Photography by Anthony Franchino + Charles Batu
Mention “Aggressive Rollerblading” to the average person nowadays and you’re likely to hear something like “What’s that?” or “That’s still a thing?”
You might even hear a derogatory joke, if the person you ask is a fan of skateboarding. That’s not the case, however, with the organizers of the King of Cleveland rollerblade contest. Having witnessed both rollerblading’s rise to mainstream popularity and its subsequent fall to obscurity, they fight to keep a dying artform alive as part of a nationwide effort to preserve the sport that they love.
The four primary organizers of the contest, Brent Hopkins, Travis Rhodes, Jimmy Spetz, and Brandon Thompson, all began blading as kids growing up in the ‘90s. While they grew up in different parts of the state, they all had similar experiences.
“We were a bunch of hellions,” Thompson grins mischievously. “I wore rollerblades more than I wore shoes.” Hopkins recalls begging his mother to buy him a pair of $120 skates. “If you don’t skate on these things, I’m going to kill you,” she threatened after finally relenting. Spetz immediately blew his entire first paycheck from his first job on a pair, much to the consternation of his father. “Needless to say, my dad was pissed,” he laughs.
Even as teenagers, they showed an impressive dedication to the sport. Thompson was frustrated that his small town of Madison lacked a skatepark, so he decided to do something about it. “In sixth grade, I went to a city council meeting and did a whole thing where I read some kind of prepared statement, and I was actually able to get that skatepark built,” he explains. Afterwards, he and his friends were constantly enjoying the spoils of his lobbying efforts. “In the wintertime, we used to go shovel the park out.”
“If I didn’t have to work, if I didn’t have anything going on, I’d be at the [Eastlake] skatepark,” Spetz confirms. “From the time I got out of school while it was light outside till nighttime—and then even at night—[I was] still trying to get one or two more tricks in underneath the lights.”
While they grew up in different parts of the state, the tight-knit rollerblading community of the late 90s brought them all together. At the time, the sport was still immensely popular, and it was easy to meet others who shared an enthusiasm for it. “It was in the X-Games,” Hopkins points out, explaining, “It was huge, you know? It was really easy to get into at that age because [we] came up in the end of the golden era and the beginning of the new era of rollerblading. [We were] lucky enough to watch all the guys who were the pioneers that invented the tricks that we still do now.”
These guys were all quick to rattle off the names of local bladers whom they referred to as ‘Local Legends’ Names like James St. Ours, James Short, Craig Parsons, Jimmy Hake, and Ron Copeland are unknown to the general population, but the organizers each spoke about them with a sense of reverence. In fact, the first King of Cleveland contest sprung out of a memorial for James Short, a local blader who was tragically killed on his motorcycle when he was hit by a drunk driver.
The rollerblading scene in Northeast Ohio was going strong in the early 2000s. Locals competed in professional caliber contests, earned sponsorships, and traveled to skate spots around the country. Rollerblading was more than just a hobby to them—it was a way of life. It was something they saw themselves doing forever. Little did they know, however, that behind the scenes, aggressive rollerblading was in for some major changes.
Arlo Eisenberg, a professional rollerblader from Dallas, is arguably the closest thing the sport had to a Tony Hawk-like icon. He was idolized by rollerbladers around the world, innovating and helping lead the sport into exciting new territory. The most recognizable figure at the height of the sport’s popularity, he became a sort of spokesman, championing the sport wherever he could. He was also the sport’s representative to ESPN’s X Games, where he would help plan the rollerblading portion of the event.
“There’s a video that came out where at the end of it Arlo Eisenberg did this whole monologue where he explained where he had a meeting with all the X Games executives,” Thompson explains. “And basically they showed the highlight film, and there was no blading. A minute into the meeting, Arlo asked the question, like, ‘What’s up?’ and they were talking about how they were going to be phasing out rollerblading. So, we all kind of got alerted firsthand from the DVDs we bought. And then we kind of knew that blading was dead.”
The history of rollerblading is fraught with bitter ironies: it was rollerblading’s massive popularity that gave ESPN confidence to risk spending the millions of dollars it cost to put on the X Games in 1995 to begin with. “The X-Games started because of rollerblading,” Thompson points out. “Rollerblading was at like twenty million, unbelievable numbers.” Those figures are indeed accurate, and that’s more than twice as many riders than skateboarding has ever been able to put up; according to some sources, it’s even more than baseball has ever boasted. Without those sorts of reassuring numbers, a financially driven company like ESPN would probably have never given action sports a chance in the first place.
