Ellen Berryman: Skateboarding Legend
Hi Ellen, how are you doing?
Fine thanks. How are you?
Looking forward to the weekend?
Sure, but I’m enjoying the week, too. Just went snowboarding last night.
Any skating planned?
No, I broke my arm skating at the local skate park a few years ago and it really put a damper on my work, so I haven’t skated much since then – sticking to the soft snow. But I’ve been thinking about the longboarding – the LGC is an inspiration.
When did you start skating?
I started in 1975, when I was 15. I grew up in a house on a dirt road, no pavement, which was one reason I got a bit of a late start.
What got you into it?
I lived in Encinitas, in southern California, a few miles from La Costa. When I was 15, my older sister took me to La Costa, which is where a lot of pro skaters were skating at the time. It was a housing development, but they had built all the roads and hadn’t built the houses yet. Really nice, smooth pavement, wide. That’s where I learned to skate. And people I met there included Brian, Bruce, Brad, and Robin Logan, Ty Page, Dennis Shufeldt, and a lot of other pros.
Why did you want to skateboard?
I just wanted to try it out at first, but then once I tried it I was hooked. I just loved the feel of gliding down the hills. Then I started doing freestyle and it was a lot of fun applying what I knew about gymnastics to the skateboard.
What was your first board?
I had a friend, Tommy Lewis, who made surfboards and he made me a fiberglass skateboard, and we put tracker trucks and cadillac wheels on it.
How popular was skating back then?
It was really popular where I lived, in southern California. The urethane wheel had just recently been invented so it was getting real big at the time.
What effect did watching all the pros have on you?
It was exciting being around all these people trying new things, pushing limits. Dennis Shufeldt was pushing world records for downhill speed, on a tiny, like 27 inch board and shirtless with no helmet. And people were inventing new freestyle moves, inspiring me to do the same. Tony Alva and Jay Adams would show up from Dogtown sometimes too. I sensed that I was in the middle of a revolution.
What was Dennis’ record then?
I believe it was 65 mph.
What was downhill skateboarding about in the 70’s?
In the mid 70s folks were just cruising, cutting clean lines kind of surf style, but if you’re talking about downhill in terms of what we called “bombing” hills, going straight down, there was crazy stuff like Dennis going down on a tiny board with no safety equipment. Then people like Guy Grundy came in with full leathers and boards made specifically for downhill speed.
What was the first downhill race you saw?
It was right there in La Costa. And then there was a really big one at Signal Hill.
Where did that revolution lead?
It led to where we are today. There were many things about that era that carried over, and some that died out.
What’s the most important thing that got carried over?
With the urethane wheel, and everyone starting to skate in pools, this carried over into vertical skating. And the street skating we see today is of course a natural evolution from the 70s.
Is there anything that died you wish would return?
What I really liked was the choreography aspect of the freestyle. There’s not a lot of footage of that, because people weren’t carrying around movie cameras and it was before video cameras. But we did freestyle routines to music and it was a kind of dance. Maybe that’s happening somewhere now, but I’m not seeing it.
What was your role in the revolution?
Some people say that I was an inspiration to other female skaters. There weren’t many female skaters in the day and there are a lot more now.
I did a lot of the kind of freestyle that just isn’t done anymore, so that’s the aspect of the revolution that died out after the 70s. But there seems to be an old school resurgence now.
How did you get into freestyle?
I had a gymnastics background, so applying that to the board was what first motivated me. And the fact that I was surrounded by people who were into it.
What is it about freestyle that gives you jollies?
I saw it as an art form. Performance art, and I enjoyed the challenge of competition.
Were there other female skaters?
Robin Logan, Laura Thornhill, Kim Cespedes, Ellen ONeil, Desiree VonEssen, Robin Alaway…those were the ones who were always showing up.
It must have been rad to be part of such a small, close community!
It really was. I’m still in touch with most of those women today. We have a special bond.
What did you guys do to get other girls into skateboarding?
I think it was just by example. I remember writing an article for a skateboard magazine encouraging women to skate. My sister, Cindy, did a lot of writing, for Surfer and Skateboarder magazine and she also encouraged women.
What role did magazines play in the 70’s skate community?
Skateboarder Magazine had a huge role. This was before Thrasher. Everyone looked to Skateboarder Magazine at the time to see where skateboarding was going and who all the hot and upcoming skaters were.
Where would skateboarding be today without good magazines?
Good question. Since there was no internet or other comparable media platform, I can’t imagine that skateboarding would have gone far without magazines. The 70s might have been a lost decade.
How did you learn tricks back then?
