Editor’s note: This piece includes brief mentions of physical assault and suicide.
A few weeks ago, I was driving down Orrong Road on the way back home from the Elsternwick op shops. My sister was in the passenger seat. At the op shops, she’d bought two big black coats as it had been freezing the previous day, though this day was warm; I’d bought a long women’s puffer with woollen cuffs and collar that was the red and blue of childhood. I asked her what happened to her previous boyfriend, the one my mother didn’t like, or particularly didn’t like. My sister said the man was now in prison. Why, I asked, pulling up at the lights at Carlisle Street. She showed me the scar that ran along the top of her hand, arcing around her thumb. He was trying to get my phone, she said, and then he picked up a piece of glass.
How did I not know about this? I asked. I don’t know, she said, didn’t mum or dad tell you? No, I said. I don’t think so.
A few years ago my sister moved away from Melbourne, back up to Cairns where we’d grown up. Soon after she’d moved back north, she’d had a bad car accident. I’d always pictured this accident happening on the corner of Greenslopes and Pease streets, where I myself had been going through a green light in the dense rain when a car slowly drove into the side of my yellow Beetle. They’d stopped briefly, but then had pulled back onto the road and driven away.
My sister said after the guy had been arrested, she’d sold his car. She giggled in the way that she does. She’d called me the day before to say she was in town, that we should spend some time together. Turning to me she said she’d read somewhere that all great artists led troubled lives, and that things looked good for her. She was going back to study. We’d had this conversation before, I felt, even though we’d hardly spoken over the last few years. I didn’t feel like humouring her, or didn’t know if I should.
Sometime earlier, my brother Josh had emailed me a YouTube video of two Japanese rollerbladers, Eito and Takeshi Yasutoko, skating a half pipe, or vert ramp, that looked taller than a house. There was one trick in particular they would do that’s hard to parse or conceptualise: high above the ramp’s coping, they’d spin upside down, and then, with a sudden kick that resembled trying to escape from a sack, they’d change the axis of their spin. I couldn’t see how they’d know where they were, how they’d have a sense of things up there. It was unusual for my brother to email me at all, let alone a link to a video. I clicked on another video, and then another, and sent a couple back. I watched some clips of old rollerblade videos from the 90s, the ones I’d seen dozens of times. I hadn’t thought about skating in years.
In the car, I asked my sister if she still knew any of the old skaters. Not really, she said. Every so often she would get a friend request on Facebook by someone who might have been a skater. She was going through her phone. Sam C––, she said. Yes, I said, he’s one. There was a Ryan someone. H––? I asked. Yes, she said. She put the phone in front of my face, and there was a chubby and well looking Ryan H––.
I wonder what he does now, I said.
It says he works for an insurance company.
I felt a little disappointed at that. Ryan was my go-to idea of a childhood friend who would turn out to be, continue to be, a fuckup. Despite being unwilling or simply unable to defend myself, for some reason he’d always been good to me – even while hitting his own teammates in the face with the end of a roller hockey stick. But here he was.
Once, trying to explain this period of my life to my partner, Jess, I described how there were days we’d spend, I don’t know, ten, twelve, fourteen hours out skating, sometimes just two of us, sometimes in larger groups. Some of our parents would try to keep track of where we were during the day or night, but many wouldn’t. I told her that my first girlfriend was a girl from the rink. We’d stay over each other’s houses, or sleep outside on the lawn next to each other at other people’s houses. I was too shy or scared to even kiss her, even though, when we stayed at her house, she would rent movies with titles like Threesome, and say things like, imagine what we could be doing. We were thirteen and mostly we wrestled – on the stairs of the old police station on the Esplanade, at the rink, on the floor at McDonalds.
There were days we’d spend, I don’t know, ten, twelve, fourteen hours out skating…some of our parents would try to keep track of where we were during the day or night, but many wouldn’t.
For a few months one year, Ryan and I’d spent a lot of time together, skating the city, the half pipe on the Esplanade, the schools and streets around our homes. Time and again, I would get close to someone – as was the case here – but I wouldn’t progress as quickly with skating as them, wouldn’t be able to bring myself to attempt the things they did. I’d spend hours in the late afternoon at the top of the ramp after everyone else had left. From up there, looking out over the mudflats in front of me, and with the Cairns Base Hospital behind me, I’d beg myself to drop in, but I wouldn’t.
