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San Diego aggressive rollerbladers return in strength

Big Wheels invade Balboa Park, Liberty Station

Angie Walton was a sponsored skater in the earliest days of what would become known as aggressive inline skating, but she is probably best known for the magazine she founded, Daily Bread.
Angie Walton was a sponsored skater in the earliest days of what would become known as aggressive inline skating, but she is probably best known for the magazine she founded, Daily Bread.

On a Saturday morning in mid-September, I drove to the Park de la Cruz skatepark in City Heights to meet up with a crew of skaters. The sun was shining bright, but it felt like the first break from oppressive heat in quite a while. As a result, the concrete playground was crowded for an early session.

I set up camp near a deep bowl on the park’s western edge. My days of risking bodily injury on a skateboard at one of these locales have long since passed, but even if I had brought my beat-up jammer, I wouldn’t have fit in with this group. I was surrounded by a pack of rollerbladers.

One of them, Danny Lopez, was attempting a grind on a curved ledge feature near the bowl that had caught the attention of the other bladers. While the ledge’s steel-plated edge seemed to be the only surface that could be utilized for grinding tricks, Lopez had scoped out a smaller edge below it that ran the entire length of the feature. This second edge seemed to be there for purely aesthetic purposes. No skateboard, BMX bike, or scooter could use something so small — only be an inch or so in depth — for grinding. But there was Lopez, hopping into the air and locking one soul plate (the flat, plastic plate located between your feet and the wheels on rollerblades) onto the top edge, while simultaneously locking the soul plate on his other foot onto the smaller, shallow edge beneath the main one. As he performed his long grinds, it seemed as if he had unlocked a hidden feature of the skatepark, one made just for bladers.

The other rollerbladers worked the ledge with grind variations before they gravitated toward the bowl. “Tall” Paul Hubbard used his size to tear into the bowl with a degree of power that made him entertaining to watch. He wasn’t the smoothest blader, but the sketchiness of his style, combined with the strength of his riding and unruliness of his beard, gave his grinds and airs an added degree of thrill. The bladers had the bowl nearly to themselves; there was only one skateboarder trading off turns with the inline crew. Everybody played nice.

It was strange to see the rollerbladers outnumbering the skateboarders, because I had been convinced that this type of aggressive rollerblading had basically gone extinct at some point during the past decade. The truth is, it’s still around, though far removed from the sport’s heyday in the late-’90s and early-2000s. Back then, it was more visible in pop-culture via the X-Games and films such as 1993’s Airborne. These days, it is much more underground. If you were a random visitor at the park on that day, you might have been fooled into thinking that San Diego was in the midst of a rollerblading revival. But this is not the case. These bladers just tend to arrive in force.

“I feel like if we roll in large numbers, that’s when we kind of become a threat,” longtime rider (and Lopez’s girlfriend) Dawn Everett explained. “We tried to do a competition at the Linda Vista skatepark about a year ago, and the skateboarders were just not having it. They were very vocal, telling us that we weren’t welcome, and some of them were like 13-year-old kids — but there was like a whole gang of them. I live right next to this park, so I’m like, ‘I see you. You skate this park every single day. You can’t let us have a contest for a few hours?’ It was pretty ridiculous.”

Everett was already a sponsored rollerblader when she won a National Inline Skate Series (NISS) competition in Santa Monica in the mid-’90s. She was still in high school, and her rollerblading career took off. She was able to travel, compete, and get paid. “The money was good when I was skating,” she recalled. “For one year, I think with competition earnings and what I got paid by my sponsors, I made like $25K — as a 17-year-old. And that’s just me as a girl. The guys were getting paid so much more than that. It was ridiculous.”

After high school, Everett stopped competing and became more of a self-described “soul-skater” while she was attending college at Point Loma Nazarene University. “There was just too much pressure,” she said. “Without all that pressure, I was free to keep skating and keep learning.” Post-college, Everett moved to Northern California. She would often go blading after dropping her son off at school, but stopped around 2005. When she moved back down to San Diego around six years ago, she reconnected with some older riders she knew from her Point Loma Nazarene days. When her ailing knee isn’t acting up — which she said is “a good part of the time, now that I’m older” — she rides with this local crew. If her knee is aching, she can often be found filming other riders. “Everyone likes getting their clips, my boyfriend especially,” she said. “I always try to make sure I don’t miss his tricks.”

Daily Bread days

Like Everett, Angie Walton is another longtime rider who has to limit her time on skates these days, due to a body that no longer fully cooperates. “Somedays I can’t even walk on my foot at all,” she said. “The last time I put my skates on, we took a trip to Laguna Beach. We tried to skate, and I just ended up in so much pain that we had to sort of hobble back to the car and put sandals on so I could give my heel a break.”

Daily Bread magazine became the go-to publication for the aggressive inline skaters, and likely helped give blader culture a true sense of unity and identity.

Walton was a sponsored skater in the earliest days of what would become known as aggressive inline skating, but she is probably best known for the magazine she founded — Daily Bread. It became the go-to publication for the aggressive inline skaters, and likely helped give blader culture a true sense of unity and identity. It’s not too far-removed from what Thrasher Magazine arguably did for skateboarding. “It started with a handful of people here and a handful of people in Australia,” Walton explained. “It started with people who didn’t give a fuck about being uncool, and who put them on, fell in love, and that was the end of that. They didn’t fit in with skate dancing. They didn’t fit in with hockey. They came from skateboard roots. They came from BMX roots. And they just found something they liked and did it. I’m very proud that’s the roots, because that’s the nerds. That’s the people who are truly creative and passionate, and just are not doing it because it’s cool.”