I have the feeling a lot of people, in other parts of the country, learned a lot from the magazines. But where I was, it was the center of everything. Being around all the pros, I learned tricks directly from them. And we were always inventing new tricks.
When did you decide to compete?
I started competing about 6 months after I started skating, in 1975. Got second place at a contest in San Diego, then a few weeks later the team travelled in a bus to Arizona and I picked up my first first-place trophy.
What did you have to do differently to win?
I was the only woman who could press up directly into a handstand from the board, instead of running alongside it. My gymnastics moves gave me a big edge. And I studied choreography to put together some smooth routines.
Which were your favourite tricks to pull at competitions?
My signature move was a handstand from the board into a “spider” (my feet on my head during a handstand) into a v-sit. But the funnest was the snaking daffy. And I loved using a really nice, smooth turn invented by Ed Nadalin.
Were you on a team for that first victory?
Yes, I was on the Bahne Team. I was a very tight-knit group of people. We had an amazing coach/teacher, Paul St. Pierre, and we got together every Sunday for practice. We would spend the morning on freestyle, helping each other learn different tricks, giving each other pointers, and then in the afternoon we would head to La Costa and do slalom.
Did you have your own board?
I had one called The Stylist.
Do you still slalom?
A little. I’ve been thinking about doing more. I’m kind of isolated up here in the hills of northern California but would love to connect with a group that does slalom.
What was your favourite type of competition?
I did best with the freestyle in venues with large, smooth floors.
What was the essence of skateboarding in the 70’s?
Mostly surfers were innovatively applying their art to the skateboard and taking advantage of the urethane wheel.
What was your highlight of the 70s?
Winning the world freestyle championship two years in a row, and the national championship. And travelling around with a group of folks in a van, all over the country, with a skateboard show. That was a blast.
How was life for a pro skateboarder?
It was very exciting. We were getting a lot of attention. A bunch of kids in the limelight. I think it was challenging for us all in the 80s when skating died out, after being used to all that attention. Some of the pros took nose dives then. Some didn’t make it. But I’m so happy to be connected to those folks now, who I shared that experience with.
What was the best thing about it?
It’s hard to say. I think the best thing about it for me, personally, was that it pulled me out of my shell. I was incredibly shy, and this forced me into the spotlight. I went to my first rock concert ever when I was 16, and I performed at it! It was a Jethro Tull concert and there were 60,000 people there – more people than I had ever seen in my life. When I went out to the stage and looked up, the crowd was like one huge, seething mass and my knees went weak. I couldn’t do it. I had to sit it out and let some other skaters go ahead of me. Then I was finally able to go out there and put it off, and it was an amazing feeling just to be able to do it. After that, any time I would get nervous around groups of people I would remember that day and it would give me courage.
Skateboarders were akin to rockstars then?
Pretty much. When I was in a travelling show it was like being in a rock band. We had roadies, and signed lots of autographs after the shows and even had to have body guards. It really was a rock-and-roll lifestyle.
Did you see the death of skateboarding coming?
No I didn’t. But I retired as a professional skater right before the end. I started college in 1978 and was focused on my studies. But that coincided, coincidentally, with the death of that era.
What killed skateboarding?
Skateboarding moved almost exclusively to skate parks, and then all the skate parks were getting hammered with lawsuits from injuries, liability issues, and were closed down everywhere. That seemed to be the cause of the death of skating for that era, anyway
Did you still ride in the 80s?
Yes, but not professionally. And I wasn’t around my old group of skaters so I didn’t have that source of inspiration or motivation. So I didn’t skate nearly as much as in the 70s.
Have you ever felt what you did in the 70s?
I’ve never experienced anything like that rock lifestyle, or the thrill of competition, since then. But every time I get on the snowboard I experience the same joy and freedom.
What advice would you give to any women who are nervous about skateboarding?
I would say that it’s all about having fun. I used to say, back in the day, that women have a special grace and style and don’t need to try to skate like the guys (unless that feels right, of course). I suppose that advice still applies.
Do you still skate?
When I broke my arm a few years back I decided that I needed to take it easy. I broke a lot of bones back in the day, but things heal more slowly now and I have to work for a living, so can’t afford major injuries. The snowboarding is much better for me in that respect. But I’m inspired by the Longboard Girl’s Crew and I’m thinking about getting more into longboarding.
The West Coast has a really rad longboard community! You should hook up with our sis Amanda Powell, or little Daisy!
Hey, that’s a great idea! Thanks, I will!
Is there anything else you wanted to mention?
Just want to say that I really love seeing the Longboard Girl’s Crew photos on Facebook. Such a rad group of girls. I would love to meet you girls sometime.
We’d love to meet you too!
Thank you for the interview and for bringing up some happy memories for me.