Tony Hawk Proves Vert Skateboarding Isn’t Dead With Inaugural Vert Alert Event In Salt Lake City

Tony Hawk and Andy Macdonald simultaneously drop into the vert ramp, expertly mirroring one another’s tricks—double McTwists, a Macdonald 360 with Hawk going over him, two Judo Airs—in their well-honed doubles routine, which won them X Games gold for six consecutive years.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the scene was from 2002, the last time Hawk and Macdonald won skateboard vert doubles at X Games. But the spectacle went down on August 27, 2021—Hawk aged 53, Macdonald 48—at Hawk’s inaugural Vert Alert, a new vert skateboarding contest he hopes to stage annually (at the very least) as part of his partnership with Vans.

In the 2010s, vert skateboarding fell out of favor as park and street have risen to the mainstream—evidenced by the latter two disciplines being chosen to represent skateboarding as it made its Olympic debut in July 2021. X Games still holds a vert contest every summer—but for men only. The only other running contest that allows men and women to show off their skills on the halfpipe is the Exposure Vert Open, last held in 2019.

But Hawk, who won 16 X Games medals in vert between 1995 and 2003, including 10 gold, has been pounding the table for the discipline with which he became synonymous.

For the better part of a decade, Hawk’s dream has been to create a new vert contest to provide a platform not only for the seasoned vets who’ve still got it—skaters like Paul-Luc Ronchetti, who last competed at X Games in 2019 and who, at 28 years old, is working outside jobs to make ends meet—but also the next generation of vert stars. See: Gui Khury, who at 12 landed the first ever 1080 in competition at X Games 2021, with Hawk looking on—22 years after Hawk claimed the first ever 900.

Part of the reason vert has fallen by the wayside is lack of accessibility—there just aren’t that many vert ramps around the world. In his work with his foundation, The Skatepark Project, Hawk is committed to providing skateparks to underserved communities globally. Eventually, he’d love to do the same with vert ramps—but getting a successful contest off the ground was the first order of business.

It looks like he’ll succeed. The first ever Tony Hawk’s Vert Alert, in partnership with Vans and the Utah Sports Commission, was held in Salt Lake City over the weekend, with a “legends demo” featuring Hawk, Macdonald, Christian Hosoi, Steve Caballero, Kevin Staab, Mike Frazier, Bob Burnquist, Sandro Dias and Lincoln Ueda on Friday and the men’s and women’s finals, as well as a best trick contest, on Saturday.

Even with Covid mitigations, the first-come, first-served free event drew a large crowd at the Utah State Fairpark, parents who grew up watching Hawk, Macdonald and their peers introducing the next generation of vert fans as generations converged.

“It was one of the best vert demos and comps I’ve seen in a very long time,” Steve Caballero told me. Now 56, Caballero landed his namesake Caballerial for the first time in more than two years, to the shock and joy of the fans in the stands. (Christian Hosoi, 53, also landed his signature “Christ Air.”) “The love and energy fans showed us pumped us up. For a lot of people, it was the first time they saw the trick in person.”

“It’s an exciting time for vert skating,” Caballero added. “It’s great to see the respect and people being excited.”

When Hawk joined Vans as an ambassador in 2020, his only real stipulation was that the company partner with him to bring his vision of a new vert competition to life. It was initially supposed to debut in 2020 as part of the Vans Park Series, the premier professional park terrain competition. But then “the world turned upside down,” Hawk said, adding, “I’m just thankful that I and they persevered to make it happen.”

With Vans Park Series off the calendar for both 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19, if Hawk and Vans were going to debut Vert Alert this year, they’d need some partners to make it happen. It fit perfectly with the vision Jeff Robbins, the president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission, had for skateboarding’s presence in Utah, as well as with Salt Lake City’s plans to host the first stop of Street League Skateboarding’s Championship Tour this weekend.

“An event with the top events rightsholder in street, Tony Hawk, and Vans playing a key role, free to the public? That was one of our goals and that was hard because some of the business models were not free,” Robbins told me. After Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, Robbins and the newly founded Utah Sports Commission started to think about the state’s sports legacy. “I took the track of let’s do a State of Sport, broadly,” Robbins said (a tagline that is now trademarked). “There’s so much more we can do here than just winter, which is just a small slice.”

“When we came here in 2019 [for Vans Park Series] and Tony expressed his eagerness to do a vert event, it definitely got Jeff Robbins’ attention,” said Bobby Gascon, Vans’ senior director of global marketing for action sports. “We’re grateful to get the support from the Utah Sports Commission to bring Tony’s vision to life and really provide a platform for the underserved vert skaters.”