The earliest issues of Daily Bread were produced in Venice Beach, but by 1995, Walton had moved the magazine’s operations down to San Diego. The city became a mecca for the aggressive rollerblading scene during the magazine’s run, and Walton cites 1999 as a particularly epic year for the rollerblading industry. The magazine had global distribution and was being shipped to subscribers in Iceland, Germany, Japan, Korea and South Africa.

Four years later, Daily Bread got rocked by an industry sales slump, combined with the rise of digital media. “Everyone was getting hit hard with the recession, and skate sales were declining. When people were kind of feeling the heat, the first thing they would do is put down their hobbies and their extraneous purchases. All the companies were feeling it. Then here’s the internet, where they’re getting charged $100 for an ad, and why are they gonna pay $2400 for a full-page ad in a magazine? People were just hurting. Our ad sales went from like $100,000 an issue to like $30,000 an issue, and I had to figure out a way to survive on that, because our print run was enormous — it was global. Our print bill alone was like $40,000. Add payroll onto that, and you’re close to $100,000.”

Opie Tran is yet another old-school skater who currently hangs with the San Diego bladers. Before he went off to college circa 2003, he worked at Daily Bread for a short spell.

Opie Tran is yet another old-school skater who currently hangs with the San Diego bladers. Before he went off to college circa 2003, he worked at Daily Bread for a short spell. “I was doing ad sales, so basically my job was to call up random companies and random pros and stuff like that, and ask for money,” he shared. “I just remember it was really depressing. I was like, ‘Man, none of these people want to pay up.’ You could tell that blading was pretty much on the way out.” After 13 years in print, Daily Bread ceased operations on June 6, 2006.

Stop, no more hammers time

While attending Long Beach State, Tran became interested in music and stepped away from rollerblading. By the time he returned to San Diego circa 2007, he had picked up biking to stay fit. But after getting laid off from a job as a preschool teacher, Tran started tutoring autistic children. One of his students happened to live across the street from the skatepark in Paradise Hills. “I remember thinking that I should go blading, because there was a skatepark right there,” he said. “So, one day I skated there by myself, and as I was leaving, Gene [Galang] came up to me and was like, ‘Hey, are you leaving?’ and then I ended up skating with him. I remember when I was skating with him, I was like, ‘Damn, this guy is amazing. He’s one of the best skaters I’ve ever met.’”

Tran, who had grown up skating with a small crew of friends in southeast San Diego, was surprisingly isolated from the ’90s blading explosion here. He stressed that his skate posse at that time was “never good” and “sucked. We would just skate little tiny things. To us, we were just in our own little universe, so we didn’t really have anyone to compare to except for random videos we saw. It was more just to hang out.”

The terrain on Big Wheel Wednesdays may not be as difficult to navigate as bowls and half-pipes, but Steven Badger did mention some “small hill bombs” and areas with faster downhills that might intimidate novice riders.

Galang introduced Tran to skaters whose skills were leaps and bounds above his own. “I would have asked for any of their autographs back in the day,” Tran said. He started to ride with them regularly, and was progressing more in his mid-20s than he ever had before. “I did my first legit handrail when I was 30,” he said. “When I met Gene is when I started getting good. Now, I feel like I’m the best I’ve ever been.”

Gene Galang has been skating for over 25 years. He was present, along with Tran, at the skatepark the morning I ventured out to meet up with the bladers. Unlike Tran and Everett, he has never left the sport for any extended period. In his eyes, the decline of the rollerblading industry in the 2000s resulted in a collection of remaining core skaters whose dedication to the sport was unparalleled. “That’s what made it cooler,” he said. “The people I met through it were still juiced on it. They still stuck with it. I’m 39 now. A lot of my friends dropped off and stopped doing it, because life gets in the way. But I met so many more people. It didn’t decline for me at all.”

Galang’s body is still intact, even though he was part of the 2000s era of rollerblading known for an abundance of “hammers” — large jumps, grinds and drops with amplified injury potential. “During that time, people were going nuts and hucking themselves everywhere,” he said. “For a certain time, that was it. All we wanted to do was one-up each other and find the biggest stuff to jump off of and find the biggest rails. It was crazy.” He doesn’t go as big as often these days, but he added that, “once the adrenaline is going, I can still get down.” But he does note that “I have to stretch for like 40 minutes before I skate now. You can’t just get up and go anymore.”

Also capping his freedom to skate these days: a family. You would think the homemade skatepark he built in his backyard would have solved this problem, but no. “I call it the Dojo, and I don’t even get to skate that because the kids are always trying to play, too. So they’re in the way. I even gotta schedule skating for myself. You should see my setup. I have everything back there. I still need to make time for that.”

Big Wheel Wednesdays

When we spoke, Galang mentioned a weekly rollerblading ride through Balboa Park known as Big Wheel Wednesdays, organized by another local blader named Steven Badger. The ride was actually halted for a long while due to covid, but is now going strong again. As opposed to skating parks or street spots where bladers will attempt tricks on a specific feature repeatedly, Big Wheel Wednesday is more akin to a run down a ski slope. You can do a grind on a ledge or jump a staircase along the way, but if you miss, the group isn’t stopping and turning around so you can try again.

Gene Galang has never left the sport for any extended period.

“I try to structure it less like an aggressive session and a little bit more urban/recreational; if everybody is at least intermediate or better, we just blast through it,” Badger said. “We’ll get done within an hour. I would say our average is about four people that show up. But, I think three weeks ago we had 10 people show up. Sometimes, we’ll get a roller skater or two. And there are some people that are typically aggressive skaters who are just there to roll on the big wheels. Actually, that’s kind of the core.”