Every so often, a new skater would come along, drop in, learn some other tricks, fall in with the better skaters, and then maybe quit. I’d see them in town, maybe at a movie marathon, and they would say, incredulously, oh, you still skate? But Ryan was somehow neither fearful like I was, nor too concerned with learning much more than a few fakie airs on the ramp, things he could do easily. His house was a run down piece of shit in a rough area near Trinity Bay High. He’d kick his cat off the top of the staircase, and he and his mother would talk together in a way that was somehow rough and abrasive but affectionate, like they had gone through more together than I could understand. We’d always be able to count on going to someone’s house for food, but Ryan’s was the kind of place you had to bring food to.
My sister, like a lot of people, had hung around the rink for a while, usually not skating. Here in the car, I mentioned to her that I’d been talking, or trying to talk, to a few former Australian pro rollerbladers, people who were a big deal in the mid 90s, who I’d idolised, and who I suddenly realised I could interview.
My sister didn’t know the names like I did, but I said them anyway. Tom Fry. Josh Clarke. Dion Anthony. Josh Pinkus. Jimmy Trimble. Rene Hulgreen. Ichi ‘Rocket’ Komori. Matt Salerno. Ryan Jacklone. Names that are clear and strong to me in a way that names like JM Coetzee, Anton Chekhov and Janet Frame never will be.
Some months earlier, I’d gone to Bayside Blades in Melbourne’s south-east, to talk to the store’s manager Cuong Hunyh about the trajectory of rollerblading over the last twenty or so years, and to see if he could put me in touch with the former pros. Cuong hadn’t stopped skating when so many others had. He looks a decade younger than he is and has a moustache that makes you think, oh, I get moustaches.
During the peak of the rollerblading craze in the mid 90s, there were some 20 million active skaters in the US – making it, for a while, bigger than skateboarding or BMX. Though the people I mentioned in the car to my sister were from across the world, at the time there was a group of Australian skaters, namely from Sydney and Melbourne, who were winning street and vert at the major international events, the X Games, NISS (National Inline Skating Series) and its later manifestation ASA, or the Aggressive Skaters Association. That term, ‘aggressive skating’ perhaps suggests something about the uncertainty of street and vert skating at the time, the way it wanted to distance itself from those who played hockey, or who raced, or who skated to work.
During the peak of the rollerblading craze in the mid 90s, there were some 20 million active skaters in the US – making it, for a while, bigger than skateboarding or BMX.
I asked Cuong if there was anything like these competitions now. Not really, he said. Skate companies don’t really have any money, or at least they’re not putting it into competitions, certainly not in Australia or the US. They aren’t handing out prize money. But back then, in the mid 90s, they were – three-time Australian champion Josh Clarke would return one year with some $40,000 in cheques, on top of his sponsorship salary.
Cuong would put me on to Tien Nguyen, a later pro skater, one from the early- to mid-2000s, who I’d chatted to in the Macquarie Centre in Sydney. I asked him what kind of money a pro from before his time could expect. For some, six figures, he said, and those guys were all in their teens or early twenties. The centre was noisy, and at one point we both looked down at my recorder to notice the screen flashing ‘SD Card Full’.
I said, you don’t look anything like you do in the videos. Yeah, he said, everyone says that. A lot of people, especially at work, don’t even know I skate.
He’d ducked out from an office block across from the shopping centre and was dressed like anyone else who worked in an office. Cuong had shown me a video that Tien was in, Vine St – in it, he has that scrappy grunginess about him that I can’t help but associate with Sydney, but his skating style is crisp and tightly controlled. He seems to carefully adjust his movement to compensate for his missing left arm. He explained that by his time, it was obvious there was no future in skating. At least, he said, that meant I got my degree. I wasn’t sure if he’d mind me asking him about his missing arm, but I did. He said, I don’t know if it makes it harder – it just means if I go down in a particular direction, I can’t break my fall, so I’ve hit my head badly a few times.
Those earlier skaters were picked up by those major companies – Roces, Rollerblade, Bauer, Oxygen and K2 – and given a salary, free gear and clothing and flown around the world for exhibition shows and competitions. We would see them in videos, skating either on the actual street – grinding down handrails, jumping and flat spinning (a kind of awkward almost upside spin) over difficult gaps – or in skate parks or vert ramps. Up in Cairns, we were far away from this, but somehow the excitement of the newness, the way new grinds, new tricks were being invented from one video to the next, filtered down to us.
