenge some of the other skaters to handstand contests such as racing down football stadium stairs, distance, speed, and length of rides on a skateboard. I still enjoy getting upside down and can ride a skateboard on my hands for 100 yards (not nearly as far as during my youth). Three of my philosophical foundations are: (1) “Those who think they have no time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.” Edward Stanley (2) “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” John Wooden (3) “If we are the play things of the gods, then let us live our lives as play.” Aristotle
5.) I know you have a crazy list of injuries and surgeries. Let's talk about it.
There is risk in everything we do. It would be nice if we could predict where and when our injuries will occur, but Life gives no guarantees. Pain is often the currency with which we pay for our passions. I have come to view scars as a medal of participation in Life’s journey. Our scars give visible testimony of our willingness to endure pain in order to achieve our goals. I have had ankle surgery for a damaged Achilles tendon, a broken rib, arthritis in my back, sciatica in both legs, loss of cartilage in both hips, two shoulder surgeries for torn rotator cuffs, and a myriad of scars all over my body due to skateboarding. The price paid was worth the memories made.