The terrain on Big Wheel Wednesdays may not be as difficult to navigate as bowls and half-pipes, but Badger did mention some “small hill bombs” and areas with faster downhills that might intimidate novice riders. He said there are usually alternative routes for people who aren’t comfortable doing these downhill sections, especially since they are often riding them at night. “When I do this, I tell people, ‘Wear your pads, and get a headlamp or a flashlight so you can see what’s happening, because it is going to be dark at some point if it’s not dark when we start.’”

Even though his roots are with aggressive skating, Badger’s enthusiasm for big-wheel rides is palpable. At the height of the covid lockdowns, he took advantage of downtown’s barren streets and sidewalks to create his own personal rollerblading utopia.

“I didn’t do much aggressive skating during covid because I had a bunch of family that was high-risk, including my wife,” Badger explained. “I was actually skating with a mask on, and I stayed away from the skateparks. But I went into downtown at night when it was completely a ghost town. I would go at 10 pm and just skate and then get back before midnight and nobody was out at all. It was eerie. No cars. Almost no people, not even transients. It was crazy. Right down the middle of the street, or on the sidewalk — it didn’t matter. The cops weren’t even there.”

Badger is another rider who is a holdover from the 1990s/2000s era of rollerblading. But his trajectory is unique. He grew up in Spring Valley and was blading recreationally for four or five years before he got into the aggressive style of riding. He joined the Air Force after high school and was stationed in England from 1997-1999. On a whim, he ended up taking his skates overseas. Over the next two years, he would not only ride skateparks all over England, but also at parks and skate spots in France, Italy, Switzerland and Holland. “It’s the closest I feel I could have gotten to pro without all the benefits of being flown out there myself by a major company and getting paid to skate. I just had to pay my own way,” he said.

Badger took a stab at competing and going pro when he came back to the States. He was competing in amateur Aggressive Skaters Association events and made it to the finals in 2003, where he placed 51st out of 100 skaters at the championships. “It kind of made me think, ‘I’m good, but I’m not quite that good.’” He stopped competing, but kept riding until he hung up his skates around 2007. When he got back into the sport in 2016, there was a bit of a learning curve. “I’ve gotten a lot of stuff back, but some of the more difficult things I can’t do — like the big spins on quarter pipes or just over launch ramps. But there are some things that I have gotten better at now than I used to be. I think it took maybe six months to get to a reasonable, ‘Oh yeah, I suck still, but at least I can air over the coping, and I’ve got most of my safety grinds back, so this is cool.’” That was after two years as a couch potato. “I was roughly 170 before, and when I back got on my skates, I was like 195. For me, that’s pretty big. I’m still at like 185 or something right now, but I’m more lean, and I’ve got more leg muscle.”

Lately, he has started a new big wheel night ride that begins at Liberty Station, weaves through downtown, and even includes the added bonus of a downhill bomb inside the Hilton parking garage. “It’s a fun route because there are hardly any streetlights and it’s mostly flat, so I don’t have to worry about going uphill. I love going downhill; I don’t like going up.”

Them’s done good

When we spoke, Angie Walton was adamant that the current aggressive skating movement no longer needs her. “People are always telling me, ‘Do Daily Bread again,’” she explained, “and I’m like, ‘You don’t understand. You don’t need me. You need you. You need you to do what I did as a passionate skater. You need to do it for yourself now.’ I’m not that thing anymore. I don’t have that voice. I can’t even put my damn skates on! I’m not gonna sit here and be the voice of an industry when I have no right to be.”

Jon Julio was mulling taking a job with the postal service when he took a trip to China to explore options for manufacturing his own skates.

Jon Julio may not be starting a new, aggressive rollerblading print publication, but the longtime skater is now running his own rollerblading company. Skater-owned companies are a surprising rarity in the world of inline skating. It may have something to do with the fact that the sport was so young when it exploded in the ’90s; there were no prior-generation skaters around to run the business side. Much of the ’80s skateboarding explosion was driven by companies such as Powell Peralta and Alva, which had ’70s pro-skaters (Stacy Peralta and Tony Alva, respectively) providing their operations with automatic street cred and a direct line as to how skaters actually thought. Today, most of the bladers I spoke to for this article mentioned Julio’s company, Them, as a beacon of hope for the industry.

“He was a pro back in the ’90s, and he has a lot of respect from everybody in the world,” Badger explained. “A part of the reason why his company has made it is because he has been in the industry for so long. He was a teenager back in the ’90s. He’s always been good, and he is still good to this day. He’s very business conscious and he’s very good at marketing. So when he decided to put the company together, people jumped on board very fast, even though what he put out was an old-mold skate from the ’90s that he just sort of refurbished and made his own. He has since made a lot of upgrades and improved on it dramatically, but he’s got a lot of respect in the community, so his company took off real quick.”

Julio was mulling taking a job with the postal service when he took a trip to China to explore options for manufacturing his own skates. He found a facility that could make it work, and then came back to the U.S. to attempt to fill pre-orders. “I had put the product that I made samples of online on my e-commerce site, and we raised $150,000 within three days,” he said. “With that money, I was able to fulfill what we needed to do to get our first production of skates here, keep the lights on, and get the ball rolling to launch the company.”

That was 2018, and Them has been doing fine ever since. There was a noticeable uptick during the holiday season of 2019, but business really exploded when covid hit. “We were like, ‘Oh God, no one is gonna wanna shop or buy anything. Everyone is gonna be paranoid and take care of their money,’” Julio said. “It was the opposite. Everyone wound up being home, and everyone was figuring out, ‘What can I do at home that I can do with my family?’ or ‘What can I do individually as a person that I can still be outside?’ People being at home injected a lot of money back into skating. It actually helped.” Even the supply-chain gods seemed to be on Them’s side. “I somehow lucked out and we actually received a really big [shipping] container that got us through a year, through covid,” he said. “It arrived in April or May [2020.] We really haven’t looked back since that delivery.”

