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Tony Hawk plans to keep skateboarding 'Until the Wheels Fall Off'

Tony Hawk flies through the air in a new documentary, <em>Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off</em>.
Sam Jones Pictures/HBO
Tony Hawk flies through the air in a new documentary, Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off.

Updated April 5, 2022 at 10:49 AM ET

Few athletes can say they're so good at their sport that they become synonymous with greatness. Michael Jordan and basketball. Tiger Woods and golf. Serena Williams and tennis. And then there's Tony Hawk.

The skateboarding icon has seen the sport explode in popularity over a remarkable and long career, from shredding backyard bowls as a kid to reaching incredible heights on the half-pipe to being a global ambassador for the board.

A new documentary on HBO chronicles Hawk's life and the growth of a once derided trend.

Hawk spoke to NPR's Ayesha Rascoe about the new film, Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the broadcast version of this conversation, click the audio player at the top of this page.

You have been skating most of your life. Can you tell us about the first time you got on a board?

Yeah, I was about nine years old, and my brother and his friend were in the alleyway skating and his old board was just lying there. And I said, "Oh, can I try this?" And I remember yelling, "How do I stop? How do I stop?" And then I ran into the fence. I got a couple of splinters in my fingers. And then a few of my friends started skating as a hobby and we started building ramps and stuff. And that's when I got more serious about it.

And that board's in the Smithsonian, right?

It is, yeah. My brother and I donated it to the Smithsonian almost 10 years ago.

<em>Until the Wheels Fall Off </em>shows a<em> </em>young Tony Hawk before<em> </em>he became synonymous with the sport of skateboarding.
Neil Blender / HBO
Until the Wheels Fall Off shows a young Tony Hawk before he became synonymous with the sport of skateboarding.

In the '80s, you were competing around the country and internationally, and then you started winning consistently, but then you found yourself at a point where you felt empty and kind of missing something. Why did you feel empty at that point?

Because I love skating for what it provided me, in terms of my feelings and my mental health and my adrenaline. And when I would go to a competition, I was in a mode that was much more conservative. It was less fun. It was more like, you have to hit this mark. You have to do these tricks in order to succeed at this contest. And then guess what? There's another one next weekend. And that became this formula that was sucking the fun out of skateboarding for me because I love the spontaneous aspects of skating. I love going out and learning new tricks and skating with my friends. But the only way to have success in skateboarding at that time was to compete. So I played the game, but at some point it burned me out.

When you came back to it, it was all about not being so worried about winning. You have to be willing to lose.

Absolutely. And it was liberating. It allowed me to enjoy skating and compete, and that was the balance I needed at that time in my life.

But even though you were willing to lose, you still won a lot. Even after that, right?

I did. Yeah, I mean, I think because suddenly I was released of this tension. And it was like, just take some chances. And it would work out more often than not.

And there was a point where you got the fame and the money and all of that, but still had to go through this point of reflection and determining the man that you wanted to be and you decided to put that discipline that you put into skateboarding into your life.

Yeah, and that seems easy to say, but it took a lot of work because I was always easily distracted with the trappings of fame and at some point sort of fell into that. And so to pull back from that and to put all of this discipline and energy into being a present father and husband was something that I had to work on.

And it didn't come innately. I didn't have a great example of it growing up. My dad was supportive, but by no means loving, especially towards my mom. And I don't blame them. I hate using that as a crutch, like I had to figure it out for myself. I wish I'd figured it out sooner.

But when I did figure it out, life was just so much more enjoyable. I mean, now skating is not my distraction and my escape. Now it's just my enjoyment. For me it's just like, that's my relaxation. That's where I feel in control and I'm goofing around and sometimes it goes bad and I break my leg (laughs).

Is it the determination and drive or is there something else?

I think the determination, the drive, are definitely the top elements that brought me here, but also the idea that I... it's not that I want to get hurt. It's not that I'm trying to prove that I'm tough, but I don't mind getting hurt along the way for the sake of progression. And if I take a hard fall and I'm still able to get up, I'm going to get up and I'm gonna try it again.

One of my earliest falls was I fell from the top of a pool. I got a concussion. I knocked my teeth out. Someone found me laying in the bowl. I was 11.

Oh my gosh. Oh my lord.

And when I woke up, my first thought was, "Well, I'm not going to do that trick in that way again."

Hawk focuses before dropping in on a half-pipe.
Hawk focuses before dropping in on a half-pipe.

You're not retired from skating, to be clear, but you have been retiring certain tricks in the last few years, including that "900," which is 2 1/2 rotations in the air. Last year, you did one last "ollie 540." What does it mean for you to retire these tricks and why do that? Why retire them?

Because I can still do them, and I know I won't be able to do them for much longer. And why not have some finality to that? I feel like very few athletes or performers get the chance to realize that they're starting to get too old and maybe that this might be the last time.

An extreme example would be, "will Michael Jordan know when the last time he'll be able to slam dunk?" And I know that that time may be coming sooner than later. And these tricks, the risk to reward is not worth it for me because I know what bad falls you could take.

So why not just do one for the last time, while I still got the skill set and while I have the audience to share it, to share that process because it was really cathartic. It was fun for me. I'm thankful to have done that and I hope my leg gets better so I could do a couple more.

You're 53 now. Skateboarding is not a gentle sport. Do you plan to keep on going?

I don't make ultimatums. I would love to get my leg in working order and see if I can get back to some version of the skill set I had before I got hurt. And if I reach even half of that at this point, I'll be happy.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Michael Radcliffe