2020 was a momentous year for rollerblading, and with days getting longer this year looks to be no different.
It started last spring when skiers were forced off the lifts and trails of ski areas as the world came to grips with the pandemic. Sales of rollerblades soared, and skiers reopened their lives to carving turns on pavement and skating distance on ski town bike paths.
Olympic gold medalist Johnny Mosely posted a write-up and video reviving his blading workouts with his kids Wayne Gretsky chimed in with his support. The X Games reran the blading vert finals from 2005 and media outlets from Sports Illustrated to The Wall Street Journal ran blading revival stories, if only for the excuse to make ‘90s jokes.
But the most seismic moment of this resurgence involved JSkis, a brand founded by Jason Levinthal, who previously founded Line Skis and played an essential role in dreaming up, cultivating, popularizing, and solidifying what was originally known as New School Skiing.
New School, a genre of skiing that stood on the shoulders of everything rollerbladers had been doing for about 10 solid years, then proceeded to feverishly deny any association with it for the next 15, successfully whitewashed a sizable chunk of the 1980s and ‘90s ski culture.
But in the spring of 2020, Levinthal’s brand made an astounding move, posting a video of one of its team athletes throwing down on blades in a Salt Lake City skatepark.
That simple act—a nod that rollerblading is a thing that can be done by skiers when the mountain closes—broke years of freeskiing dogma.
“The magazine had made a solemn pledge to defend skiing’s honor against the harshest accusation known in action sports at the time: ‘That looks like rollerblading,’” wrote then-editor of Freeze Magazine, Micah Abrams, years ago.
In the ‘90s, however, the relationship between the two sports was a symbiotic given.
“I just wanted to be able to ski in the summer,” says Levinthal. “That was my main mission for getting rollerblades, to continue that sensation of skiing. You could do everything. You could carve, ride ramps, and jump off stuff. All through college, I rollerbladed like crazy. After college, I had a halfpipe in the back of my factory. I stuck with it a long time.”
It was in college in 1995 that Levinthal founded Line, the brand name and style of riding inspired by what he and others were doing on inline skates. Rollerblading was a pillar of action sports at the time, a foundational element of the X Games.
Levinthal recalls one early photoshoot for Freeze Magazine at Copper Mountain, a group of “skiboarders” from different parts of the country trading tricks and laying freeskiing’s foundation.
“We were all rollerbladers,” he says.
Blading was how they first realized they could land jumps backward, cork out their spins, and grind rails. They didn’t need to be on a board to do that—and they took all of that with them back to skiing.
“All the tricks we were doing were called out from rollerblading. All the cork spins, all the rodeos, those were all rollerblading tricks for sure. I forgot how much rollerblading was embedded in that culture,” says Levinthal.
Blading’s connection to freestyle skiing goes back to the previous decade.
Rollerblade, the Minnesota company that invented inline skates, started in the ‘80s with a heavy emphasis on hockey training. As Gretzky reminded all the sidelined NHL’ers last spring, rollerblading is the best thing you can do for your skating skills off the ice. Skiers were a close secondary focus for the company. By the mid-‘80s, it was partnering with the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) and SKI Magazine on an offseason training program. And in 1986, it recruited former U.S. Freestyle Ski Team Director Mary Horwath to lead its marketing department.
“I was hired predominantly because of my ski background,” says Horwath, a Minnesota native who had worked in the Park City offices of the USSA helping freestyle mature from its hot dogging era into a World Cup, then Olympic, sport.
In Horwath, Rollerblade got a freestyle skiing insider and someone with a connection to an aspiring filmmaker who would become a ski filmmaking legend: Greg Stump. Horwath knew Stump as an athlete representative on the USSA freestyle committee and had given him some of his first professional work filming freestyle. Now she was calling on him to create the first promotional spots for Rollerblade.
Filmed in Maui, footage from the first Team Rollerblade shoot became one of the dream sequences of protagonist “Harry” in Stump’s 1987 release “The Good, the Rad and the Gnarly.” The footage showcases a rollerblader with ski poles carving ski turns down a paved road at sunset, a style of rollerblading that became the company’s value proposition to skiers and the foundation of its “Skate to Ski” program.
Watch the rollerblading segment from “The Good The Rad and The Gnarly” (1987):
“Rollerblade wanted to promote the way it really improved your skiing, and it’s true,” Stump says. “I don’t think I truly learned to carve a turn on a ski until after I got really good at rollerblading. I thought it really changed my angulation. It really improved my skiing.”
