Ex-skateboarding champ Eddie Elguera talks tricks, drugs and God
The man they called The Cat because he skated so smoothly tells Elaine Yau about hitting the heights as a teenager, going through a rough patch until he embraced religion, and why he still gets on his board aged 52
48 HOURS: By the time you were 18, you were already a two-time world champion. You are 52 now, do you still skateboard?
EDDIE ELGUERA: Yes, I am still skating on the world circuit in the legends division, skating with people such as [US pro skateboarder] Tony Hawk. Legends are people who are significant in skateboarding. When Tony Hawk was 13 years old and an amateur, he said that I was his hero and wanted to be like me, inventing tricks.
Skateboarding is quite physically demanding. Are you up to the physical challenge at your age?
At my age, definitely, my knees get sore sometimes and my back, too. But I enjoy skating and I can do it for two to three hours a day even now. I have been skating since 1970, there's wear and tear. But over the 45 years that I've skated, I've just broken one bone, and that was this year. I broke my wrist in a competition in Australia.
You specialised in vertical skateboarding. You invented a number of tricks and had a move named after you. How was that?
When I started, we skateboarded in empty swimming pools treating them as skateparks like those we have today, which only popped up in the late '70s in southern California. Pretty soon, I started entering competitions and became world champ in 1979 and 1980. I invented lots of manoeuvres. One of them is even called the Elguerial. I just used my imagination. I went from one trick and then I said to myself I can add to that and I can make it better or higher or different. I was known as the most innovative skater at that time.
You won the world championship, then quit skateboarding in the early '80s and developed a drug and alcohol addiction. From the top as world champ to the abyss of drug and alcohol, why was there such a fast and deep descent?
In the early '80s, I was at the top. There was nowhere else to go. There was just some kind of emptiness. I thought maybe if I do drugs, I can fill that emptiness. But it didn't work out. At one point, I found myself out on the street, not knowing why I was there. I asked myself why am I here and I told myself I shouldn't be here and I am better than this. After I retired from skateboarding, I worked in a fast food joint as a worker and ran into a Christian woman and my life began to change as I gave my life to the Lord. In 1986, I started skateboarding again. I needed to work my way back up to the pro competition scene. But I don't need to be the best, as I just want to enjoy the sport and have an influence on people's lives.
How do you influence people's lives?
I travel the world and speak to lots of legends and help them with their families. If they are dealing with drugs, I help them not to be dependent. If they have issues in certain areas, they will come and speak to me. I was a youth pastor for 14 years before I set up the Rock Church in 2007 in Southern California. As a youth pastor, I worked with young people and encouraged them to lead a good and successful life. From 2007, I began to work with adults. Skateboarding is a big part of my church. It's good for reaching out to young congregants. They open up to me, even little eight-year-olds, because I can do good tricks. Last year, I brought all the legends together to set up the El Gato Classic in my hometown, Palm Springs in California, to honour the past, the ones who started the sport of bowl riding. We are championing the future, travelling around the world to promote the sport and encouraging young people to take it further.
Are there any tricks you only teach your three sons and granddaughter?
Yes, many. I bought my granddaughter, who is four, some kneepads and a helmet. My kids are all grown up. They don't skateboard much for recreation now. Two of them work with me in the church; one is a youth pastor, the other a worship leader.
You are nicknamed El Gato. Why?
My father is from Mexico. He came to the US when he was 17. So I am Hispanic. El Gato means cat in Spanish. When I skateboard, I land on my feet and am smooth like a cat. That's how I got the nickname.
Where did you go on your Hong Kong visit?
I went to the Bruce Lee Museum and saw how he moved; his commitment, drive and the way he pushed himself reminds me of what's required in skateboarding.