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San Francisco High School Relishes Last Spin as Skateboarding Mecca

Published June 1, 2009 in SF

At first glance, San Francisco’s Raoul Wallenberg High looks to be just another city school with peeling paint, tall fences, and randomly tagged walls. And yet, this is one of the most hallowed and revered sites in the world of skateboarding. Just behind the Western Addition school is a broad, four-step stairway that measure six-feet-high and 18-feet-long. On Saturday, hundreds of people packed into the yard to watch skaters — some pros, others unknowns — hurtle themselves down “The Big Four.”

This competition, “Back to the Berg,” hosted by Thrasher magazine, was a grassroots event where anyone could enter and professional rankings didn’t matter. But these steps are a recipe for broken limbs and so frightening to most skaters that only a handful actually tried. Before the event, skaters rolled around in nervous anticipation, film crews set up, and kids climbed the fences and trees or sat on each others’ shoulders to get a good view.

“Shit happened years ago, shit’s gonna happen again today and it’s never gonna happen again,” said Schmitty, who goes by just that name and works for Thrasher. This is likely the last event at Wallenberg because the school is soon renovating — rendering The Big Four a big memory.

“When I think of Wallenberg, I just think of the Gonz,” said former professional skater, Ali Mills. “Back then, no one else would even consider trying it.” In 1991, Mark Gonzales was the first skater ever to be filmed jumping over “the gap.” Since then, dozens of skaters have tried; some have broken legs, others have become famous (or at least ‘Net famous). Mike Burnett, Thrasher‘s associate editor, put it gently: “People don’t really skate this for fun.”

As Jimi Hendrix’s version of the Star-Spangled Banner christened the event, Jake Phelps — Editor of Thrasher and Master of Ceremonies for the day — yelled, “Wassup? You ready to jump this thing?” Evidently, people were. No sooner had Hendrix’s last wave of feedback ceased than Marissa del Santo flew off the top of the stairs — nearly landing. The crowd went crazy.

“This is a woman battling four epic stairs,” said Phelps. “Yes! Yes! Yes, is what the crowd says.” Adhering to the chivalric maxim of “ladies first,” the first 15 minutes of the hourlong contest were devoted to discovering the first female to “ollie” over the gap. Several girls attempted but Del Santo was the only one to come close. One kid yelled out, “this chick is a G, yo.”

It looks like the quest for a woman to ollie the gap will remain unfulfilled; Del Santo never fully landed and it was time for the men. The crowd was packed tighter than a Japanese subway; people stood on boxes or stacked skateboards trying to get a good glimpse. Black Magic by Slayer was playing at full blast as gentlemen flung themselves off the steps and young folks gaped on, their mouths dropping in awe.

“For real? Backside heelflip THAT shit?” said one kid as Lindsey Robertson landed the difficult trick over the gap for the first time in history. Other first-time attempts were made, like the twin skaters who attempted a simultaneous ollie (both crashed and burned).

The crowd favorite Saturday was Chris Cole, famous for having landed a 360 flip over the gap a few years ago. “Chris Cole, I played this song for you,” Phelps said as Judas Priest’s Diamonds and Rust played. “He was the only guy here five years ago — when you guys were all jerking off.”

Cole ended up winning the contest, landing both a backside 360 and a switch frontside kickflip over the stairs. Del Santo also got a prize for nearly landing — and a golden shovel for having the hardest crash. The Big Four may be history. But skaters’ quests to seek out and discover new forms of cheating gravity, shattering their bodies, and thrilling the crowds — that’s alive and well.

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