It’s not hard to figure out the pecking order inside the pool. The beginners, the ones with the plastic boards their parents bought them at Zayre’s, are puttering in timid circles around the bottom. The hotshots – with their $80 boards, helmets, gloves, pads and two-tone sneakers – are zooming up the sides, spinning around on the top edge, and flying down again.
Jake Phelps, 15, a ragged-looking blond, and Patty Mitchell, a shy 16-year-old, are obviously the best of the high flyers – they are able to use their momentum to propel themselves consistently higher up the walls – and most of us sitting around the edge are content to experience these skateboarding thrills vicariously. “This is called pool-riding,” another spectator explains, “and it’s what everybody is doing now. It got started in California during the drought, when skateboarders discovered all the empty pools, and now everybody’s into it. The object is to use your momentum to get as high as you can up the walls, until you are almost over the edge of the pool. At this point you try to get your first two wheels over the edge, up in the air. Then you pivot on one of your back wheels (three wheels are in the air now), swing the board around, fly down into the deep end of the pool, and go up the other side. It’s dangerous, but when you are up there holding on with just one wheel, it’s a great feeling – like being shot into space.”
At first the description sounds merely dangerous, but when Jake, for my benefit, executes a few ambitious one-wheel kick turns on the top ledge, it looks positively death-defying. Along with Patty, Jake is a member of the Zero Gravity Skateboard Park Demonstration Team, quite an honor in the skateboarding community. Probably every serious skater (and they all look serious) dreams of being on a national demonstration team – like the Pepsi team or the Hobie team – and so Jake, with his impressive credentials and hard-hitting style, provides the group at the pool a sort of leadership. Throughout the afternoon the others are asking him for tips and advice – and when he starts riding the pool, they all stop to watch.
But not too far away, on a flat stretch of concrete, another small group of skaters seems hardly to notice Jake’s wall-climbing antics. Instead, they appear to be just fooling around – flipping the boards over, spinning around on them in pirouettes, and practicing handstands on them. But they are playing around with such serious self-absorption that I ask one of them if they are practicing some new skateboard discipline. “Yeah, this is freestyle skateboarding,” he tells me, confirming my suspicion. “It’s like a gymnastic freestyle routine, except that it’s on a board – you have to do a number of tricks one after another and get them smoothly.” Later, reading the competition guidelines distributed by the International Skateboarding Association, I found a more articulate description: “A freestyle routine is a two-minute skateboard exercise (the mastering, linking, and mixing of tricks and maneuvers into a combined complete form) performed in a defined rectangular shape.”