In Julio’s eyes, the industry is back on track and the future looks even better. “I joke around with a couple of friends of mine — ‘Rollerblading just started last year. This is the first year.’ It’s just the beginning.”

A boost would certainly help, since the actual number of active aggressive rollerbladers in San Diego is undeniably low. Tran estimates it’s at least 100, while Badger thinks it’s lower – “at least 30 active aggressive skaters.” Either way, neither seem like large numbers for a city that was at one time an industry epicenter.

Most of the current riders are ’90s and 2000s veterans who are now in their 30s and 40s. Perhaps this new industry uptick will bring some young blood into the local fold. But how to spark interest? Walton spoke highly of Mushroom Blading, a YouTube channel that she feels is “an excellent voice for the industry.” Badger mentioned a YouTube skateboarding channel, Braille Skateboarding, that often features rollerbladers as having great crossover potential. “The world is going toward YouTube and all the online things like Instagram and Tik Tok,” Badger said. “That’s the way of the future for people to find this stuff, and I know it has helped for sure.”

Then there’s the Blading Cup, Jon Julio’s annual competition in his home base of Santa Ana. He used to struggle to raise $3000-$4000 for the prize pool. This year, the winners are leaving a bit happier. “It’s the biggest skating event in North America,” Julio said when we spoke. “This is going to be our biggest event ever. We’ve raised about $40,000 just for the event, and we are still two months out. It’s gonna probably be the biggest prize pool we have ever raised. The biggest thing is that the roller-skating industry is also involved. Three or four of the biggest brands in roller-skating are sponsoring the event, so we’re going to have a pretty eclectic group of people out there. A good mixture of both industries.”

“That’s a thing I said with my shoes on.”

I met up with a crew of bladers at the Paradise Hills skatepark a couple of days before the Blading Cup was set to go down. (This was the park where Tran first met Galang for those keeping track, and Tran even pointed out the apartments across the street from the park where he was working as a tutor on that fateful day.) It was much more of a throwback to ’90s skateparks than the concrete-intensive City Heights park. A wooden mini-ramp, wooden quarter pipe, wooden funbox with some wooden rails… wood, wood, and more wood.

Badger showed up for the session and seemed right at home in the wooden wonderland. He was hucking spins over the gap of the funbox like 2003 had never ended. He spent some time in the air over the quarter pipe as well, and left a slick of sweat on the mini-ramp after he missed a connection on a grind and slid on his back down one of the walls.

Galang was in attendance, even though a cracked sprinkler head had soaked his Dojo and derailed plans for us to all meet up in his backyard. His stylish grinds on the quarter pipes were a highlight of the session, and his effortless grinds on the ledge on top of the funbox were notable as well. Like so many skateboarders and surfers who look at home no matter what they’re doing on their boards, Galang has the gift of great style.

Pro-Division winner Montre Livingston doing a misty flip over a truck at the 2021 Blading Cup in Santa Ana.

I noticed Tran was working grinds on the ledge on top of the funbox. I tried to talk him into doing a particular trick for a photo op, the same way that Stacy Peralta might have tried to convince Lance Mountain in 1984 that riding your skateboard off the roof of your house would become a classic moment in the Bones Brigade Video Show. He wasn’t buying it. “Sometimes I’ll go around and see a skate spot, and it’s the most amazing thing, and then I’ll come back later on with my skates on and it’s nearly impossible,” Tran explained. “I have to remind myself, ‘That’s a thing I said with my shoes on.’ If I’ve been drinking, it gets a little heightened from there. I just have to check myself sometimes and remember there are things I say when I have my shoes on, and there are things I say when I have my skates on, and they don’t always match up.”

Lopez was skating at Paradise Hills as well but called it a bit early due to some close calls. He was trying to keep his body intact for the Blading Cup, where he would be competing in the open competition. He made it up to Santa Ana with Everett in full health and competed in the open as planned. “There were five people per heat for five minutes,” Lopez explained. “We had 120 people, so we had to get through 120 people on Saturday. The top eight people would advance to the final. So, there were a lot of younger kids just hucking their bodies and doing crazy things.” He didn’t advance, but he enjoyed the opportunity to show off his skills to the crowd. After his session, he was blindsided by spectators who complimented him on his riding. “It kind of stunned me,” he said.

Meanwhile, Everett was busy keeping tabs on all the skaters, since she was serving as one of the judges for the event. It’s also notable that Everett was the first female judge for the Blading Cup since its inception. “The ‘bladies’ [ladies] competition is where I feel like I was the most helpful, which is how it should be,” Everett said later. “They weren’t going to advance the girl from Chile [Catherine Reyes] into the finals, and I put my foot down and was like, ‘She did enough. The tricks she did were hard. We need this high level in the finals.’ So, they put her through and then she won first place.”

Julio later said that each day of the event drew an estimated 1000 spectators, many of whom could be seen viewing the competition from a nearby, multi-level parking garage. The prize pool, $23,100, did turn out to be a record high for the competition, and it was split by the those who finished in the top three of the various events. The winner of the pro division, Montre Livingston, pocketed the largest chunk of it: $10,000.

“The city was really excited with how smoothly it went,” Julio explained. “It boosts the economy up with all the businesses around here, so they’re very happy with the overall success and would like to do it again, so we’re going to do it two times. We are going to do one in the summer and one in the winter/fall like we did this year.”

