What about Bob, the skateboard aerialist from Brazil? That would be Bob Burnquist, who is twenty-two and whose father, from Bakersfield, California, met his mother in São Paulo. Gangly, dark-haired Bob, master of switch-foot skating – that is, skating with either foot forward, which is the equivalent of being able to throw a ball with either hand. Bob who doesn't care what you think of his shoes or what his shirt looks like, whose only desire is to skate. Bob who is hardly any more sensitive to pain than the phone company.
Skateboarding is divided into parallel styles: street skating and vert skating. Street skating involves skating in the open and performing twists and spins and flips and jumps using whatever props happen to be at hand, usually stair rails and benches and curbs. Vert is short for vertical. Vert skating involves performing tricks and aerial maneuvers in the high-walled plywood arcs that are found most often in public parks. It developed from pool skating – that is, skating along the sloping walls and floors of empty swimming pools – which started in California in 1963. Skateboarders tend to specialize in street or vert, and competitions separate the categories. Burnquist is adept at both, but he prefers vert. He learned to skate vert at a park near his parents' house in São Paulo. When he was a teenager, the park was torn down and he began spending more time skating on the street, which is difficult in Brazil, because the streets are crowded. Then a new park was built, but the vert ramp was made of cement instead of wood.
Burnquist is a fearless, supple and apparently effortless skater. He also skates very fast. His aggressiveness derives from his having grown up skating on cement. You land wrong on cement and you're taking no less than the rest of the day off. American skaters learn to skate on wooden ramps. To Burnquist, falling on wood is generally a matter of indifference. Burnquist guesses that he has broken bones on about fifteen occasions. He does not so much break different bones as he tends to break the same ones over and over. He has broken his wrist four times. Burnquist broke his first bone when he was nine months old. Milena, the older of his two sisters (he is the middle child), says that he was jumping from one bed to another and he fell to the floor, and he came home from the hospital with a tiny cast. Skateboarding as a child, he broke bones so regularly that he became accustomed to taking himself to the hospital, then calling his parents to tell them where he was. Within a few days of getting home, he usually cut off the casts so that he could go back to skating. When he was about fourteen, he fell and broke a couple of his fingers and his wrist in several places. He says that his wrist looked like an S. Instead of going to the hospital, he went to see an Asian woman he had heard about who lived near the skate park.
"She was a kind of spiritual healer," he says. The woman talked to him while she examined his wrist. "All of a sudden," he says, "it was, like, crack, and just the worst pain I had ever felt in my life. It was ancient medicine, but it healed in, like, two weeks, and I could go back to skating."
Burnquist was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1976. His father is a coffee exporter and still lives in Brazil. His mother lives with Milena in Northern California. Milena says that her brother started skateboarding when he was about nine. "After around ten years old," she says, "he would run away to the skate park." As an adolescent he attended a prestigious Catholic school in São Paulo. Children in Brazil go to school from 7 to noon. Burnquist would frequently leave for school, spend the morning at the skate park and be home by 12:30. "You would never know he hadn't been to school," Milena says. "He was always home for lunch." Eventually he skipped enough days in a row that the school called his mother, asking whether something had happened to him. She said she thought he was at school. On the occasions when his parents bore down on him and took away his skateboard, he borrowed one.
English is Burnquist's second language, but he speaks and reads it flawlessly. What got him through school was his ability to learn quickly and to remember what he read. For a while he had a girlfriend from Germany who had a lot of cans of hair-color spray paint. "Each day," says Milena, "he would have a different hair color and those baggy pants, which now he doesn't wear them, and the priests and nuns would be upset. He was the only one in the school who did that. Then he just totally changed. I don't know if he got a new girlfriend or what."
Burnquist says, "One day I just thought, 'I'm over that.'"
Burnquist had been aware of skateboarding in America through magazines such as Thrasher and TransWorld, which he and his friends bought from newsstands at the airport or read when someone brought a copy to the park. In 1994, Jake Phelps, the editor of Thrasher, went to Brazil with some friends to skate at various parks. In São Paulo they met Burnquist, who was seventeen. The next year, Phelps encouraged him to go to Vancouver to take part in a competition called Slam City Jam, in which nearly every top professional skateboarder in the world was entered. Competitions involve preliminary runs, which last forty-five seconds. Skaters design their own routines; no maneuvers are essential. Most skaters plan their runs the way a band chooses songs for a set. Burnquist picks a line he would like to skate and then, along the way, performs whatever spins and slides and flips and twists appeal to his imagination. Those skaters who qualify for the finals skate a one-minute program. In the finals, Burnquist plans. At Vancouver, he would have been happy to place fourth or fifth: It was his first international competition; he had, before then, been completely unknown; he was up against accomplished professionals; he was still a teenager; and he was more or less thrilled to be taking part at all. He tried mainly to concentrate on skating his runs the way he wanted to. In the end he skated with such daring and exuberance and technical virtuosity that he took first place. "After Vancouver," he says, "I told myself, 'I guess I can do this.'"
According to Jake Phelps, skateboarding "is about the constant thrill of scaring yourself, and Bob has a pretty good handle on that each time out." Burnquist says that he is not scared when he skates, that he doesn't really think of anything while he's skating except the tricks that he intends to perform, but I have been scared while watching him. One morning a few weeks ago, I watched him skating at a skate park in Vista, California, northeast of San Diego and near Encinitas, where he lives. The park was a little like a big swimming pool, somewhat in the shape of a kidney bean, with sloping sides and a few cement hills down the middle of it and some ramps about a foot off the ground for skaters to slide along. By the entrance was a narrow switchback ramp with metal railings about four feet high. The ramp was slightly inclined so that skaters entering it skate uphill. I watched Burnquist circle the park a few times. Sporting around, his lanky frame rising and falling on the sloping grades, he looked like a big dolphin. He tried several slides along the top of a foot-high rail, but his board seemed to keep slipping out from under his feet.
Then he had the idea of trying to gather sufficient speed so that he could take to the air at the edge of the pool, fly for about ten feet, clear the four-foot-high railing by the entrance ramp, land in the canoe-size slot between the railings and stop immediately so as not to crash into the outside railing. He began skating around the walls of the pool, and at the far end he turned toward the railing and approached it, traveling quite fast. At the edge of the pool, he leapt into the air and drew his knees to his chest, his board beneath his feet. He cleared the railing, thrust his feet and the board toward the ground, and landed just short of the second railing – that is, where he wanted to, but his board slipped out from under him and he fell to the concrete. On the second try, he lost his board in the air but landed on his feet where he meant to, took several quick steps, then fell over. The third time, he fell on his back and skidded on his butt. He stood up slowly and screamed and walked about ten feet, rubbing his backside and hip; then he lay down on his side on the concrete and extended his legs and held one hand over his head and closed his eyes and bit his lower lip and didn't get up for a few minutes. Not until the sixth try did he clear the ramp and land between the railings, standing still and upright, like a delivery.