At Bayside Blades, I told Cuong I was hoping to track down Tim Ward. Tim Ward? he said. Good luck. He’s impossible now. This was something I’d keep hearing. Josh Clarke would tell me via Facebook Messenger that Cesar Mora, a vert skater who was once a kind of clean-living poster boy of Australian rollerblading, no longer had anything to do with any of them. It was a shame, he said, as for a while they’d been particularly close. One of my indelible memories is of a trip to Sydney as a fourteen-year-old, standing on the top of a 12-foot-high vert ramp in Bondi while Mora did fast, sharp 900s and slow, lofty backflips over our heads – I can still see him floating upside down, and can feel the awareness of space and time that he seemed to have. In a kind of ‘where are they now’ interview from 2010, Mora said that at the time it all seemed ‘so young and creative and innocent and new’.
There’s an interview with Clarke where he talks about the ties between the Australian skaters and those in the US having more or less disappeared. The bottom was falling out of skating by the early 2000s – everyone was leaving, sponsors were doing what they could to drop skaters. Clarke wrote that he’d cashed a cheque at a US corner store and flown back to Melbourne, after his sponsor Roces had threatened to drop him if he missed another competition. While Clarke and I were still messaging back and forth to try and arrange an interview, he would start skating again and break his leg, while another skater, Manuel Billiris, would break his back on the St Kilda bowl.
The bottom was falling out of skating by the early 2000s – everyone was leaving, sponsors were doing what they could to drop skaters.
In Bayside Blades I tried on a pair of rec skates with speed frames. Things had changed – speed frames no longer had five 80mm wheels, but four enormous 110mm wheels. I felt a long way from the ground. While I rolled around the store, Cuong told me about Bryan Bell, a San Diego skater who’d meant a lot to all of us back then. He said he’d skated with him once. He’d long been his favourite skater, and someone – he couldn’t remember whom – had phoned to say Bryan Bell, fucking Bryan Bell!, was in Melbourne, come meet us. They’d skated the spots at South Bank, which, Cuong said, are now either gone or have been made ungrindable with metal pegs. It’s really sad though, he said. A couple of years ago Bryan, long since having quit skating, hit someone with his car. He’d left the scene, drove to the Coronado Bridge, and jumped. It would be a few days before his body was pulled from the San Diego River.
Back home, after watching a couple of videos of Bell, I came upon a Reddit thread. He’s still missing at this point, but they’ve found his car. Commenters are speculating as to what’s happened to him. I click through to the next page, and the next. They still don’t know what’s happened to him. Eventually on page five, someone posts a Facebook link saying they’ve found his body.
As I kept hearing and reading online, the scene is small and underground now, and skaters are getting older, but they’re also getting more elegant. Looking back over those early VHS-era videos of Bryan Bell, where I first would have seen him skate, it’s hard to understand what I’d felt watching this as a teenager. Bell looks ungainly, often flapping his arms around struggling to balance on a rail and landing badly. But at the time he was making things smaller and creative and technical – he’d switch grinds mid rail, something it seemed like we’d all be able to do, albeit on smaller rails. It felt as though he was making it more accessible to us. But there was more to it than that – there was a kind of infatuation with these people, with knowing their names, with the very idea of who they were.
In the months I spent hanging out with Ryan H––, one of my favourite things to do was to climb higher and higher up the hill behind my house and skate down. At the bottom of the hill on the right hand side were the Botanical Gardens; on the left, the park that had once held my favourite playground but had been recently planted out with native plants. The top of the hill had been cleared and terraced and then left to regrow and then recently recleared. This was a serious hill – there was a road at the bottom, beyond the gardens and the park, so you had to stop quickly.
There was a kind of infatuation with these people, with knowing their names, with the very idea of who they were.
