Palm Springs will become the center of the skateboarding world Friday, Jan. 23, through Sunday, Jan. 25, when the area will be taken over by skateboarding’s most legendary riders for the El Gato Classic.
At the center of the event is Eddie “El Gato” Elguera, a valley resident who is a pastor at the Rock Church in Palm Desert. Elguera became a professional skateboarder in the late ’70s and went on to be a two-time world champion. He’s a major influence on many current pros, given he created several tricks that skateboarders continue to use today, such as the “Elguerial.”
“When I started back in the ’70s, when pool skating and vertical skating was coming out, there wasn’t the recognition that there is today. Now, it’s a lot more mainstream, and there are corporate sponsors like Red Bull,” said Elguera during a recent interview the Rock Church. (For more on Elguera’s religious awakening, see the sidebar.)
While Elguera is 52 now, the grandfather and father of three still has a skater look; when we spoke, he was wearing black skinny jeans, Nike skateboarding shoes, a black cardigan sweater and a red-and-black striped shirt.
Big-name skateboarders participating in the El Gato Classic include Tony Hawk, Christian Hosoi, Steve Caballero, Lance Mountain, Mike McGill and others. During a recent phone interview, Tony Hawk explained why Elguera is such an important figure in skateboarding.
“He absolutely inspired me, especially when I was coming into my own in skating,” Hawk said. “I felt like he was the most progressive skater and really a pioneer of trick-style skating. I didn’t really have the build or the natural style that a lot of skaters had, so I just loved doing tricks—and he was at the forefront of new tricks.”
Hosoi talked during a recent phone interview about the days of skateboarding when it was thought of as an outlaw sport.
“The whole ritual of skateboarding wasn’t just skateboarding; it was the discovery of finding an empty pool, planning it out, and inviting everybody to come,” he said. “… It was a pioneering thing, because no one had done it yet, and now we have grandmas taking their grandchildren to skate parks, where they’re learning to be the next Tony Hawk.”
Elguera remembered when prize money wouldn’t even cover airfare or hotel expenses for the professionals who would show up to events.
“Sometimes, first prize would be $500, or maybe $1,000,” Elguera said. “Then skateboard parks started to close because insurance companies didn’t want to insure skateparks. Skateboarding kind of took a dip after that, and that’s when the contests popped up where the prize was $100. When I was at the top, I never thought I’d still be skateboarding at 52, which I am today. Back then, you figured your career would go to 25.”
There was a goal in mind for any kid who skateboarded.
“You wanted to get sponsored,” Elguera said. “Not so much for the money and everything else, but just to get free product, because then you could get boards, get wheels, get clothes, and you didn’t have to buy all that stuff. You were like, ‘Wow, I hit the top!’ when you get your first package. You end up waiting for the UPS guy. The UPS guy for skateboarders is like Santa Claus.”
Elguera said many early innovators in his support have not received the recognition they deserve. On the El Gato Classic website, there is a graphic asking, “Have You Seen Them?” with a list of skateboarding innovators who have fallen off the radar; organizers hope these missing legends will see their names and attend.
“The El Gato Classic is where we’re taking the guys who were really pioneers and revolutionary in terms of what skateboarding could be,” he said. “A lot of the guys we’re gathering together didn’t really get the recognition, and that’s why I want to come out and just say, ‘Thank you.’ I have a saying: ‘If we honor the past and champion the future, skateboarding will never die.’ My goal with the El Gato Classic, with this first one, is to honor the past.”
There’s a reason the El Gato Classic is being held in Palm Springs, beyond Elguera’s connection to the Coachella Valley: From the late ’70s through the early ’90s, there was a spot called Nude Bowl outside of Desert Hot Springs. The former Desert Garden Ranch, which was once a nudist resort, had a kidney-shaped pool and some leftover structures that skateboarders loved. Videos from the Nude Bowl era now on YouTube show a pool with tons of graffiti; one video shows a fire engulfing the entire outer edge of the pool as people skateboard inside of it.
Today at the Palm Springs Skate Park, there is a replica of the kidney-shaped pool—sans graffiti, of course.
Hawk said he knows the Nude Bowl’s history.
“I never got to go there. It was a famous spot, and just about all the legends coming to this event have probably been there,” he said.
Hosoi said he went to the Nude Bowl all the time.
“We’d have punk-rock bands up there, and it was outlaw craziness up there on that mountain,” he said. “There were dirt roads forever to the top of this hill and just hundreds of people. It was out of control, and I’m surprised no one ever died up there, because that’s how crazy it got. It was all day, all night and ’til the next morning, to where we’d finally just say, ‘Gotta go!’ because there was no more in us.”
Proceeds from the El Gato Classic will go to the Tony Hawk Foundation, which works to build skate parks in low-income communities.
“The perception of skating in those areas when a park first gets built—there’s usually some pushback about having a skate park, and what it means, and what kind of crowd it will attract,” Hawk said. “When a city finally approves a project, and they see that there’s a community that rallies around it, they end up building more. We’re empowering communities that are already trying to help themselves.”
It’s well-known that in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Hawk and Hosoi were rivals in vertical-skating events. At the El Gato Classic, they just might have another epic skate battle.
“I feel like he and I have come a long way,” Hawk said about his former competitor. “We’re no longer rivals and are more like comrades. We’re happy we’re still doing this for a living and that people come out to see us. I think we’re just more appreciative of the fact we’re still here than trying to compete with each other. When we get together, even in a competition setting, it’s more of a celebration.”
Hosoi said he agrees, but joked that he still feels the rivalry at times.
“We like to have fun, but we’re competitive,” Hosoi said with a laugh. “It doesn’t matter what it is, whether it’s playing pool or throwing rocks at a can 100 feet away—we are going to compete!”
The El Gato Classic will take place Friday, Jan. 23, through Sunday, Jan. 25; the times, prices and venues vary. For more information, visit www.elgatoclassic.com.