In the same way Vans has built up the infrastructure for park skating around the world, creating global regional events that feed into Park Series (which saw the company donate five legacy skateparks in Malmö, São Paulo, Montreal, Paris and Salt Lake City), Gascon thinks the brand and Hawk could do something similar for vert. “His name carries a lot of weight globally so when there’s an appetite to support Tony and his event around the world, I’m sure it’s just a stepping stone for what he and us could do to support vert,” Gascon said.

Steve Van Doren, the son of Vans cofounder Paul Van Doren and Vans’ vice president of events and promotions, said it was an “honor” working with Hawk to bring Vert Alert to life. He was struck by the crowd’s reaction to the legends demo especially—including most of the Street League Skateboarding pros, who had competed earlier in the day and were in attendance.

“I was thinking, ‘I’ve gotta make this happen more often!’” Van Doren said.

“Down the line, putting vert ramps up in cities would be great,” Hawk told me Saturday after the conclusion of the event. It’s harder than building a bowl or a street course, he says; given the materials from which they’re constructed, if they remain outdoors, vert ramps don’t last very long. It’s logistically more challenging to find indoors homes for them.

“Right now I’m just trying to get a series off the ground and have an appreciation for it so the pros who dedicate their lives to it can finally get some financial gain,” Hawk added. “Paul-Luc works at a farm and you just saw him, he’s one of the best in the world, and I feel like he deserves to do this as career, and the only way that I can help make that happen is by putting on these events.”

Looking back, it might seem that when Hawk was a surprise addition to July’s X Games best trick final in Southern California, competing at the ESPN contest for the first time since 2003, he was building hype for Vert Alert, which was officially announced July 19. But that was “very spontaneous,” Hawk said. He was on hand to watch the men’s vert competition, which was taking place at the CA Training Facility, a couple miles down the road from his warehouse which houses his famous vert ramp.

But when X Games organizers told Hawk they were also holding a best trick competition immediately following the main vert contest, he drove home to grab his pads, came back, and dropped in for the first time in 18 years.

“I wish I had that foresight to make that plan, but at the same time, it caught some traction—mostly because of Gui doing the 1080—but I was just thankful that anyone was paying attention again,” Hawk said. “The X Games is one of only two vert events this year.” After the Olympics—for which Hawk served as an on-air commentator for NBC—“I was hoping that people would start to refocus on this type of skating as well.”

Hawk’s ramp was the main set piece for Vert Alert, traveling all the way from Encinitas to Salt Lake City. The ramp used to travel nightly as part of Tony Hawk’s Boom Boom HuckJam tour, which went on to 31 cities in the U.S. and also featured freestyle motocross and BMX. But it’s sat dormant at Hawk’s warehouse ever since, now serving as a training ground for some of the best vert and park skateboarders today, including Sky Brown, Lizzie Armanto, Jimmy Wilkins and Mitchie Brusco.

“I’m excited to get it back out again,” Hawk said. Boom Boom HuckJam emcee, radio personality Jason Ellis, did play-by-play for Vert Alert.

Because Hawk’s ramp is one of the few halfpipes of its size in the U.S.—really, in the world—it’s no surprise that many of the skateboarders in the Vert Alert finals either reside in Southern California or travel there frequently to train.

Wilkins, 27, was born in Columbus, Ohio, and now resides in Encinitas. He has a key to Hawk’s warehouse so he can train as often as he needs. “Many of us aren’t San Diego natives, but we moved there to train,” Wilkins said.

And the access pays off—Wilkins won Vert Alert men’s best trick and finished second in the men’s final.

“I think anytime an event goes on like this it always inspires some people to start skating; that’s how I got started, going to an event in Cleveland where I’m from,” Wilkins told me. “Seeing it live definitely does it. It’s a totally different experience from watching videos.”

“I love vert skating; I used to skate vert every few days. I’d love to get a series up and going and I think it’d be so fun to be a part of every year,” said Hawaii native and Oceanside resident Jordyn Barratt.

Barratt, who was one of three skaters to represent the U.S. in Tokyo on the women’s Olympic park skateboarding team, thinks vert should be added to the Olympic program. “The people who are skating vert are so gnarly and you wouldn’t see this kind of skating anywhere else,” she said. “I think it translates to the general public very well. People understand when you’re flying high.”

Hawk echoes that sentiment when asked why he thinks the Olympics should feature vert. No one has done a 720 in a park competition; the biggest park tricks in Tokyo were back-to-back 540s.

“That’s 1980s for us on vert,” Hawk said. “If people want justification of why we should have this as a separate discipline and try to raise our profile, it’s because of that. Park skating is more accessible, but if you’re looking at what are the hardest tricks done, they’re kind of basic vert tricks.”

