Into The Deep End
In the late 1970s, when skateboarding was in its infancy, skateparks started popping up all over the country. In order to properly accommodate this new emerging pastime, concrete skateparks were poured and molded in the image that dominated skateboarding back then – empty backyard swimming pools.
Just ask Steve Caballero, who's been skating bowls since, literally, most of you were born. "Every park had a pool, because that's what guys were doing in the mid-'70s," he says. "So every skatepark that was built privately wanted to build some kind of pool, because it related to what people were doing outside of parks.”
Just as the parks were a product of their environment, skateboarding contests–also in their infancy–were a reflection of the parks.
The bowl contest craze lasted up through the mid-'80s, and then seemingly went the way of the dinosaur, dying off because all but a few of the parks closed down. No more parks meant no more contest venues. "The ones left standing were Del Mar in San Diego, and Upland [Pipeline Skatepark]," Caballero explains. "There were still some contests in those, but it started going into backyard ramps and backyard ramp contests."
"Skateboarding moves in cycles" is one of the most well-worn clichés, but in this case it's very true. There was a surge in popularity throughout the late-'90s and early aughts, and bowls began to resurface here and there.
Vans can take a lot of credit for the resurgence. When they completed their first public skatepark in Orange, California, they made sure to include a picture-perfect replica of the gone-but-not-forgotten Combi Bowl from the iconic Pipeline Skatepark, which had closed down in 1988. This replica was constructed maybe 30 miles from its predecessor—under a roof, in the middle of a mall, tucked neatly next to Disneyland.
Within a couple years, the new Combi became the home of what is now skateboarding's longest-running bowl contest—the Pool Party. It began in 2005, and every year since, generations of skaters have converged upon the mall to compete–a family reunion of sorts.
That same year, the Bondi Bowl in Sydney Australia began its annual contest, as well. And bowls were back.
You can attribute some of the bowl craze's popularity with the fact that it spans generations. Guys in their 40s and (eep!) 50s pad up and drop in, drawing lines that stem from nostalgia and muscle memory. But no sooner was this second wave of bowls and concrete parks poured and cured, than a new generation of skater emerged, hungry for something new.
Arizona is one of the hotbeds that benefited from that early-aughts concrete wave, with not only lots of parks, but good ones. Birdhouse pro Aaron "Jaws" Homoki is part of that new breed, and he grew up skating those parks: "Paradise Valley [in the greater Phoenix area] was my local skatepark," he says, "and whenever I'm home I still try to skate it three or four times a week. And all of those [Phoenix] parks are all tranny-oriented parks, so that's where I get to practice." Homoki won back-to-back best-trick contests at the U.S. Open of Surf's Coastal Carnage bowl contests in 2012 and 2013.
Another member of this new generation of bowl skaters is Converse pro Tom Remillard. "Transition skating is the strongest that it's ever been," he says, "because there are more skateparks. There's more for dudes like us to ride, all over the world, from Portland to Jerusalem." Remillard cut his teeth at San Diego's Washington Street, a D.I.Y. skatepark with a reputation for knocking out more teeth than it cuts.
Remillard's first bowl contest was at the Tim Brauch Memorial Skate Jam in 2007. Brauch, an ATV skater who passed in 1999 is fondly remembered at this annual event. The lineup included several of tomorrow's ATV pros – up-and-coming skaters like Chocolate's Raven Tershy, and Birdhouse's Ben Raybourn.
Remillard, for example, went on to win Coastal Carnage in 2011 – skating, in fact, against "older generation" skaters like Christian Hosoi and Tony Hawk. Truly these bowls are where generations collide. Sometimes literally.
But… what's the difference? What makes a bowl contest so much different from, say, a vert contest?
"When you're doing a bowl contest," explains Remillard, "you're thinking about ollieing over the hip, grinding around the corner, and that's gonna give you the speed to get to the 15-foot wall. You try to build a line, versus trick after trick after trick."
Because of the additional factors – hips, corners, and the like – bowl skating spawns a spontaneity that isn't found on a more static environment. This adds an element of excitement for the skater, and for anyone watching.
"When you're skating a bowl contest," says Remillard, "you're working around corners, and you're working around hips, and using different-sized transitions to get speed. It's all buildup."
Caballero agrees: "In a vert contest," he says, "you're limited to going back and forth on a flat wall. You're relying on spinning and flipping your board to look different form other people, and you're limited in where you're going. In a bowl, depending on how it's built, you can draw different lines everywhere, and you can go different places."
This added dimension affects not just the skaters and the audience, but the judges' panel as well. Should a bowl contest have a different set of criterion than from a vert contest?
"I think it's a given," says Caballero, "they are gonna be judged differently, because of what element you're putting them into. Obviously, how someone rides the bowl – how they put lines together is gonna be different than how someone puts lines together on a ramp."
So, even though the tricks are familiar, and largely the same, there is a different standard. Not so much 'what you do,' as 'how you do.' Vans' Head of Global Sports Marketing, Skateboarding, Justin Regan explains: "Because every bowl is unique and offers infinite lines, I believe judges are looking for how well a skater uses the bowl in addition to the difficulty level of tricks; that creativity in how one approaches the bowl becomes more important."
Regan has spent some time considering this. Between the Pool Party and sponsoring events all over the world, Vans vas been instrumental in the popularity of bowls and bowl contests. "Finding lines and making connections between sections becomes more important. The guy or girl who just finds the flat walls and reels off tricks is not going to score as well as the skater that moves around and across the bowl, utilizing every line the bowl has to offer." In fact, Vans has gone so far as to fine-tune the very definition of a "bowl contest," allowing for a new discipline of contests to emerge. This new discipline, called the "park series," will allow different types of tranny skater, and different methods of creativity to shine in the coming years.
"I think that [skateboarding contests] should be all judged the same, but I feel the judges have to know how it works," offers Homoki. "They kinda have to have skated bowls. I think that style matters a lot, in a bowl contest, being able to flow well and hit all the obstacles in the bowl. Because in vert contests, you're going up and down, but in a bowl you have to find a line, and it's more about how well you can put that line together."
Remillard feels that a proper panel should include a little bit of everything, style, technical tricks, air… but one crucial factor is having skaters who understand the nuance and intimacy of each trick. Without that, some lines are bound to fall upon deaf ears. "You should have a well-rounded panel of judges," he says. "And I think I see it all the time. When you have someone like Kyle Berard judging your contest, you can be confident that the right scores are gonna come out."
The one thing you can learn from this is that skateboarders, by nature, will never settle for what's easy, or simple. If you can add an element of danger or difficulty, they'll rise to the challenge. And then look for what's next.