Never Too Old to Skate

How to stay on the board as you age.

Craig Rosen, late ‘70s, early ‘80s

There’s nothing quite like skating a bowl, vaulting up that vertical wall, getting weightless, hitting the lip and maybe even catch air before dropping back in and hitting the other side. Unless, or course, you manage to get your back wheels hung up on the lip, your back foot slips off your board while your front foot stays on and you wishbone down the wall, hearing your leg snap in the process.

That happened to me back in junior high. My mother promised I would never skate again, but she was wrong. Before I could even walk without a limp, I was back on my board.

As the years went on, and the first wave of skateboard parks closed due to insurance problems, I slowly lost interest in skating and picked up more adult and mild-mannered leisure pursuits such as golf, working out and yoga. But I never completely lost my passion for skating. I still carry my old board from high school in the back of my car for “emergencies” and have bought a few new boards over the years — a long board for cruising, other short board, at least ostensibly for my kids. Every time I see someone on a skateboard, I want to skate, and I’ve even hit a few skateboard parks on a few rare occasions, but truth is, when I skate vertical terrain, I skate scared. I don’t push it too much because if I get hurt and break my wrist, I’m screwed. I won’t be able to type and as an editor/writer, that’s my livelihood.

While I may be a bit of a wuss, I was pleasantly surprised to see some of the guys I used to skate with back in the ’80s are still ripping it up into their 50s. I stumbled upon photos on Facebook from the El Gato Classic, an event held earlier this year at Palm Springs StakePark, featuring skaters from the ’80s early pool and skatepark competitions. In these photos, I saw my old high school friend Eric Grisham, the inventor of the foot-plant aerial, still ripping it up. Also photographed was Arthur Viecco, another pro skater I knew from high school. He wasn’t skating, however, just posing in photos next to his pal, Brad Bowman, from the Sims team of the ‘80s.

Take It Easy

I called Viecco and asked why he wasn’t skating. Turns out he was, but away from the crowds and cameras. Viecco, 53, who makes his living as a hairstylist in Beverly Hills, is like me in a sense. He doesn’t want to get hurt. “I just take it easy, because it’s not something I do every day, so I want to feel comfortable,” he says. A cover star of Skateboard World magazine in the late ’70s, Viecco says he doesn’t think about getting hurt, but rather “how young it makes you feel. I’m still doing this, I’d thought by now I wouldn’t be able to walk. You can just take it easy and you can have the same fun as you did when you were 16 years old.”

Balance the abuse with nurturing exercises

Of course, there are risks. Dr. Robert Klapper, the chief of orthopedic surgery at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Group, jokes that there’s a new name for middle-aged and older skaters, “It’s called pre-op.” But Klapper, an avid surfer who’s also the host of ESPN Radio’s “Weekend Warrior” show, says there are positives. “One of the things we really lose as we age is proprioception,” he says. “We lose balance, we lose the feedback of our position sense as we degenerate. That’s one of the things that Father Time takes away from us.” Studies have proven, Klapper adds, that activities such as square dancing and Tai Chi reduce the fracture rate with seniors. “I can’t think of anything better than skateboarding, which mimics the beautiful flow and balance of surfing, and is fantastic for enhancing proprioception.”

The problem, however, is when you fall. As we age, we lose the elasticity in our joints. “That’s why Achilles tendons snap in Kobe Bryant and many other people when they hit 35, because you lose the elasticity,” Klapper says. “There’s a stiffness that takes place in the body.”

While Klapper won’t go as far as suggesting that aging skaters give up the sport completely, he says that they need to balance the abuse with other activities. “They need to go to the gym the rest of the week and do nurturing exercises, which are pool (with water), bike and elliptical,” he says.

Wear a helmet and pads

Surprisingly, Grisham and Eddie “El Gato” Elguera, his one-time Variflex teammate and founder of the El Gato Classic, don’t do much exercise other than skating and appear to be in good shape for their age. “I try to skate four or five days a week. It’s a great way to exercise.” Elguera says. “And, I try not to eat too much junk food. My wife tries to keep me eating healthy.”

Grisham, who is 53, and works as a volunteer with the disabled, also doesn’t have an exercise routine, but he does tout clean living. “I stay away from smoking, doing drugs, beer,” he says. “Just do everything in moderation.”

Both have been skating on-and-off the decades without too many serious injuries. but then again, both Elguera and Grisham regularly wear protective gear, including a helmet and pads. “I’ve seen a lot of guys get hurt and some guys die because they didn’t have a helmet on,” Elguera says. “You never know.”

Grisham’s never broken a bone skating, while Elguera had gone years without such a mishap, until a recent fall at a park in Bondi, Australia when he hit some sand in a bowl and broke his right wrist.

As far as pushing it, Elguera says he takes “calculated risks. When you’re younger, you go for anything and think you’re invincible,” he says. “Now, I challenge myself and I push the limit, but also I calculate it. ‘Am I going to get into this position to do this trick?’” Elguera, however, admits that his recovery time does take a bit longer if you get hurt. “But as long you stay fit, you’re pretty limber. I can do almost everything I could do back then,” he says.

Elguera, 52, initially stopped skating in 1980 at the age of 18, after winning the Gold Cup Series to become World Champion for the second consecutive year. It wasn’t for concern about being hurt, but because he couldn’t stand the pressure of having to defend his title. “There was some emptiness in my life. And I tried to fulfill that emptiness by doing other things. That’s when God came into my life,” says Elguera, who is now a pastor at the Rock Church in his current home town of Palm Desert. After he found religion, Elguera found a new peace within himself and began skating again. “I could skate and not have to worry about that fulfilling my life, because God fulfills my life.”

Warning: Old guy on board

As for skating as an older guy, both admit at times it gives them pause. Grisham says his wife only half-jokingly suggests that when he’s skating in his neighborhood, he should wear and hat and sunglasses so none of his neighbors recognize him.

“I don’t really skate on the street,” Elguera says, “but a lot of times in skate parks, kids or parents will come up to me. A lot of times I don’t even realize I’m as old as I am, but then when I think about it, if I didn’t skateboard and I saw this older gentleman skating, I might say, ‘What are you doing? You’re old.’”

As Elguera, who has some grey in his goatee, notes, aging skaters are still pushing the envelope, just in a different way. “Back when I was 18, you never saw guys in their 30s skate,” he recalls. Initially, Masters competitions were for skaters 40 and up, but Elguera suggests perhaps they should have a new division for 50-plus skaters.

“I like it now, because I see fathers with their sons,” Elguera says, “and now, probably within the next five years, you’ll see fathers with their sons and grandkids all skateboarding.”

Both Grisham and Elguera have grown up kids, and Elguera does have a four-year-old granddaughter, who he says he’s “rolled around with a little.”

But for now, they’re both still ripping it up on their own when they get the opportunity. Grisham even invited me to give him a call if I ever want to skate. I just might take him up on that offer, if for nothing else to see him continue to defy gravity and aging.