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Angie Walton was a sponsored skater in the earliest days of what would become known as aggressive inline skating, but she is probably best known for the magazine she founded, Daily Bread.
Angie Walton was a sponsored skater in the earliest days of what would become known as aggressive inline skating, but she is probably best known for the magazine she founded, Daily Bread.

On a Saturday morning in mid-September, I drove to the Park de la Cruz skatepark in City Heights to meet up with a crew of skaters. The sun was shining bright, but it felt like the first break from oppressive heat in quite a while. As a result, the concrete playground was crowded for an early session.

I set up camp near a deep bowl on the park’s western edge. My days of risking bodily injury on a skateboard at one of these locales have long since passed, but even if I had brought my beat-up jammer, I wouldn’t have fit in with this group. I was surrounded by a pack of rollerbladers.

One of them, Danny Lopez, was attempting a grind on a curved ledge feature near the bowl that had caught the attention of the other bladers. While the ledge’s steel-plated edge seemed to be the only surface that could be utilized for grinding tricks, Lopez had scoped out a smaller edge below it that ran the entire length of the feature. This second edge seemed to be there for purely aesthetic purposes. No skateboard, BMX bike, or scooter could use something so small — only be an inch or so in depth — for grinding. But there was Lopez, hopping into the air and locking one soul plate (the flat, plastic plate located between your feet and the wheels on rollerblades) onto the top edge, while simultaneously locking the soul plate on his other foot onto the smaller, shallow edge beneath the main one. As he performed his long grinds, it seemed as if he had unlocked a hidden feature of the skatepark, one made just for bladers.

The other rollerbladers worked the ledge with grind variations before they gravitated toward the bowl. “Tall” Paul Hubbard used his size to tear into the bowl with a degree of power that made him entertaining to watch. He wasn’t the smoothest blader, but the sketchiness of his style, combined with the strength of his riding and unruliness of his beard, gave his grinds and airs an added degree of thrill. The bladers had the bowl nearly to themselves; there was only one skateboarder trading off turns with the inline crew. Everybody played nice.

It was strange to see the rollerbladers outnumbering the skateboarders, because I had been convinced that this type of aggressive rollerblading had basically gone extinct at some point during the past decade. The truth is, it’s still around, though far removed from the sport’s heyday in the late-’90s and early-2000s. Back then, it was more visible in pop-culture via the X-Games and films such as 1993’s Airborne. These days, it is much more underground. If you were a random visitor at the park on that day, you might have been fooled into thinking that San Diego was in the midst of a rollerblading revival. But this is not the case. These bladers just tend to arrive in force.

“I feel like if we roll in large numbers, that’s when we kind of become a threat,” longtime rider (and Lopez’s girlfriend) Dawn Everett explained. “We tried to do a competition at the Linda Vista skatepark about a year ago, and the skateboarders were just not having it. They were very vocal, telling us that we weren’t welcome, and some of them were like 13-year-old kids — but there was like a whole gang of them. I live right next to this park, so I’m like, ‘I see you. You skate this park every single day. You can’t let us have a contest for a few hours?’ It was pretty ridiculous.”

Everett was already a sponsored rollerblader when she won a National Inline Skate Series (NISS) competition in Santa Monica in the mid-’90s. She was still in high school, and her rollerblading career took off. She was able to travel, compete, and get paid. “The money was good when I was skating,” she recalled. “For one year, I think with competition earnings and what I got paid by my sponsors, I made like $25K — as a 17-year-old. And that’s just me as a girl. The guys were getting paid so much more than that. It was ridiculous.”

After high school, Everett stopped competing and became more of a self-described “soul-skater” while she was attending college at Point Loma Nazarene University. “There was just too much pressure,” she said. “Without all that pressure, I was free to keep skating and keep learning.” Post-college, Everett moved to Northern California. She would often go blading after dropping her son off at school, but stopped around 2005. When she moved back down to San Diego around six years ago, she reconnected with some older riders she knew from her Point Loma Nazarene days. When her ailing knee isn’t acting up — which she said is “a good part of the time, now that I’m older” — she rides with this local crew. If her knee is aching, she can often be found filming other riders. “Everyone likes getting their clips, my boyfriend especially,” she said. “I always try to make sure I don’t miss his tricks.”

Daily Bread days

Like Everett, Angie Walton is another longtime rider who has to limit her time on skates these days, due to a body that no longer fully cooperates. “Somedays I can’t even walk on my foot at all,” she said. “The last time I put my skates on, we took a trip to Laguna Beach. We tried to skate, and I just ended up in so much pain that we had to sort of hobble back to the car and put sandals on so I could give my heel a break.”

Daily Bread magazine became the go-to publication for the aggressive inline skaters, and likely helped give blader culture a true sense of unity and identity.

Walton was a sponsored skater in the earliest days of what would become known as aggressive inline skating, but she is probably best known for the magazine she founded — Daily Bread. It became the go-to publication for the aggressive inline skaters, and likely helped give blader culture a true sense of unity and identity. It’s not too far-removed from what Thrasher Magazine arguably did for skateboarding. “It started with a handful of people here and a handful of people in Australia,” Walton explained. “It started with people who didn’t give a fuck about being uncool, and who put them on, fell in love, and that was the end of that. They didn’t fit in with skate dancing. They didn’t fit in with hockey. They came from skateboard roots. They came from BMX roots. And they just found something they liked and did it. I’m very proud that’s the roots, because that’s the nerds. That’s the people who are truly creative and passionate, and just are not doing it because it’s cool.”