“I’m not trying to discount or dismiss park at all,” Hawk adds. “I’m just trying point out that we have this and it’s really exciting for spectators. On vertical ramps, on transition ramps, and even on megaramps, Mitchie did a 1260, Gui did a 1080, and in the Olympics, we’re still at 540s. There’s a great disparity there.”

Plenty of skateboarders prefer to film parts and some even outright shun contest skating, but competitions are the single greatest catalyst of progression in skateboarding. To that end, Hawk was thrilled with the level of riding at Vert Alert.

“The stuff that’s happening on the vert ramp is stuff that I didn’t even know was possible four or five years ago,” Hawk said.

In the future, will vert be welcomed into the fold on the world’s biggest stage at the Olympics? Hawk is no longer a part of the committees working with the International Olympic Committee to decide which skateboarding disciplines will be included at the Games, so he can’t speak to what it would take to get vert approved.

Vert Alert proved gender equality and representation isn’t a limiting factor. But the main challenge is accessibility, because there just aren’t that many ramps internationally, Hawk said.

But “there’s a hopeful future with vert in the Olympics,” Hawk said. And generally, the Olympics needs skateboarding more than skateboarding needs the Olympics. A competition like vert alert on the calendar annually—“I’d like to do it more than annually,” Hawk said—would allow vert skateboarders to plan their seasons, get sponsorships and endorsements from the exposure (which leads to sponsor kickbacks for podiums) and earn cash outright from prizes.

The inaugural Vert Alert featured a $75,000 purse, split equally between men and women. The first-, second- and third-place finishers in the men’s and women’s events, respectively, earned $10,000, $5,000 and $3,000. Fourth place earned $2,000, fifth $1,250, and sixth through eighth $1,000. Best trick offered $3,000 for first place, $2,000 for second place and $1,000 for third place for both men and women.

Prize parity is essential to Vans’ skate (and surf) competitions, Van Doren said. “The young ladies are pushing the sport forward,” he added. “This way, they can make a living and get a sponsor.”

Vert Alert was one of Bryce Wettstein’s first professional vert contests. The Encinitas teenager, who has a vert ramp in her backyard, just competed on the U.S. women’s park team at the Tokyo Olympics. But she would love to compete in vert at a future Games, Paris 2024 or Los Angeles 2028.

“There’s something about vert,” said Wettstein, who won second place in the women’s Vert Alert final (with skillful lip tricks including a noseblunt into lipslide and a cab feeble grind) and third place in best trick. “I feel like sometimes there’s so much more in vert that is possible. In park sometimes it’s all roller coasters and amusement parks and carousels, and you can go everywhere and access so much space, but then when you’re on vert it’s like you’re on one ride but the ride takes you to all these places while you’re stationary. You can do anything you want, just stay on your board wherever it takes you.”

Fresh off the Tokyo Games, Sky Brown thought Vert Alert was a special competition. “It was insane. I had such a blast with everyone,” said Brown, who frequently trains with Hawk and won bronze in women’s park for Team Great Britain at the Olympics.

Brown took first place at Vert Alert with a run that included a backside air, alley-oop Judo air, alley-oop frontside air, stalefish, handplant and a kickflip Indy, making frequent use of the gap. The 13-year-old suffered a horrific fall on that same gap while training on Hawk’s ramp in June 2020—her “worst yet,” with multiple skull fractures and a broken arm. A little more than a year later, it was the site of her most recent professional triumph.

Japan’s Kihana Ogawa rounded out the women’s final podium, finishing in third place; in the men’s final, France’s Eduard Damestoy finished in first place and Brazil’s Rony Gomes finished in third. Ogawa also took second place in women’s best trick, while Ronchetti took second place and Damestoy, third, in men’s best trick.

Long after time had run out on the best trick contest, which Hawk also entered, the Birdman, looking spent, could be seen climbing the ladder again and again to drop in and attempt the trick—a frontside Caballerial revert—he could not land. He’d done it once in his life, in 1995.

After close to a dozen attempts, Hawk finally stomped it, and the crowd, which had remained rapt despite the clock running out on the contest and SLS finals action starting up across the Fairpark, went wild.

“I test it every once in awhile on my ramp in the warehouse, but I’ve never really had the incentive to make another one,” Hawk told me after Vert Alert, with the crowd still chanting his name. “It’s hard to get motivated when you’re all alone. If I was ever going to do it again, it was going to be in this contest.”

The crowd can have that effect on a skateboarder. It’s something vert skaters hope to have the chance to experience much more often.

“I really hope they do more—and I hope it’s soon,” Brown said.

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