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Confessions of a Skateboard Heretic (Daniel Gesmer)

By Daniel Gesmer | Updated: January 26, 2023 | Journal

In 1976, I was a very uncool 12-year-old in Rockford, Illinois with overprotective parents. But that spring, the coolest kid in the neighborhood returned from a family trip to California. One afternoon he glided past my house on his new skateboard, and my life changed forever. I grew addicted to the magical feeling of effortless gliding on four urethane wheels. I became a decent bank and vert skater by late-1970s standards. But I was immediately drawn to the structured artistry of freestyle, which in those days still enjoyed much of the sport’s limelight.

My skateboard life turned a corner in the fall of 1981, when I entered Northwestern University in Chicago and met a guy named Alan Sidlo. He was an Illinois legend who had recently returned from touring with the Pepsi Team.

dan gesmer doing a handstand on a skateboard
Heretic: a person whose opinions or theories are considered by others to be extremely unconventional or unorthodox.

I knew about slalom but had never seen anyone pump a board. Al’s cat-like power and grace was a revelation. Over the next few years, Al inspired me to learn how to pump and think about a gliding-oriented approach to freestyle.

After graduating from Yale University in 1986, I declared myself “professional” so that I could enter the freestyle event at the TransWorld Skateboarding Championships in Vancouver, BC. I nailed some seriously tough moves like a V-sit press to handstand and a long spin combination, but the judges were bewildered by my arabesques.

Despite low scores, my “dance-boarding” caused a stir and became the subject of curious talk throughout the skate world. Racing legend and slalom godfather Jack Smith was the very first person to introduce himself and encourage me during the Vancouver contest. I ended up helping out at the slalom event and immediately felt an easy kinship with the racing crowd.

Embarrassing footage in the video movie “Radical Moves” shows that my Vancouver routine was pretty rough around the edges. But I was determined to go many steps further than the mid-70s freestylists who layered dance poses on top of simple tricks and stunts. My goal was to create an integrated technique of “pure skating” (continuous, self-propulsive gliding and turning), in which fluid athletic feats merge seamlessly with artistic body expression. I studied dance and figure skating, adapting concepts and techniques that seemed to fit.

At a contest in Louisville in 1988, I asked Stacy Peralta for some feedback on my skating. We’d met in 1984, and he had apparently seen an artsy video I made the previous year. Stacy’s response was to invite me to appear in his next video, “Public Domain.” He gave me a small budget to hire a local camera crew. I choreographed an elaborate routine and storyboard, placed the cameraman in specific spots for specific sequences, and went at it for eight solid hours in a Chicago-area roller rink.

For reasons unknown to me, Stacy edited out most of the difficult athletic moves that we shot – advanced handstand presses, long spins, etc. My part in “Public Domain” focused on the slow dance passages, with me in ballet-style clothing. This was not the last time that I could have used better advice on costume design!

I’ve always “batted right-handed,” but the final look of my part inevitably turned me into the poster boy for the skateboard world’s misplaced homophobia. That made life stressful for a while, and Thrasher magazine’s gossip column still teases me now and then. But I’ll always be grateful to Stacy for showcasing my efforts to create a different approach.

For a number of years, I evangelized gliding-oriented skating through writing. In their October 1988 issue, TransWorld Skateboarding published my detailed how-to on carving – a hint of things to come a decade later. As early as 1983,  realized that high-performance pumping demanded better technology, and the following year I made a thorough mathematical analysis of the steering response of conventional trucks.

Between 1984 and 1988, I discussed collaborative truck development with a number of skateboard companies – with no success. I was determined to develop a truck with greater power, sensitivity, and control. In 1989, a Rockford machine tool builder agreed to help me create a sharper-steering truck with better energy return to facilitate carving acceleration. During my first test ride, our sixth prototype design surprised and excited me so much that I pumped harder and jumped higher than probably ever before in my life!

Simultaneously, I began expanding my mathematical model of skateboard steering performance to encompass control dynamics. We had just begun small-scale test marketing when my Illinois partner’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. But a great friend from my time at Yale, Leilani Akwai, connected me with a manufacturer in southern Germany that supplied parts to Daimler-Benz.

I engineered the Seismic progressive-rate spring system to create a revolutionary balance between stability and maneuverability, such that turns get tighter at a smooth, even rate as skaters shift their weight to the edge of their decks. Introduced in early 1994, the Seismic truck was the first (by a factor of years) of the new crop of carving-oriented trucks. Longboarding and slalom were so out of fashion that I humorously referred to them, in one of my early TransWorld Skateboarding ads, as “dangerous alternatives that threaten to ruin skateboarding.” The staff of the leading skateboard trade journal apparently believed this was the literal truth! They opposed covering my truck’s debut, claiming it was “not a real skateboard product” and had “no place in the market.”

Still more proof of Dan’s heretical nature – the ad below ran in Transworld in 1994. Oddly enough, it ran opposite a Stone Template Pilots ad. The original ad can be viewed here.

This Truck Must Die!

It turns so well you’ll want to try new and highly unfashionable things on it. * The chaos that might result is terrifying to imagine.

Designed for all-around skating, because we thought there was room on this planet for using skateboards in many different ways.

Oh, how wrong we were!

What rock have we been living underneath? Turns are out, and trucks which turn better are taboo.

Better not even try these. You’ll feel the difference immediately, but you risk the utter ruin of skateboarding. Don’t you know how dangerous change is?

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Seismic trucks.

Tight turns with total control. My god, what were we thinking?

Despite all my efforts, German manufacturing costs made the Seismic truck hopelessly expensive. There have simply never been enough channels interested in trucks that retail for $75 – $100 each. At first, I reasoned that the market just needed to experience the combined effect of a high-performance truck with a high-performance deck. I contacted the late legendary deck artisan Bob Turner, then living in Oregon, and in late 1994 we attempted a collaborative effort on a high-performance slalom complete, which I called the “Richter 7.1”. But it was a case of too much, too soon.

In 1995 I moved to Boulder, Colorado. For a brief period at the beginning of the longboard boom, I sold a fair number of trucks to companies like Sector 9 and Dregs. But they ultimately needed more affordable components. Soon I began seeing stripped-down, scaled-up imitations of my patented truck technology on off-road boards and surfing cross-trainers. I struggled with feelings of discouragement and defeat, but continued selling German-made trucks to well-heeled connoisseurs who found me through odd channels.

In the summer of 2000, I hooked up with Wim Ouboter, the Swiss creator of the original Razor scooter. He wanted to use the Seismic truck on the front end of his next-generation KickBoard. The scooter market bottomed out in early 2001, but I’ve moved forward with my new factory to create an advanced metal-based generation of the original Seismic technology. Seismic plans a long future of high-performance product development. Much to my own surprise, I’m once again planning a future as a freestylist, too.

In the spring of 2002, I met acclaimed Finnish cameraman Robert Kitill, who helped create most of the 1980s Powell-Peralta videos and now lives near Boulder. I proposed making a video together, and he agreed. With Robert, I created “Four Wheels Down,” a freeform four-minute video showcasing my expression-oriented, pure-gliding flatland stylings.

“Gliding and turning are the heart and soul of skateboarding,” I said in Public Domain in 1988. I’m pleased to hear those words repeated now and then. Longboarding, slalom, downhill, bowl and other gliding-oriented disciplines once again stand to enjoy a healthy future. To all devotees of the magic rolling board I say, “Skate to express yourself!”

Daniel Gesmer

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