In At The Deep End | How Steve Alba Changed the Face of Skateboarding
We teamed up with Nikon to interview the legendary skateboarder on the history of vert riding and find out why he still loves skating pools.
Photos by Phil Young
We’ve joined forces with Nikon, who’ve just released the brand new KeyMission 360 Degree action camera, to create a series which focusses on the missions that drive those at the cutting edge of action sports. As one of the first vert skaters, Steve Alba's influence on the sport can hardly be overstated. But as he explains here, his true passion remains pool skating - the original, purest form of vert riding.
“They say skateboarding is not a crime, but I would say skateboarding is a crime if you're doing it right." Steve Alba might be 54 this year, but the legendary vert skater and punk rocker is showing no signs of mellowing with age. “If you're doing it right then you’re trespassing," he explains, “and you can get in a lot of trouble for pool skating".
As the earliest form of vertical (or ‘vert’) skateboarding, riding empty swimming pools was the precursor to today’s X Games vert and megaramp contests. But while these are now big money disciplines, attracting corporate sponsorship and TV coverage, vert skating in its original form is more likely to attract the unwanted attention of the police. Sometimes, Alba says, “they [just] want to throw the book at you".
“I fell to the bottom onto my head. I was completely KO'd, blood everywhere. There was so much blood it was just pooling around me. I had 98 stitches."
Yet over the 40-odd years he’s been at it, neither the numerous run-ins with law enforcement nor the multiple injuries he’s suffered have stopped Steve Alba from skating swimming pools. To understand why he keeps throwing himself in at the deep end, and how finding and skating pools became his life’s mission, you have to wind back the clock to arguably the most important era in skateboarding’s history.
In the southern California of the early 1970s surfing was well-established as the counter culture’s sport of choice. Skateboarding, first invented in the 1950s, was initially taken up enthusiastically by surfers on flat days but two decades later it had all but disappeared. Written off as a fad by the general public and dismissed by serious surfers as disappointingly dissimilar to riding actual waves, it was practised only by a few dedicated enthusiasts.
Then in 1972, Frank Nasworthy replaced the clay wheels on his board with ones made from polyurethane. Soon afterwards the Z-Boys, a group of kids sponsored by the Zephyr Surf Shop in Venice Beach, got their hands on the new wheels and started to realise the potential of the added grip they offered. They invented revolutionary new tricks, and perhaps more importantly, started breaking into people’s backyards to skate empty swimming pools, riding them like waves.
Just fifty miles inland from Dogtown, in the Uplands area of Greater Los Angeles, Steve Alba and his crew were hot on their heels (and wheels). “The Dogtown guys could lay claim to the fact that ‘they rode the first pools,’ which is great, but this area, the Uplands, was the first area to rival the Dogtown guys. And we rivalled them good."
"The Uplands was the first area to rival the Dogtown guys. And we rivalled them good."
As the Zephyr team disbanded and its most famous faces - Jay Adams, Tony Alva and Stacey Peralta - went their separate ways, Steve (universally known as ‘Salba’), his younger brother Micke (inevitably dubbed ‘Malba’), Tay Hunt, Scott Dunlap and their friends stepped up to take their place. Alba remembers turning up to “a major pro contest where all of those guys were the heavy favourites, Alva and co." Despite being an unknown he out-skated everyone to take the trophy. “They were like: ‘Who the hell's this dude from Upland? Where's Upland?’"
If the moment signalled a changing of the guard, the arrival of Alba and the Uplands crew at the pinnacle of professional skateboarding also marked a difference of approach. If the Dogtown guys were all about flowing carves and surf-style cut backs, Salba and co brought an extra element of aggression to their riding. “If you were an Uplands skater your whole thing was to go fast, skate aggressive, go long, go big and go high," says Steve.
This uncompromising approach wasn’t without its dangers. “I’ve had numerous injuries," Alba says, “broken bones, broken wrists, broken ankles…" He still carries the scar from one particularly nasty incident on his forehead to this day. “I had 98 stitches right here," he says. It was the day before a contest at the Pipeline skatepark, one of the focal points of the Uplands scene, and Alba was practising in the legendary (and legendarily dangerous) combi bowl.
“I did a four foot alley-oop, locked up, and fell straight to my head on the bottom. Completely KO'd, blood everywhere. There was that much blood it was just pooling around me and the first guy down took my shirt off and tried wrapping it round my head to stop the bleeding." Of course, there was never any question in Salba’s mind of sitting out the next day’s contest. Instead, once he’d come of of hospital, he was thinking: "’Man, that shirt that's got all that blood on it, that's gonna be the most punk rock thing to do to wear that shirt the next day in the contest.’ But my mum washed it! I was like: ‘Noooo mum!’"
