How Skateboarding Saved David Gonzalez

Former Thrasher Skater of the Year on his childhood in a rough part of Colombia, his pitbulls and his future

"Where I grew up, seeing someone getting shot was such a casual thing," David Gonzalez says about growing up in Columbia. Credit: Eric Hendrikx for Rolling Stone

David González would walk home from school in Medellin, Colombia and dream of being able to skate with the cool kids when he was ten-years-old. But growing up in a broken home in a dangerous part of town meant there was never any extra money to go around. 

His entire life would change when his mother came home with a broken skateboard given to her by an employer. He diligently made the repairs and sought out the kids he used to watch and learned how they did tricks. Within two months of relentless dedication, the young phenom won his first neighborhood street skating contest. The success quickly snowballed. By age eleven, he was traveling around Colombia winning national contests. At twelve, with some persuasion by a trusted family friend, his mother let him drop out of school to focus on his skateboarding. "We had a good life after that, Globe and Flip gave me a real paycheck starting when I was thirteen. We moved and I could pay the rent and food for my whole family and enjoy our lives there," says González.

Over the next few years, González made multiple pilgrimages to the United States to compete in Tampa Am. Then, right before he turned eighteen, he moved to Long Beach, California, taking up residence in a Flip-owned home with his teammate, Luan Oliveira. The duo skated every day and partied every night, both turning pro with breakout video parts in Extremely Sorry. Just a few years following the Flip trilogy episode, González presented his magnum opus, Possessed to Skate, a definitive video part that played heavily in Thrasher's decision to crown him 2012 Skater of the Year. González rose to notoriety for his aggression-fueled style of street and tranny skating along with his affinity for heavy metal and partying.

On the heels of victory, González was stopped in his tracks with a near-career-ending injury. "I was just fucking around doing a frontside air indy and my back foot came off and completely snapped, I knew I was fucked," says González. "I put my ankle back to make it straight and then I passed out." It would be a year before González could effectively get back on a skateboard.

Today, González is healthy, on the board and shredding with his band RattBlack. Rolling Stone recently visited his new home in Long Beach, California. Greeting us, flanked by his two pit bulls, González discussed overcoming his fear of dogs, transitioning from an impoverished life in Medellin to successful pro skater life in California.

Tell me about your pit bulls.
They're both from rescue shelters. My girlfriend wanted to get them. I was like, 'Are you serious? No way, there's no fucking way.' I never had any pets growing up in Colombia, and she wanted a pit bull! I went to the shelter with her and all the dogs were barking. I was trembling, shaking bad. But a few weeks later we came home with our first pit bull, and pretty soon we had two. They help me a lot, they saved my life. These dudes make me think differently about life. They're so pure, you know? All they need is water and food and they're always happy. And then I realize, I ask so much of myself, but I don't really need it, I don't need more. When you live with a wanting mentality, you'll never be satisfied and you'll never be happy.

What was life like in Colombia?
It was a struggle, everybody struggled. But it's a place that has amazing spirit. And since I'm from there, it gave me everything that I have here. We didn't have money. We lived in a really crazy house with no kitchen, no doors, mom cooked on a fire, all five of us slept in one bed – it was a real piece of shit. And outside there were crazy people and people getting shot and robbed. My dad just liked to party. He did a lot of cocaine and he loved hookers. I think of him as James Brown, he looked like him too, with his super funky style. He had this girlfriend, and they were living the rock star life, but they were not rock stars. [Laughs]. I remember the day my mom threw all his shit out the window into the street. He deserved it.

What's the gnarliest thing you remember from living in Colombia?
Where I grew up, seeing someone getting shot was such a casual thing. Everybody hides, and then they all come out to see the guy who got shot. I was walking home from school one day and someone got shot like eight times. I heard the gunshots and I hid, until it was over and then went to go see. I was little and it was the first dead body I saw up close – but not the last. It looked so gnarly, his head was mangled and he had no shoes. That's why they killed him, to rob his shoes.