At the time I was in the speed skating team, from which Ryan had recently dropped out. Ryan was in his TRS skates, I was wearing my brother Josh’s old pink, black and purple Aeroblades. My brother and I had an abundance of wheels, so I could drag my foot at the bottom to stop – but what Ryan had on was all he had, so he would, at full flight, jump onto the strip of grass in front of the fence to the Botanical Gardens to slow himself down – something I was sure would eventually end badly. Josh stood in his socks and FR baggies at the end of our gravel driveway and watched. You’re going to kill those wheels, he’d say. One more time, I said, going all the way to the top. Ryan didn’t follow. This was it – I’d done something someone else hadn’t, even if I had the advantage of being able to stop.
The first time I joined a speed skate at the rink, I rolled off into the centre of the floor and collided with Marcel Scherzer, knocking us both from our feet. Cairns was unusual in that the street and ramp skaters were, along with the hockey players and speed skaters, centred around our rink, a big warehouse in the showgrounds we’d moved into after Space Skate was closed and turned into Emmanuel College. The rink threw us all in together and allowed us to move between in a way that wasn’t otherwise done. Over time, more and more ramps and rails would be built, turning the rink itself into a kind of skate park.
Space Skate was before Josh’s and my time. Marcel – who in training on the velodrome would sit in my draft, his feet in time with mine, screaming ‘stay down, stay down,’ as we pushed through the 5000m sets – would tell me that after it closed, and the barriers and furniture were removed, he still had the keys. He would go there at night and dash around the track alone. I’d imagined him doing this in inline speed skates – the Bont boots, Labida frames and Hyper Cherry Bomb or Atom Bomb wheels that we all had at the time – but I realise now he would have been in rollerskates, or what we speed skaters referred to as quads, pushed right up towards the front of his feet, the fat ribbed wheels shrieking as they gripped into the corners.
Two years after colliding with Marcel, I’d watch him win the senior men’s road points race at the state titles at the Chandler car park on the outskirts of Brisbane. This meant a lot, as three of the people he was racing against were world champions – Gary ‘1500m’ King, Chris Luxton and, of course, Brayden Jones. That day, in the junior men’s 3000 I’d somehow roll down a hill faster than my competitors and hold long enough to take silver, and Brayden Jones and Scott Livermore – still in their lycra – would start thumping each other over by the cars after the two of them crashed together in the 1500. Brayden was unmarked, it seemed, but Scott’s legs were shredded by the rough gravel. That’s nothing, Marcel would say to me, before telling me about seeing Desly Hill’s teeth being knocked out in a fall. Desly was an old quad speedskater who dressed grunge and who, I’d heard, would bring smokes and a guitar to meets. And it was nothing.
Two years later again, when I was fifteen and training for what would be my last competition, I’d fall while sprinting to the line on the asphalt 400m velodrome, skinning both knees, my chin, my right shoulder and hips and elbow, cracking my helmet and tearing the side off my electric blue suit. My brother, who’d been behind me, said, you started to fall, and then caught yourself, but then you just let yourself drop. Perhaps, I thought.
We had almost no one to race. I raced another boy from my club who was a couple of years younger, and three boys from Mackay in basketball shorts and hockey skates.
A while after the state titles in the Chandler car park, Brayden would come up to Cairns to race in the North Queensland Games. We had almost no one to race. I raced another boy from my club who was a couple of years younger, and three boys from Mackay in basketball shorts and hockey skates. It was March; the outdoor road races were moved to the velodrome because of the monsoonal rains – being banked and having no corners, it was decided it would be less dangerous, but the bottom still flooded. Marcel didn’t race that meet, but Brayden and my brother Josh pushed through a fast 10,000 in the pounding rain, their lower blades slicing into the water that pooled around the base of the track.
That night we went through the ritual of pulling our skates apart, stuffing our boots with newspaper and soaking our bearings in oil, trying to displace the water before they rusted out. He’s fast, Brayden said of my brother, he’s going to give Glen Harvey a scare at state titles. He didn’t, not really, but he did well enough to make the Queensland team. Besides, Brayden said, Humphrey B Bear could beat Glen Harvey to that post and back – though to those mountains and back, he’ll beat anyone.