Spetz actually came within a hair’s breadth of becoming a professional rollerblader. In his early 20s, he was beginning to qualify for a national contest held by the ASA, the Action Sports Association, which took place in California. “I’ve never felt like an ‘action sports star’ or anything like that, except for this one weekend,” he grins. The competition has two qualifying rounds before a rider can enter the main contest, and the competition was fierce.
Hearing him explain how he maps out his 60 second set for the competition wasn’t just impressive for the tricks he was going to do, but for the meticulous strategizing that went into his preparations. What looks like someone just having fun riding some ramps for a minute is actually the result of careful planning, designed around what the rider knows they can do and what the park allows you to do—Spetz described the one he rode on as “a scary course”—both of which offer a complex array of limitations and freedoms. And then, on top of that, the rider has to actually execute the set.
And it doesn’t always go as planned, either. “You run your line that’s supposed to be a 60 second line and you look up at the clock, and there’s still 40 seconds left,” he laughs, “You’re like, ‘Holy shit, what the fuck did I just do?’” Combined with physical exertion, competitive riding is both mentally and physically exhausting.
Spetz made it to the final qualifying round in 2005, but an injury prevented him from participating in the contest. The next year, the ASA dropped rollerblading from its annual event, marking the end of mainstream rollerblading. “Even if I would’ve been a professional, it would’ve ended the next year,” he shrugs. It was the end of the “Golden Age” of rollerblading.
Without corporate financing, what constitutes a professional rollerblader has been forced to change. Once upon a time, a sponsorship could get you free gear, a nice paycheck, and the opportunity to travel and compete around the world. Nowadays, it usually just means a free pair of skates from a company that’s struggling to stay afloat themselves. “You’re lucky to get a few hundred dollars a month,” says Spetz. “If you’re in the thousand dollar range, you’re a blade god. You’re like one of four dudes.”
“Nitro Circus is the only place that exists in mainstream, and every year they say they’re going to do rollerblading in the Nitro Circus Games, and they end up not airing it,” Hopkins says. “Everybody got all excited last year because they said they were going to air it, but at the last minute they ended up cancelling it.” Since rollerblading has been dropped from mainstream action sports events, it’s up to the competitors to hold and support the contests themselves, on their own time and money. “They all have their own jobs, their own lives, just like [we] do,” Thompson explains.
So what happened? How did rollerblading go from a financially lucrative sport with tens of millions of participants to a distant memory regarded by most people today as a ‘90s fad? The answer is complex, with many different elements contributing to its sudden fall from the limelight. The whole story, though, reads much like that of a new celebrity, someone like Sam Kinison or Sid Vicious, whose sudden fame becomes their undoing. “It becoming so popular is kind of like its own downfall,” Spetz explains, “Everybody had a pair of skates. Everybody wanted to do it.”
Where there’s popularity, jealousy is quick to follow. Participants of skateboarding and BMX, who had put their little blood, sweat, and tears, into their sports for decades, didn’t think aggressive rollerblading, having existed for only five years, deserved a place next to them. “We’re talking about professionals who been doing it for 20 years,” Spetz says of skateboarding and BMX. “You’ve got us, who just kind of fell into the mainstream and became super popular out of nowhere—our professionals have been skating for five years and that’s it. That’s the entire history of rollerblading. You’ve got Chris Edwards and Arlo [Eisenberg] basically being the first people to grind on handrails, and five years later they’re in the X Games.”
Bitter at what they felt was rollerblading’s undeserved spotlight, participants of the older, more storied action sports lashed out at the newcomers. “Skateboarding kind of edged us out and said ‘rollerblading is for the beach, and for girls, and for fags,’” says Hopkins, explaining, “That was a big thing, the homosexual aspect of it. Everybody called rollerbladers ‘fruit-booters,’ you know? And you’d just get ridiculed at the skatepark. Constantly.”
The homophobic stigma stuck, discouraging people from taking up the sport. “When you saw skateboarders, you saw chain wallets, and punk rock, and ‘I don’t give a fuck.’ When you saw rollerblading, you saw rec sports,” continues Hopkins. Spetz affirms, “Not to say that the rec skaters ruined it, but they gave us that kind of spandex image.”