Another time, my friend and I got into a taxi to go to a skatepark. After one minute, this guy was crossing the street really slowly and our taxi driver yelled at him, 'Can you cross a little slower?' The guy walking yelled back, and our driver got out and head-butted him so hard it knocked him to the ground. Our driver jumped back in the car and tried to go, but the guy got up from the ground, took out a knife and stabbed our driver in his fucking stomach a bunch of times. My friend and I jumped out of the fucking taxi and started to run away when we heard gunshots. The driver shot the guy twice. We were like, 'What the fuck just happened?'

You quit school at a young age to focus on skateboarding. How did that come about?
I hated school. I hated it. I was going to a really bad school and knew I wasn't going to get a good education from there. I looked at everybody and I was like, 'This is bullshit. What the fuck is this? This is so lame.' Every day, they were teaching the same shit. So I asked my friend Mauricio to tell my mom to let me quit school so that I could focus on skateboarding. He was older and she trusted him, so she let me quit school at twelve years old to only skate day and night. Nothing else mattered to me.

Who were your favorite pros when you started skating?
I knew of John Cardiel, Tony Trujillo, Andrew Reynolds, and all the street skaters. I liked tranny skating, but we didn't have that down in Colombia, so I was only street skating. But I moved here when I was around twenty and I started watching all the videos I had never seen – the Bones Brigade stuff. I had seen all the new stuff, but the old stuff? Fucking shit, this was next level, and I really got more into it and loved watching the way Christian Hosoi skates. I love his rhythm.

What was the moment when you felt like you could make a career out of skateboarding?
Jeremy Fox, Gary Valentine, Ewan Bowman and Mark Appleyard flew to Medellin to tell me that they wanted to sponsor me for Flip and Globe and start this whole entire amazing project with me. A career in skateboarding. I was like, 'Wow, what the fuck is going on? Gods showed up at my house to save me?' After that, it was on! I would come to America to skate the Tampa Am contest and stay for two weeks, then go back home and train hard. I would watch all the videos and learn all the tricks – I was doing what they were doing, but my own version of that.

How did your life change when you moved to California?
I moved here by myself when I was almost eighteen. Flip had a house in Long Beach, so I moved there with Luan Oliveira. Luan and I filmed for Extremely Sorry – we skated nonstop – getting tricks every day and hyping shit up fucking hard. We enjoyed everything as much as possible and our friends would come stay with us. Ben Norberg lived with us for a little bit. Everybody came there. That's the house where I used to party with Collin Provost, Chris Gregson, Jon Dickson, Figgy; it was a fucking party house.

The next few years were really pinnacle for you. After Extremely Sorry, you dropped Possessed to Skate and then were crowned Skater of the Year in 2012.
I used to watch all the Thrasher SOTY stories when I was a kid and it was the one thing that I wanted most. I didn't care about winning contests – my dream was to get SOTY for Thrasher – that's so fucking metal. In 2011, we had a meeting with Flip and they said I should try to go for it. So I said, 'Let’s fucking do it!' I went nonstop all year. I couldn't sleep. I was always thinking about the next spot and the next trick. But when we went to San Francisco and I did that crazy kink-rail fifty – that's when I was like fuck yeah, I think I might get it.

Thrasher got me really good when they announced I was SOTY. I was at home, jamming with my friend and we were smoking so much weed. This fake cop came inside my house and said the music was way too loud. I was shaking. I was like 'Fuck, I’m done. I’m gonna go to jail or something.' And then he said that I was Skater of the Year.

Did you feel a lot of pressure after being crowned SOTY and dropping Possessed? Where do you go from there?
That's the question I never asked myself. It was party time. I worked so hard all year and it was time to celebrate. This was before I had a girlfriend, so I was just going out and hooking up with so many chicks, just having fun. But less than two years after that, I broke my left ankle really bad. It completely snapped and went sideway, a compound break. I had slammed really hard before, but it's always been a slam that I could take and keep skating. This was next level, I knew I was fucked. Two days later I had surgery and they put in two plates and nine screws in my ankle. It was almost a year before I could start skating again.

What do you feel is the biggest lesson you've learned in skateboarding?
There is always someone who's trying to bring you down or fuck with your career. I don't know why. But that shit is now gone from my life, man. I don't want anyone to come and tell me how I should skate or what to do with my life. I've been a pro skater for ten years and I feel really good and strong. This is exactly what I wanted to do when I was a kid, and now I'm doing it. I'm enjoying it again. When you lose the joy, it's over.