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No fear of flying - or falling. Skateboard champ zooms his sport to new heights

TONY Hawk does things on a skateboard that many professional gymnasts, tumblers, divers, and acrobats might congratulate themselves for doing off a skateboard: handstands, flips, somersaults, and twists in bizarre mutations known as ``Frigidairs,'' ``Alley Oops,'' ``Drifters,'' ``Inverts,'' and ``McTwists.'' And when you watch him complete such aerial acrobatics while moving at lighting speed on a piece of laminated maple with wheels, you realize there is no water, no padded mats, nets, or ropes with pulleys to break his fall. Just 10 feet of air between him and the thud of oak. Even during practice.

That's why the next 10 best professional skateboarders look at Hawk with a kind of awe. For four years his innovative stuntmaking has so far exceeded the talents of the burgeoning ranks of professionals that he has won the National Skateboard Association (NSA) title every year since it was first offered. Earlier this month he won it again.

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Hawk appeared at the Anaheim Convention Center for ``Holiday Havoc,'' the final event of the 1986 NSA tour and professional skateboarding's greatest, and loudest, hour. Six thousand screaming fans in crew, surfer, and punk haircuts paid $7 to $10 to watch the top 20 professionals compete in what was hailed as the ``coming of age'' for skateboarding.

``Stand up and take a look at yourselves, this is history,'' said the emcee over a driving heavy metal beat designed to keep the energy and decibel level at astronomical heights. ``Twenty years ago, we were out on the streets with metal wheels and two-by-fours; today we're a sellout crowd in Anaheim.''

Reprints of articles told of the renaissance of skateboarding, with 30 million adherents nationwide, a market of $300 million in sales.

For three hours the fans went bananas at the exploits of skateboarders Jeff Phillips, Mike McGill, Steve Caballero, Christian Hosoi, and others. A special ramp had been constructed on the basketball floor, measuring 30 by 14 feet, and 11 feet high, where skaters zoomed back and forth, leaping and twisting high in the air. When Hawk appeared, the emotion could only be described as bananas gone berserk.

Unlike many of the other professionals, Hawk is tall and lanky. He is not muscular, has thin arms and legs - even drooped shoulders. He has been called equal parts gymnast, acrobat, and ballet dancer, but this day his movements are not clean, owing, he says later, to a hard fall the day before. Nonetheless, he glided into the finals with three perfect completions of his patented ``McTwist'' - a 540-degree flip with one turn of the body.

The finals, 30 minutes of 10 skaters skating a round robin of three stunts each, is a veritable free-for-all of competitive fervor. Known for bringing a new level of strategy into a competition that was fraught with a stultifying sameness, Hawk saved his 720-degree double flip - going up backwards, coming down frontwards - until his last stunt. But like the ending of the poem ``Mighty Casey at the Bat,'' Hawk's heroics were not to be, as he tumbled in his approach and wound up fourth in this last NSA event.

All three judges had him leading into the final round.

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Because he was so far ahead in the national standings for the dozen or so yearly events, however, Hawk still had enough points to become national titleholder for 1986.

``Tony is the best skater around,'' fellow veteran Steve Caballero, the fourth-ranked pro, told Sports Illustrated magazine before the competition. ``He's consistent, never falls, and does moves no one else can do.''

``He's the Wayne Gretzky of skateboarding,'' said another competitor who had watched Hawk win a world title in Vancouver last August. ``It will be a long time before anyone like him comes again.''

Hawk himself is shy and modest. Asked why he's better than everyone else, he merely responds that it's ``a matter of commitment and that I get so much satisfaction in doing it.''

He says his regimen of practice is two to three hours, five days a week, at the Del Mar Skateboard Ranch near his home in Carlsbad, Calif. He practices alone, thinks up stunts alone, and does not supplement his skateboarding with gymnastics, diving, trampoline, or weight lifting. ``I do a little surfing,'' he concedes.

For his most amazing feat, the 720-degree twist, Hawk says: ``It came to me when I was trying a 540-degree twist and went too far.'' How much practice time did it take until he completed his first perfect double flip? ``Half-hour to 45 minutes,'' he says. Hawk practices and competes with giant pads wrapped around both knees and elbows. He says he has no fear of falling or sliding.

Since Tony turned pro three years ago, his income on the tour has been about $10,000 to $12,000, he says. But endorsements (a skateboard of his own design and other accessories), a Mountain Dew commercial, and stunts in the movies ``Thrashin''' and ``Police Academy'' put his total income at $60,000-$70,000, he says. He recently bought a $125,000 house in Carlsbad, where his father and mother live.

It was his father, Frank, who organized the California Amateur Skateboard League in 1980. Three years later, the elder Hawk was the driving force behind N.S.A. Tony, who started skateboarding nine years ago, was at first embarrassed at winning events judged by judges who had been hired by his own father. ``But over the years, the others have come to realize I got where I am by my talent, nothing else,'' he says. He describes the top echelon of skateboarders as a very tight-knit group that ``always roots for each other.''

In fact, he blames his recent fourth-place finish partly on rules that kept competitors from watching as their friends perform. ``We need each other for moral support while we're competing,'' he says.

Now 18, Tony has no plans to leave skateboarding, although he can't see doing it more than five years. With aspirations for a college business degree, he'd like to get into the adminstrative end of competitions. ``The competitors will continue getting better and better,'' he says. ``But the way skateboarding grows as a legitimate media enterprise is in doubt.''

He says the road to increasing skateboarding's visibility and legitimacy is must be paved by attracting larger and richer sponsors. ``Somebody like Coca-Cola,'' he says with a laugh.

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