Whenever I heard the name Glen Harvey, or watched him race – each year, it seemed, he’d transform himself into a different kind of racer – I’d think of Ryan H–– who told me, back when we were close and I still speed skated but he no longer did, how he beat him in three races at state titles. It occurs to me now that they must have only been seven or eight years old. I’d still be beating him, Ryan would say, if I hadn’t been hit by the car. I never quite understood what had happened with the car, and how badly he’d been hurt, but before he left the club, I’d see him regularly stop skating and clutch his leg. Had it been broken, I wondered. Sometimes Ryan would say Andrew Y––, an older skater, had pushed him in front of that car, but sometimes he would say something different. By this time, when we’d begun hanging out together, it was funny to him – especially since Andrew Y––’s jeans had caught alight while smoking on break at the petrol station where he worked.
After racing on the velodrome in the rain, my brother made the state team and travelled to Melbourne to race nationals. On the phone, he told me about visiting the Queen Victoria Market and all the things you could buy there. He was amazed. He was hoping to go back, but he really wanted to check out the Prahran vert ramp. He said, I’ve never skated vert, I’ve got to – though none of the other Cairns skaters had brought their street skates. When he’d told Glen Harvey about the ramp, who was now in his team and racing with him more than against him, Glen had laughed and said, you skate street? Why?
A couple of days after speaking to him on the phone, our coach called from the road track and spoke to my mother. Josh had fallen badly. He’s okay, but it looks like he’s shattered his wrist. An ambulance was on its way. After a while, mum put me on the phone and the coach told me Josh had stepped out from the pack to overtake but a moment later a stronger, bigger skater had stepped out from behind and taken him out. He would return home with a scar running up in the inside of his wrist and a plate within.
After I hung up the phone, I dug out the Game Boy that my mother had bought Josh the last time he was in hospital. I had been surprised by the purchase – it didn’t seem like something my mother would do, just buy something like that. Someone had fallen on Josh’s head at the rink, smashing his jaw, while playing what we called ‘demolition chariots’. He went off and sat in a chair by the snack bar for some time, waiting for an ambulance. He looked drugged. A few days later, when his jaw was wired up and he could more or less talk again, he said, you just fucking stared at me.
Metres from where he fell, I’d soon break my own arm, falling at training. I would try to get up before noticing it was bent. Both bones were broken through. Later in the week, I would sit in the back of the car at the Coles car park crying, a big puffy expansion cast running up to my shoulder, the doctor having told me I’d broken the growth plate and that my wrist would grow bent. A younger boy from school would look through the window and see me and I’d clutch the wrist, as though in great pain.
The wall between Josh’s and my bedrooms didn’t go all the way to the ceiling – not that there was a ceiling, just a steep metal roof and beams. The fan sat above the wall between us, always on.
One night he said, it’s funny, we took up so many other things – BMX, skateboarding (he had taken them up, I hadn’t) – why did we stick with skating? Then he said, he felt he could do anything that he was able to imagine. If he couldn’t imagine it, he couldn’t do it.
That was my problem, I said. I could imagine doing everything but could do nothing.
I have a photo of Josh, taken near to where he would smash his jaw and I would break my wrist. He’s in the air above eight 44-gallon drums. He’s wearing a Mambo shirt, Hot Tuna shorts and has big Converse socks sticking out from the top of the pink, purple and black Aeroblades. He and Marcel would take turns of jumping more and more drums. First three, and then four, up until seven and then eight. He doesn’t look as though he’s going to make it.
[My brother] felt he could do anything that he was able to imagine…I could imagine doing everything but could do nothing.
In the early 2000s, after I and many others had stopped skating, and when money and interest were already beginning to evaporate, skating changed into something different, or perhaps reached a kind of logical end point. Tien Nguyen suggested that the way tricks kept getting bigger and, more importantly, riskier – rails on the sides of buildings, jumping from one roof to the next – was prohibitively intimidating to new skaters. It seemed you couldn’t just have fun.
There’s a clip on YouTube from the 2003 Paris IMYT (‘I Match Your Trick’ – a kind of best trick competition that would take place in city centres across Europe and America without the support of sponsors) that looks like a kind of collective madness. For this event in Paris, skaters had arrived from all over Europe, from Poland, Germany, Spain. With the spectators, on skates themselves, so tightly bunched in around the ledge or rail (competitors are continuously flying or crashing into them) it’s hard to judge how many people are there, but you can read the excitement.