The earliest issues of Daily Bread were produced in Venice Beach, but by 1995, Walton had moved the magazine’s operations down to San Diego. The city became a mecca for the aggressive rollerblading scene during the magazine’s run, and Walton cites 1999 as a particularly epic year for the rollerblading industry. The magazine had global distribution and was being shipped to subscribers in Iceland, Germany, Japan, Korea and South Africa.

Four years later, Daily Bread got rocked by an industry sales slump, combined with the rise of digital media. “Everyone was getting hit hard with the recession, and skate sales were declining. When people were kind of feeling the heat, the first thing they would do is put down their hobbies and their extraneous purchases. All the companies were feeling it. Then here’s the internet, where they’re getting charged $100 for an ad, and why are they gonna pay $2400 for a full-page ad in a magazine? People were just hurting. Our ad sales went from like $100,000 an issue to like $30,000 an issue, and I had to figure out a way to survive on that, because our print run was enormous — it was global. Our print bill alone was like $40,000. Add payroll onto that, and you’re close to $100,000.”

Opie Tran is yet another old-school skater who currently hangs with the San Diego bladers. Before he went off to college circa 2003, he worked at Daily Bread for a short spell.

Opie Tran is yet another old-school skater who currently hangs with the San Diego bladers. Before he went off to college circa 2003, he worked at Daily Bread for a short spell. “I was doing ad sales, so basically my job was to call up random companies and random pros and stuff like that, and ask for money,” he shared. “I just remember it was really depressing. I was like, ‘Man, none of these people want to pay up.’ You could tell that blading was pretty much on the way out.” After 13 years in print, Daily Bread ceased operations on June 6, 2006.

Stop, no more hammers time

While attending Long Beach State, Tran became interested in music and stepped away from rollerblading. By the time he returned to San Diego circa 2007, he had picked up biking to stay fit. But after getting laid off from a job as a preschool teacher, Tran started tutoring autistic children. One of his students happened to live across the street from the skatepark in Paradise Hills. “I remember thinking that I should go blading, because there was a skatepark right there,” he said. “So, one day I skated there by myself, and as I was leaving, Gene [Galang] came up to me and was like, ‘Hey, are you leaving?’ and then I ended up skating with him. I remember when I was skating with him, I was like, ‘Damn, this guy is amazing. He’s one of the best skaters I’ve ever met.’”

Tran, who had grown up skating with a small crew of friends in southeast San Diego, was surprisingly isolated from the ’90s blading explosion here. He stressed that his skate posse at that time was “never good” and “sucked. We would just skate little tiny things. To us, we were just in our own little universe, so we didn’t really have anyone to compare to except for random videos we saw. It was more just to hang out.”

The terrain on Big Wheel Wednesdays may not be as difficult to navigate as bowls and half-pipes, but Steven Badger did mention some “small hill bombs” and areas with faster downhills that might intimidate novice riders.

Galang introduced Tran to skaters whose skills were leaps and bounds above his own. “I would have asked for any of their autographs back in the day,” Tran said. He started to ride with them regularly, and was progressing more in his mid-20s than he ever had before. “I did my first legit handrail when I was 30,” he said. “When I met Gene is when I started getting good. Now, I feel like I’m the best I’ve ever been.”

Gene Galang has been skating for over 25 years. He was present, along with Tran, at the skatepark the morning I ventured out to meet up with the bladers. Unlike Tran and Everett, he has never left the sport for any extended period. In his eyes, the decline of the rollerblading industry in the 2000s resulted in a collection of remaining core skaters whose dedication to the sport was unparalleled. “That’s what made it cooler,” he said. “The people I met through it were still juiced on it. They still stuck with it. I’m 39 now. A lot of my friends dropped off and stopped doing it, because life gets in the way. But I met so many more people. It didn’t decline for me at all.”

Galang’s body is still intact, even though he was part of the 2000s era of rollerblading known for an abundance of “hammers” — large jumps, grinds and drops with amplified injury potential. “During that time, people were going nuts and hucking themselves everywhere,” he said. “For a certain time, that was it. All we wanted to do was one-up each other and find the biggest stuff to jump off of and find the biggest rails. It was crazy.” He doesn’t go as big as often these days, but he added that, “once the adrenaline is going, I can still get down.” But he does note that “I have to stretch for like 40 minutes before I skate now. You can’t just get up and go anymore.”

Also capping his freedom to skate these days: a family. You would think the homemade skatepark he built in his backyard would have solved this problem, but no. “I call it the Dojo, and I don’t even get to skate that because the kids are always trying to play, too. So they’re in the way. I even gotta schedule skating for myself. You should see my setup. I have everything back there. I still need to make time for that.”

Big Wheel Wednesdays

When we spoke, Galang mentioned a weekly rollerblading ride through Balboa Park known as Big Wheel Wednesdays, organized by another local blader named Steven Badger. The ride was actually halted for a long while due to covid, but is now going strong again. As opposed to skating parks or street spots where bladers will attempt tricks on a specific feature repeatedly, Big Wheel Wednesday is more akin to a run down a ski slope. You can do a grind on a ledge or jump a staircase along the way, but if you miss, the group isn’t stopping and turning around so you can try again.

Gene Galang has never left the sport for any extended period.

“I try to structure it less like an aggressive session and a little bit more urban/recreational; if everybody is at least intermediate or better, we just blast through it,” Badger said. “We’ll get done within an hour. I would say our average is about four people that show up. But, I think three weeks ago we had 10 people show up. Sometimes, we’ll get a roller skater or two. And there are some people that are typically aggressive skaters who are just there to roll on the big wheels. Actually, that’s kind of the core.”