In addition being stigmatized, rollerblading suffered from a theme common to sudden celebrity. Thrust into fame, rollerbladers “We all have a chance to look back on it now, and all the people who were in charge of our scene back in the day were all … getting drunk,” laughs Thompson, explaining, “They weren’t good with kids, They weren’t signing autographs. They weren’t playing the adult role of it. They were just enjoying the travel and the party and the fun.”
The punk rock attitude of street skating, which help make it popular initially, came back to haunt it. “We all partied way to hard. It came to the point where I think the party was a little bit more important than the rollerblading. We lost a lot of pros that way,” laments Hopkins, adding, “It’s kind of like rock and roll. At first, everyone’s partying and making music, and then all of the sudden the music’s shit and you’re just partying all the time.”
The partying led to a slow departure from the corporate financial backers that made rollerblading lucrative in the first place. “Nobody gave a fuck about competitions anymore; everybody was just skating street,” Hopkins explains. Newly flush with cash and independently-minded, professional rollerbladers began to start their own companies rather than opting for corporate sponsorship. “We kind of screwed ourselves,” continues Hopkins, “Because nobody was showing up to do ads for Mountain Dew and stuff like that because they were owning their own companies.”
To the skaters, however, none of this was apparent; they were too busy enjoying themselves to care about the big picture. “None of my friends noticed,” recalls Spetz, “I’m sure that people at the top were recognizing that numbers were starting to fall.” There were signs, though. “When we got the boot from the X Games was probably the first time that I really started to recognize that we were in a decline,” Spetz acknowledges.
Rather than let the waning popularity of their pastime discourage them, skaters were unphased. “It’s not like we lost steam in the real essence of the thing. When we started losing corporate sponsorship and getting off of TV, we didn’t give a shit,” says Hopkins. “We were like, ‘We’re street. Skateboarding can have all the corporate sponsorships. They’re the fucking jocks now. We’re going back to the street, back to the artistry.’ And I still feel that way today.”
“I’ve always thought that there will be a resurgence. Now, I kind of just want to be like, ‘Good riddance,’” says Spetz, adding, “We don’t need the X Games. We’ll build our own X Games—which we did.”
The first year that the X-Games decided not to include rollerblading, participants took matters into their own hands. “One of the old school gods of blading, Jon Julio, started a thing called IMYTA [the I Match Your Trick Association], and it was a rollerblading street contest,” explains Thompson, “and they held it outside of the California X-Games that year.”
It was a calculated stab at the corporate sponsors that decided to pass them over. “That was their retaliation,” Spetz explains. “Oh, you’re going to kick us out of the X-Games? That’s fine, we’ll have our own competition. We don’t need you. We’re going to hold the first ever international street skating competition.” Professionals from all over the world participated. “The IMYTA was huge,” Spetz continues. “We’re talking thousands of people skating, spectating.”
It was a grand display of the sports resilience, but most importantly, the IMYTA set the standard for how rollerblading contests were to be held in a world without corporate sponsors. Skater-held contests modeled after the IMYTA began popping up across the country, and the trend eventually made its way to Cleveland.
“We’d go to competitions in different parts of the country throughout the course of the whole year,” says Spetz, rattling off competitions in Detroit, Kentucky, Florida, Colorado, California. “We realized, you know, we need something of our own,” he continues, “We’ve been to enough competitions, we’ve seen the structure, we’ve seen how to do this, we’ve seen when they go very bad, and we’ve seen when they’ve gone really well.”
The structure of the contests vary from place to place, but Cleveland’s King of Cleveland event takes place at spots across the city, where riders try to outdo each other on stair sets, rails, ramps, and ledges picked out by the organizers throughout the year. The process of selecting spots for the contest, which takes place in September, is painstaking and organizers begin searching as early as January. “You’ve got to find a spot where you can fit 100 people, where people can park, people can get to it easily, and it’s not a bust,” explains Hopkins. “You want to be there for at least 20 minutes, tops.” The planning is stressful, wearing out the organizers’ patience. “We stop talking to each other for a month after King of Cleveland,” Hopkins laughs.
After the allotted time for the spot is up, the organizers announce that it’s time to move on to the next location. Occasionally, the spots are broken up by the police, so the organizers use code words to signal when it’s time for the crowd to disperse. Other times, more covert means are used to avoid the interference of law enforcement: one year, in order to skate a stair set outside of the Browns stadium, Thompson donned a hi-vis vest, put out traffic cones, and directed traffic around the crowd. Three police cars drove by, and not one of them stopped.