Stump used footage from the following year’s Rollerblade shoot in Southern California as the opening scene in “Blizzard of Aahhhs,” inarguably the most influential ski film of the generation.
Stump’s lead cameraman, Bruce Benedict, continued to work with Rollerblade through the ‘90s. And one of the Stump films’ star skiers, Mike Hattrup, became the resident “Extreme Skier” on the Skate to Ski training videos that Rollerblade produced.
Stump’s films helped anchor rollerblading in the ski industry, but Rollerblade’s team athletes were soon taking the sport to new heights, borrowing from skateboarding a street and skatepark style that was beyond the imagination of 1980s skiers.
“We rocked the ski industry,” Horwath says. “The (SIA) ski show was a big show for us. You had all the ski industry there. We had a big halfpipe. We were like rock stars at the show.”
That push into skateparks not only laid the foundation for modern-day freeskiing, it also set off a furious backlash from skateboarders that would relentlessly unravel the sport.
“I don’t think it’s incorrect to say that skateboarders mocked rollerblading out of existence,” says Dave Carnie, former head writer of Big Brother magazine and one of the leaders of skateboarding’s cadre of anti-blading zealots.
Carnie’s crew at Big Brother spearheaded a takedown of rollerblading that grew increasingly brazen through the early 2000s. As the skateboard community started laughing along, they ramped up the campaign, thinking of new ways to denigrate the sport and cut down its participants.
There was a singular theme that ran through the mockery: rollerblading is completely gay, and bladers are total fags.
“It was an easy target for comedy and we used it a lot,” says Carnie. “And people responded to it, so we kept doing it. We had no idea what we were doing … but we did know people were responding to the hate.”
The word “fruitbooter” was gleefully used to put down bladers, to great effect. Big Brother distributed fruitbooter stickers and sold T-shirts that intertwined the gay pride flag with the Rollerblade logo. The magazine also ran an infamous feature where they “hunted” the most recognizable rollerblader of the time, Arlo Eisenberg, in a spoof of Steve Irwin’s “Crocodile Hunter” show.
“We probably took it too far. We took everything too far. That was the point,” says Carnie. “As a teenager, it’s a lot easier to say what you hate than what you love and what you are about. And I think a lot of skateboarders—it’s horrible to say, it wasn’t right—but it was homophobia. And that’s why everyone called them gay, and fruitbooters and faggots.”
Carnie cringes when he looks back at some of his anti-rollerblading writings of the 2000s, particularly his use of the word “faggot.” He heard an interview once with a comedian that enlightened him on the maliciousness of the word.
“’Every homosexual has been beaten up at least once in their life,’” Carnie recalls of the interview, “’and while they were being beaten up, they were probably called a faggot.’ When I heard that, I said ‘I’m not using that word ever again.’ So when I see that in my writing from that period, it stings a little bit. Like, ‘Fuck, I used that word.’”
As ugly as it got, skateboarders did have a well-founded beef with the way rollerblading came on the scene in the ‘80s. At that time, skateparks were a new concept, and it wasn’t easy to convince a community or its elected officials to spend the money to build one in a public space. Skateboarders organized communities around those projects and physically built the parks.
“That’s a lot of where the anger came from,” Carnie explains. “This is a skateboard park. It was built by skateboarders, it was earned by skateboarders, it’s made for skateboarders. It’s for skateboarding. It’s not for rollerblading.
“They were just a problem,” he says. “They were a pest. They were appropriating our culture as well as invading our environments. It was like, you have termites in your house, you have to get rid of them. And everyone agreed.”
Turning the policing of skateparks into something that permeated American popular culture was a remarkable trick. There was Adam Sandler tripping up a blader in Central Park in the movie “Big Daddy.” There was Aziz Ansari on MTV coining perhaps the most widely used homophobic rollerblading joke of the 2000s. There was former pro skateboarder Rob Drydek on his MTV show, showing rollerblading fails and screaming “Blaaaaades!” in a high-pitched voice with every crash. And there was the Dos Equis guy, “The Most Interesting Man in The World,” just saying “no” to rollerblading in a national TV ad.
But before it hit the mainstream, skiers were already hearing about it from snowboarders, who were, of course, mostly skateboarders—or at least heavily influenced by skateboarders.
“I remember a meeting at K2,” says Hattrup, who had gone on from the Stump films to become an executive at K2, which has an inline skate division. “We were in Switzerland with a whole bunch of dealers and press and athletes, and one of the snowboarders stood up and said, ‘What the fuck are we doing selling inline skates?’ He was pissed off that K2 was even in that field. That’s how a lot of them felt.”