The terrain on Big Wheel Wednesdays may not be as difficult to navigate as bowls and half-pipes, but Badger did mention some “small hill bombs” and areas with faster downhills that might intimidate novice riders. He said there are usually alternative routes for people who aren’t comfortable doing these downhill sections, especially since they are often riding them at night. “When I do this, I tell people, ‘Wear your pads, and get a headlamp or a flashlight so you can see what’s happening, because it is going to be dark at some point if it’s not dark when we start.’”

Even though his roots are with aggressive skating, Badger’s enthusiasm for big-wheel rides is palpable. At the height of the covid lockdowns, he took advantage of downtown’s barren streets and sidewalks to create his own personal rollerblading utopia.

“I didn’t do much aggressive skating during covid because I had a bunch of family that was high-risk, including my wife,” Badger explained. “I was actually skating with a mask on, and I stayed away from the skateparks. But I went into downtown at night when it was completely a ghost town. I would go at 10 pm and just skate and then get back before midnight and nobody was out at all. It was eerie. No cars. Almost no people, not even transients. It was crazy. Right down the middle of the street, or on the sidewalk — it didn’t matter. The cops weren’t even there.”

Badger is another rider who is a holdover from the 1990s/2000s era of rollerblading. But his trajectory is unique. He grew up in Spring Valley and was blading recreationally for four or five years before he got into the aggressive style of riding. He joined the Air Force after high school and was stationed in England from 1997-1999. On a whim, he ended up taking his skates overseas. Over the next two years, he would not only ride skateparks all over England, but also at parks and skate spots in France, Italy, Switzerland and Holland. “It’s the closest I feel I could have gotten to pro without all the benefits of being flown out there myself by a major company and getting paid to skate. I just had to pay my own way,” he said.

Badger took a stab at competing and going pro when he came back to the States. He was competing in amateur Aggressive Skaters Association events and made it to the finals in 2003, where he placed 51st out of 100 skaters at the championships. “It kind of made me think, ‘I’m good, but I’m not quite that good.’” He stopped competing, but kept riding until he hung up his skates around 2007. When he got back into the sport in 2016, there was a bit of a learning curve. “I’ve gotten a lot of stuff back, but some of the more difficult things I can’t do — like the big spins on quarter pipes or just over launch ramps. But there are some things that I have gotten better at now than I used to be. I think it took maybe six months to get to a reasonable, ‘Oh yeah, I suck still, but at least I can air over the coping, and I’ve got most of my safety grinds back, so this is cool.’” That was after two years as a couch potato. “I was roughly 170 before, and when I back got on my skates, I was like 195. For me, that’s pretty big. I’m still at like 185 or something right now, but I’m more lean, and I’ve got more leg muscle.”

Lately, he has started a new big wheel night ride that begins at Liberty Station, weaves through downtown, and even includes the added bonus of a downhill bomb inside the Hilton parking garage. “It’s a fun route because there are hardly any streetlights and it’s mostly flat, so I don’t have to worry about going uphill. I love going downhill; I don’t like going up.”

Them’s done good

When we spoke, Angie Walton was adamant that the current aggressive skating movement no longer needs her. “People are always telling me, ‘Do Daily Bread again,’” she explained, “and I’m like, ‘You don’t understand. You don’t need me. You need you. You need you to do what I did as a passionate skater. You need to do it for yourself now.’ I’m not that thing anymore. I don’t have that voice. I can’t even put my damn skates on! I’m not gonna sit here and be the voice of an industry when I have no right to be.”

Jon Julio was mulling taking a job with the postal service when he took a trip to China to explore options for manufacturing his own skates.

Jon Julio may not be starting a new, aggressive rollerblading print publication, but the longtime skater is now running his own rollerblading company. Skater-owned companies are a surprising rarity in the world of inline skating. It may have something to do with the fact that the sport was so young when it exploded in the ’90s; there were no prior-generation skaters around to run the business side. Much of the ’80s skateboarding explosion was driven by companies such as Powell Peralta and Alva, which had ’70s pro-skaters (Stacy Peralta and Tony Alva, respectively) providing their operations with automatic street cred and a direct line as to how skaters actually thought. Today, most of the bladers I spoke to for this article mentioned Julio’s company, Them, as a beacon of hope for the industry.

“He was a pro back in the ’90s, and he has a lot of respect from everybody in the world,” Badger explained. “A part of the reason why his company has made it is because he has been in the industry for so long. He was a teenager back in the ’90s. He’s always been good, and he is still good to this day. He’s very business conscious and he’s very good at marketing. So when he decided to put the company together, people jumped on board very fast, even though what he put out was an old-mold skate from the ’90s that he just sort of refurbished and made his own. He has since made a lot of upgrades and improved on it dramatically, but he’s got a lot of respect in the community, so his company took off real quick.”

Julio was mulling taking a job with the postal service when he took a trip to China to explore options for manufacturing his own skates. He found a facility that could make it work, and then came back to the U.S. to attempt to fill pre-orders. “I had put the product that I made samples of online on my e-commerce site, and we raised $150,000 within three days,” he said. “With that money, I was able to fulfill what we needed to do to get our first production of skates here, keep the lights on, and get the ball rolling to launch the company.”

That was 2018, and Them has been doing fine ever since. There was a noticeable uptick during the holiday season of 2019, but business really exploded when covid hit. “We were like, ‘Oh God, no one is gonna wanna shop or buy anything. Everyone is gonna be paranoid and take care of their money,’” Julio said. “It was the opposite. Everyone wound up being home, and everyone was figuring out, ‘What can I do at home that I can do with my family?’ or ‘What can I do individually as a person that I can still be outside?’ People being at home injected a lot of money back into skating. It actually helped.” Even the supply-chain gods seemed to be on Them’s side. “I somehow lucked out and we actually received a really big [shipping] container that got us through a year, through covid,” he said. “It arrived in April or May [2020.] We really haven’t looked back since that delivery.”