In addition to rollerbladers and blading enthusiasts, the contests draw surprised and impressed spectators from the area around each spot. “We’re trying to get people who don’t know that rollerblading is still a thing to get reinterested in it and to see what we’re doing,” says Hopkins, “because we’re doing better stuff now than we ever were, you know?”
The guys just held their fourth King of Cleveland contest, the biggest and most well-attended yet. They even raised enough funds to be able to pay out prize money all the way through tenth place. The additional prize money is nice for the participants, but there’s a bigger, more altruistic goal behind the contest: “The whole point is to turn it into a non-profit so you can buy rollerblades and then give them out to kids in the hood,” Thompson explains. The charity is modeled after Chicago’s Windy City Riot—Chicago is considered the hub of rollerblading in the midwest—one of the longest-running grassroots contests, whose organizers successfully founded a similar program for underprivileged kids.
An unsettling possibility arises, though. Rollerblading, like any action sport, is dangerous. “I thought I was going to have to cut my jeans off because they were so dried with blood,” Hopkins recalls of one injury. Concussions and broken bones make it, by necessity, a young man’s game, and many of the current riders are passing their prime. Furthermore, without mainstream exposure, new riders can be few and far between. It raises the question, therefore, as to whether or not rollerblading will ever disappear completely.
Spetz scoffs at the premise: “I mean, how close do we have to get? We’re there,” he laughs, but is quick to add, “It’s alive. It’s there. People are still making skates, you’ve got new wheels, you’ve got new innovation happening all the time. Honestly, I feel like all of the things that have in the last 5 to 10 years are all positive.”
Hopkins shares Spetz’s optimism, citing the underground nature of the sport as a catalyst for creativity. “The sport’s in a weird transition right now,” he explains. “You don’t know if you’re an athlete, you don’t know if you’re an artist, but I think rollerblading is going to come out on top because now we’ve got a little bit of a fire.”
Rollerblading enjoys a relatively high level of popularity in Detroit, and Cleveland rollerbladers share a friendly rivalry with the riders in Cleveland’s sister city. “The guys from Detroit are huge,” Hopkins says, “We joke around that they’re our rivals and we like to beat them, but we don’t really skate that well anymore. And those kids are killing it right now. But it’s always been a fun rivalry. You’re always like, ‘The fucking Detroit kids keep winning!’ But they’re our biggest supporters. We’re their number one fans.”
The negative stigma surrounding rollerblading seems to be dissipating, as well, now that it’s no longer the new kid on the block. “You know, a few years back, I’d tell people that I rollerbladed and I’d get made fun of up and down the street,” says Spetz. That’s no longer the case, he says, adding, “You’ll always have the kind of knuckleheads that are like, ‘Oh, that’s not cool.’ Then you show them a video and they’re like, ‘Okay, yeah. That’s crazy.’”
The rollerbladers don’t harbor any resentment against their action sports counterparts for edging them out, either. “I don’t have any issue with skateboarding,” claims Hopkins. “I love skateboarding. I have a skateboard. At the skatepark, when I get bored rollerblading, I roll around on the skateboard for a half an hour.”
Regardless, the rollerbladers couldn’t care less whether the sport is popular or not. While they remember the so-called ‘“golden age of rollerblading” with fondness, at the and of the day, they just want to skate. “That’s why I like rollerblading now, because it’s underground,” says Thompson. “I get to go to Chicago and travel, and party, and have fun while I go to their rollerblading contests or assist them with other things. And I know that they’re all going to come here and go to my contests and assist with anything I need.”
In reality, the skating is all that matters; it’s the reason anybody does it in the first place. “Pure, unadulterated fun,” Hopkins describes. “Whether it’s landing a big trick or just getting out and rolling around, it’s a complete break from everything. It’s the one time that everybody puts their phone in their bags.” Spetz agrees, echoing, “As corny and cliche as this sounds, it’s an artform. It’s a form of expression. It’s a way for me to escape reality. I can go to a skatepark and put my cell phone down.”
“It’s my last remaining rebellion,” Hopkins declares, “Maybe I’ll fall next week and never skate again for the rest of my life. But I still strap up.”
“Will I ever stop skating? No,” Spetz asserts. To illustrate his point, he adds, “As soon as we’re done with this interview, I’m going to go meet the dudes and we’re going to go skate.”
It would appear that declaring rollerblading dead is a bit premature.