While everyone’s attention was focused elsewhere, something else happened at the Oscars this year. Tony Hawk, the world’s most iconic skateboarder, unveiled his latest trick: Standing without a cane.
Hawk, 53, took the stage with Kelly Slater and Shaun White to introduce a James Bond movie montage, but it was Hawk’s mobility that stood out the most. Less than three weeks earlier, he’d broken his right femur when he misjudged landing on a McTwist—a 540-degree air rotation. It’s a trick he’s done tens of thousands of times. That day, however, his speed was gone.
“After I fell,” he said, “I rolled over and my leg didn’t.”
Surgeons repaired the bone with a titanium rod and a physical therapist designed an aggressive rehabilitation program, but neither offered a timeline for recovery. Their restraint granted Hawk something like permission. The next day, he posted a video of him making his way down a hospital hallway.
A week later, he shared another video of him carefully skating the bottom of his ramp.
His undeniable goal in an aggressive therapy regimen was to walk onto the Dolby stage unaided. Hawk’s tenacity is legendary — his quest for the sport’s first 900-degree spin spanned four White House administrations — but his approach to this rehabilitation is, in technical terms, bananas.
Hawk’s femur fracture came the day before HBO released a trailer for “Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off,” a highly anticipated documentary about his life and career that focuses heavily on his injuries. Directed by Sam Jones, the film digs up the roots, scope and complex consequences of his perseverance.
In many ways, the documentary is an unlikely coming-of-middle-age story, for both Hawk and skateboarding, with an arc shaped by loss. The loss of innocence, sure, and loved ones, sure and sad, but Hawk’s other losses have sometimes freed him rather than limited him. Like most skaters, he sees skateboarding as his means of expression, but the medium is more chisel and stone than brush and canvas. Every failed attempt, passing year and broken femur becomes a piece of non-essential marble that must be pushed aside for the image to appear. It’s an art that comes from abuse, but what many fail to see is that the skater isn’t the one who chops with hammer and chisel; the skater is the stone.
With the documentary premiering Tuesday, Hawk sat down over the weekend to discuss his life, his career and the injury that required even more reinvention.
This conversation has been abbreviated and slightly edited for clarity.
How’s the recovery going?
I just had some x-rays and I’m going to see my doctor on Monday. His attitude is basically that my leg will never be stronger than it is now, so if I can handle the pain, go for it. I’m in unknown waters here, but it’s all up to me. If I can drop the stick next week, I’m on track.
Are you on track?
We have an event on the weekend of May 12 in Las Vegas, and I want to skate in that demo. Devo, Modest Mouse, Descendents and Warish are playing, and the best vert skaters will be skating all weekend. We’ll never get that lineup again, so I don’t want to miss it.
Your documentary comes out this week. It’s an inspiring ride. Why do you want to tell your story now?
It was Shem. If someone else had done it, the story would have been formal: you have some ups and downs, then you find huge success, and then the credits roll. Sam was interested in the whole process. Anyone would say my career ended 15 to 20 years ago. I like to think I’m still relevant and pushing boundaries, and Sam did too. I also feel like I have enough distance after going through my own challenges, so now was the right time to tell the story.
The film doesn’t shy away from the challenges you’ve encountered on and off your board, but it also gives a glimpse of how much you’ve changed.
My wife Catherine [Obreht] was the catalyst. Our connection was so special, the idea of imagining a life with her, that’s why I wanted to make such a positive change. One of the moments in the document is where Stacy Peralta calls people around me after I had a bad fall. He worried that I would hit like that at my age. One of the first people he called was Catherine. That’s how you come to me. The person I turn to for advice starts and ends with my wife.
Another theme in the film is the toll that skating takes on the body, especially an aging body.
Yeah, I didn’t expect it to be such a focus. I get it, but when you see so many bad falls in a row, you don’t realize that most of my skating now consists of being silly with my friends and trying to relearn some pretty basic 80s tricks. Before I broke my leg, I think I had the best skate I’ve had in the last five or ten years. Not the best I’ve ever skated, but the best in recent years. I got cocky on a McTwist, and that’s just me. Overall, I feel like I’m a much wiser skater now. I can still become obsessed with tricks, but I can also relax. I’m much more calculated now, more aware of worst-case scenarios. I assume that’s some form of maturity?
Is there anything you want people to take away from the doctor?
I hope it defends skateboarding for them. Yes, you see the rough and hard work and sometimes the setbacks, but I hope the public sees what skateboarding can do for someone; it can give them a sense of identity and confidence that perhaps nothing else could. That’s exactly what happened to me.
For all the things you got from skateboarding, you also gave back. What can you tell readers about The Skatepark Project?
When I was young, I had a skate park near me. It was the only place where I felt at home. There were maybe five skate parks in America back then? I never took that for granted, so when I was in a position of influence, the first thing I wanted to do was provide that kind of opportunity and environment to underserved communities. I wanted to offer that to young people who, like me, felt powerless. That’s still the priority, and the staff at The Skatepark Project do an incredible job; they deserve all the credit.
It’s amazing because skateboarding is for everyone, absolutely everyone, and it’s not for other sports. Go to a skate park and when it’s light outside, the park is in use. What other sports facility is like this?
So what now?
I want to put weight on my leg. I want to skate the demo at the Weekend Jam in Vegas. Before I got injured, I was working on a new video section, so I’m hoping to finish that. The irony is that before I broke my leg, I toyed with the idea of doing a farewell tour of demonstrations. I don’t know if anyone is interested in that, but maybe? We will see.