In Julio’s eyes, the industry is back on track and the future looks even better. “I joke around with a couple of friends of mine — ‘Rollerblading just started last year. This is the first year.’ It’s just the beginning.”

A boost would certainly help, since the actual number of active aggressive rollerbladers in San Diego is undeniably low. Tran estimates it’s at least 100, while Badger thinks it’s lower – “at least 30 active aggressive skaters.” Either way, neither seem like large numbers for a city that was at one time an industry epicenter.

Most of the current riders are ’90s and 2000s veterans who are now in their 30s and 40s. Perhaps this new industry uptick will bring some young blood into the local fold. But how to spark interest? Walton spoke highly of Mushroom Blading, a YouTube channel that she feels is “an excellent voice for the industry.” Badger mentioned a YouTube skateboarding channel, Braille Skateboarding, that often features rollerbladers as having great crossover potential. “The world is going toward YouTube and all the online things like Instagram and Tik Tok,” Badger said. “That’s the way of the future for people to find this stuff, and I know it has helped for sure.”

Then there’s the Blading Cup, Jon Julio’s annual competition in his home base of Santa Ana. He used to struggle to raise $3000-$4000 for the prize pool. This year, the winners are leaving a bit happier. “It’s the biggest skating event in North America,” Julio said when we spoke. “This is going to be our biggest event ever. We’ve raised about $40,000 just for the event, and we are still two months out. It’s gonna probably be the biggest prize pool we have ever raised. The biggest thing is that the roller-skating industry is also involved. Three or four of the biggest brands in roller-skating are sponsoring the event, so we’re going to have a pretty eclectic group of people out there. A good mixture of both industries.”

“That’s a thing I said with my shoes on.”

I met up with a crew of bladers at the Paradise Hills skatepark a couple of days before the Blading Cup was set to go down. (This was the park where Tran first met Galang for those keeping track, and Tran even pointed out the apartments across the street from the park where he was working as a tutor on that fateful day.) It was much more of a throwback to ’90s skateparks than the concrete-intensive City Heights park. A wooden mini-ramp, wooden quarter pipe, wooden funbox with some wooden rails… wood, wood, and more wood.

Badger showed up for the session and seemed right at home in the wooden wonderland. He was hucking spins over the gap of the funbox like 2003 had never ended. He spent some time in the air over the quarter pipe as well, and left a slick of sweat on the mini-ramp after he missed a connection on a grind and slid on his back down one of the walls.

Galang was in attendance, even though a cracked sprinkler head had soaked his Dojo and derailed plans for us to all meet up in his backyard. His stylish grinds on the quarter pipes were a highlight of the session, and his effortless grinds on the ledge on top of the funbox were notable as well. Like so many skateboarders and surfers who look at home no matter what they’re doing on their boards, Galang has the gift of great style.

Pro-Division winner Montre Livingston doing a misty flip over a truck at the 2021 Blading Cup in Santa Ana.

I noticed Tran was working grinds on the ledge on top of the funbox. I tried to talk him into doing a particular trick for a photo op, the same way that Stacy Peralta might have tried to convince Lance Mountain in 1984 that riding your skateboard off the roof of your house would become a classic moment in the Bones Brigade Video Show. He wasn’t buying it. “Sometimes I’ll go around and see a skate spot, and it’s the most amazing thing, and then I’ll come back later on with my skates on and it’s nearly impossible,” Tran explained. “I have to remind myself, ‘That’s a thing I said with my shoes on.’ If I’ve been drinking, it gets a little heightened from there. I just have to check myself sometimes and remember there are things I say when I have my shoes on, and there are things I say when I have my skates on, and they don’t always match up.”

Lopez was skating at Paradise Hills as well but called it a bit early due to some close calls. He was trying to keep his body intact for the Blading Cup, where he would be competing in the open competition. He made it up to Santa Ana with Everett in full health and competed in the open as planned. “There were five people per heat for five minutes,” Lopez explained. “We had 120 people, so we had to get through 120 people on Saturday. The top eight people would advance to the final. So, there were a lot of younger kids just hucking their bodies and doing crazy things.” He didn’t advance, but he enjoyed the opportunity to show off his skills to the crowd. After his session, he was blindsided by spectators who complimented him on his riding. “It kind of stunned me,” he said.

Meanwhile, Everett was busy keeping tabs on all the skaters, since she was serving as one of the judges for the event. It’s also notable that Everett was the first female judge for the Blading Cup since its inception. “The ‘bladies’ [ladies] competition is where I feel like I was the most helpful, which is how it should be,” Everett said later. “They weren’t going to advance the girl from Chile [Catherine Reyes] into the finals, and I put my foot down and was like, ‘She did enough. The tricks she did were hard. We need this high level in the finals.’ So, they put her through and then she won first place.”

Julio later said that each day of the event drew an estimated 1000 spectators, many of whom could be seen viewing the competition from a nearby, multi-level parking garage. The prize pool, $23,100, did turn out to be a record high for the competition, and it was split by the those who finished in the top three of the various events. The winner of the pro division, Montre Livingston, pocketed the largest chunk of it: $10,000.

“The city was really excited with how smoothly it went,” Julio explained. “It boosts the economy up with all the businesses around here, so they’re very happy with the overall success and would like to do it again, so we’re going to do it two times. We are going to do one in the summer and one in the winter/fall like we did this year.”

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