For each round another handrail or ledge is chosen. The final round, seen in the last few minutes of the video, is particularly hard to watch. They choose a big concrete ledge, going down maybe forty or fifty stairs, with a kink in the middle, where it briefly flattens out at a landing. The competitors take turns racing towards the ledge and throwing themselves at it. I say they’re racing towards it, but we don’t see that – just the crowd opening momentarily at the top of the ledge as they shoot out. One skater yelps as he topples over the side, crumpling into the concrete below. Another tries to jump past the kink to land in an awkward grind. On his third attempt, we can hear a man in the crowd saying, what’s he even trying to do?
Many of the names that are still around today are the people who came to prominence in this era, in the time that money was disappearing, when their sport was showing up rarely if at all on television, and when few younger people were joining them. Today, those skaters are no longer sixteen-year-old kids. They’re more careful, tighter and more refined than ever, but they’re also more playful.
I went back to Bayside Blades to chat to Cuong and another staff member there, Chris Pullar. They both wore black T-shirts with white Bayside Blades logos above outlines of a rollerblade and a rollerskate (which have seen a resurgence on account of roller derby).
Chris was bony and weathered. Once, in France, I was told I had a tête d’un fumeur, the head of a smoker – I noticed now that Chris did too.
I took another look at their skates. Looking at the grind setup on a pair of street skates, I recalled being in a gully thick with rainforest plants and trees. Ryan was with me and our skates were thrown off to the side. We each had hacksaws and were trying to cut out a section of a metal pipe to use as a grind rail as water burst out, arcing over us.
Would you want a pair for commuting? Cuong asked. No, I thought, I would wear them once or twice and that would be that. A few weeks earlier, I’d found a pair of rollerblades in hard rubbish – a pair of Roces Madrids – and then found a second pair, Bauers this time, not long after. I’d gone for a few skates around the block, exhilarated at first but quickly bored and uncomfortable. But those massive wheels were just so delicious. I asked who would come in and buy these now – I remember skate shops being full of twelve year olds, their staff complaining about being babysitters. They said, people our age, in their thirties.
They tell me, Cuong said, they just really miss rolling around. There’s nothing as fast or agile. It’s nice in a way, he went on – it’s less elite now, that we don’t have to pretend we’re cool. We know where we are on the food chain.
If you want to toe tap, you can toe tap, Chris said.
It’s nice in a way…we don’t have to pretend we’re cool. We know where we are on the food chain.
As though eager to impress, I mentioned I’d been talking to Josh Pinkus. I’ll text him about it, Chris said. Pinkus had said to me that he’d never wanted to stop skating, but had needed to return from the US for a shoulder reconstruction. He’d started skating again too soon and hurt it again. Now, he said, he’s a carpenter. He can’t afford to injure himself.
Cuong and Chris told me stories of people who’d done just that, given up because they were worried about hurting themselves. Some people take up surfing, Chris said, it’s a real thirties thing.
In an interview from 2010, the elusive vert skater Cesar Mora mentioned that now that he’d not skated for four years, he was finally walking without a limp. His hip had been a mess. I mentioned to Chris and Cuong all the handwringing online about what happened to the sport – was it being dropped from the X Games, was it the tough aesthetic that hasn’t dated well, was it hate from skateboarding?
We just got older, Chris said, and the younger kids did something else – now they scooter, later they’ll do some other thing. Cuong was flipping through his phone to show me a clip he’d seen on Instagram that day. Some guy had put rubber stopper brakes on the front and back of both skates and was sliding across and down ramps on his toes and heels. Look, Cuong said, there’s still new stuff. It’s still inventive. I thought it looked a little silly, but fun, the kind of thing you could do without worrying about smashing your shoulder.
I asked Chris and Cuong when they would stop – forty-five? Fifty? Cuong said he couldn’t imagine what else he’d do. I said, I guess you’ll spend your weekends at Bunnings like the rest of us. Years earlier, when Josh and I would talk at night over the wall that didn’t reach the ceiling, the white metal fan whirling above us, he’d wondered aloud what people who didn’t skate did with their time. I couldn’t imagine what they did either.
As I left the shop, I said to them that one thing I’d been considering doing for this essay was to finally learn a few of those tricks I’d never been able to bring myself to try. Maybe, I said, I could do a handrail. Cuong said, you used to be able to do them, right? No, I said. Nowhere close. Well, yeah, he said, we could help you with that. Baby steps, Chris said. They both sounded unconvinced.