On the snow, new school skiers were hearing the same thing as they tried to make their mark on the ski industry and earn the respect of snowboarders in terrain parks with 90-centimeter snow blades on their feet.
“Snowboarders would throw snowballs at skiers, like ‘Get out of our park,’” Levinthal recalled. “The skiers were second-class citizens in the park. It was still on the dorkier side of things.”
It’s a testament to their belief in what they were creating that they didn’t fall into rollerblade-stained oblivion. Even though it had ignited their imagination and was a practice ground for their tricks, freeskiers had to turn their backs on blading.
“Skiers didn’t want to get brought down by an association with a sport on its way out or with anything that was weak,” Levinthal says.
Abandoned by skiers, hated on by skateboarders, and mocked throughout pop culture, rollerblading in North America went underground. It didn’t die, but it could be described for the better part of the last 15 years as having its head in the sand. (It continued to thrive in Europe, where one can find street slalom races in the mountains and “free skating” communities in most major cities.)
Some rollerbladers point to the 2005 elimination of the sport from the X Games as the most significant moment of its ostracization. That effectively ended the concept of a professional rollerblader, and the industry became a shadow of itself.
During this time, bladers wrestled with what to call the sport (inline? rollerblading? blading? rolling?), they couldn’t figure out whether to wear tight or baggy pants, and they were forced to reckon with the term “aggressive inline.”
Interestingly, it is a couple of filmmakers and podcasters from British Columbia have helped the sport shed its baggage and develop a healthier outlook. Mushroom Blading, which is based in the shadow of Stump’s one-time hometown of Whistler, claims to be just “a couple of washed-up rollerbladers from Kamloops, British Columbia.” But they deserve a lot of credit for invigorating blading culture through the 2010s, reframing its perspective, and setting it up for the healthy rebirth we saw in 2020.
It’s safe to assume, given the Mushroom Blading name and the look of the logo, that psychedelics were involved. And, really, that’s just what the sport needed. Mushroom Blading’s cannon of feature films and short edits show two top-flight athletes approaching the fact that they are able to roll around the streetscape with wheels on their feet with no pretension or preconceived notions. It’s all freedom, playfulness, and good humor.
As such, they created an original style of footwork that is technical, hard to follow, and mesmerizing. Their skating shows that all you need is a curb, or just smooth pavement, to challenge yourself and have a fun session. But they also have ramp and rail chops developed as traditional skatepark rollerbladers in the ‘90s.
In a 2018 podcast, Mushroom Blading co-founder Joey McGarry describes realizing how he was heavily influenced by Stump without knowing it. McGarry says Stump, while living in Whistler, helped teach the producer of a public access TV comedy skit show, called Euphoria Emporium that only aired in Kamloops, how to edit. This show was apparently must-see TV for the youth of Kamloops in the ‘90s.
Then there is the Hoax rollerblading films of the mid-90s, produced by T-Bone Films, based in Venice, California. They are considered the most influential rollerblading films of all time.
Watch T-Bone Films’ Hoax 3 Movie:
“There are Greg Stump fingerprints all over [the Hoax films] in terms of the way the interviews are, the shots, the music cues. You’ll see, if you watch a Greg Stump film, you’ll realize it feels like a T-Bone film,” McGarry says. “Greg Stump influenced so much of what I learned about making videos and shooting, and he influenced the early image of rollerblading. The neon flash in his films became the neon flash on rollerblades.”
Cut to the present day; enduring a global pandemic the past year has not been unlike taking psychedelics in that it has taken us out of our routines and created space to reconsider what we’ve been doing, and haven’t been doing, with our time. In this environment, the bullshit reasons that have kept people away from rollerblading have melted away.
Now, as skiers return to blading, this is what they find: a sport whose benefits to skiers never changed and one that may finally have outlived its tortured past.
“Skiers are coming back to it, but it’s a different perspective,” Levinthal says. “I don’t think any of these guys think of it as training. They just want to keep doing what they enjoy doing. It’s a replacement for skiing. It’s like, ‘Why not?’”
Not even Carnie has a good answer for that at this point.
“I think the skateboarding community is much different now than it was then,” Carnie says. “Whatever makes you happy. You want to strap on some rollerblades, roll around the park, have fun. We are fortunate today to have so many facilities to skate at. And I’m happy that [people] are having fun rolling around on the earth.”