Salba’s approach was very much of the moment. As the 70s turned into the 80s, punk rock, with its fast, distorted guitars was sweeping aside the prog and psychedelia of the previous decade. The Upland skaters’ look, style and attitude epitomised what the new movement was all about. As their success grew the crew's fame spread, influencing skateboarders all over the world. It wasn’t just that they listened to punk, played in punk bands, dressed like punks and skated like punks either - their whole approach was DIY, uncompromising, and flirted with the edges of legality.
“What we did as pool skaters is - and this is gonna sound kinda crazy - is we'd case the house, like burglars. Looking at when people leave the house, when they go to school, when they go to work, so you know when you can get in there and skate.
“Then we have what I call a 15-minute rule," Salba says. “You know it's gonna take five minutes for the neighbours to find out you're there, another five minutes for them to call the cops and another five minutes for the cops to respond.
“It's kind of hard sometimes, especially with a good pool, you're like: 'Just one more run man!' I've broken it and I've got caught for it. But if you stick to that 15-minute rule you hardly ever get caught."
Over the years the crew got good at getting in and out, leaving only the occasional wheelmark, because despite the objections of neighbours and cops, skaters rarely actually damage a pool. In fact, they often do property developers a favour by cleaning them out, especially as these days a lot of the pools they skate are in homes that are due for foreclosure. “There are these abandoned houses where people have left all their gear, and they've thrown everything out of the house in the backyard. People just throw stuff into the pool - it's a dump you know? You never know what you're going to find - needles, beer, money, bags of poop, bags of trash, dead animals…"
“Steve’s excited about the potential of the Nikon KeyMission 360 camera: ‘One of the things I do [with a new pool] is divide it like a pie-chart with mental lines.’ Being able to visualise a pool in 360 would make this process easier."
Even when the owners are still living there, Salba and his crew often end up helping out. He offers to drain and clean out for pools for free in exchange for being allowed to skate. Or: “You just knock on the door and you're like: ‘Hi I'm Steve and I noticed you have an empty pool. What do we have to do to get into that pool?’ I feel like if you're just honest with people and you're not trying to pull any lies, that people relate to you better. The cool thing is nowadays skateboarding is all over TV, and on the X Games so you get kids who've seen me on TV and they're like: ‘Mum, that's Salba, he's famous’. Then you give the kids stickers, or we'll give them shoes, or skateboards… whatever it takes to get in the pool!"
As Salba and co’s ways of gaining access pools have become more refined, so have their techniques for scoping them out. At one stage he excitedly shows Mpora an aerial photo shot from a friend’s plane. “Most of the reason I wanted to go in the damn airplane with him was so I could see from the sky and spot [new] pools." He’s even more excited about the potential of the Nikon KeyMission 360 camera that he uses for the three days we spend with him. “One of the things I do [with a new pool] is I try to divide it like a pie-chart with mental lines. Then I go: ‘OK, it's got a right hand pocket here, I know if I can carve that then maybe I can carve back over there.’" Being able to visualise a pool in its entirety with a 360 camera would obviously make this process a lot easier.
The pools we film Steve shredding are “permission pools". His powers of persuasion - finely tuned down the years - are impressive. Yet he’d be the first to admit there’s something about the illegality of the early days that still appeals, even now. “The biggest rush for me is beating the cops," he says. “When it really comes down to it, the whole crux of backyard skating is barging. You're jumping that damn fence and you're skating for ten or 15 minutes before they catch you. And I don't care what anyone says, that is the most exciting thing to do."
“You never know what you're going to find in a pool - needles, beer, money, bags of poop, bags of trash, dead animals…"
In an era where skateboarding has increasingly become part of the mainstream, it’s rare to hear a top pro openly relishing the aspects of the sport that are less than fully legal. Skateboarding after all is no longer the pursuit of a few punk misfits, it’s a multi-million dollar sport that will feature in the next Olympics. It’s even rarer to hear these thoughts expressed by a 54-year-old. But then this is exactly what makes Steve Alba special.
His body might require a little more warming up these days (“I started doing yoga, I ride my bike, I try to keep physically fit") and he’s made concessions to family life (he no longer skates on Christmas morning for example) but otherwise Salba is still on the same mission, still pursuing the path that made him a legend in the first place.
Like a surfer chasing empty waves, or a snowboarder searching for fresh powder, he’s always hunting for new pools - always seeking that Zen-like sense of satisfaction which comes from dropping in.
“When it all comes together," he explains, “you're not thinking of anything. You're not thinking about your family, you're not thinking about bills you've got to pay, you're not thinking about the dog barking and pissing on your bed, you're not thinking about changing your kid’s diapers or 'I've got to go and feed the cat'. It's just you.
“You're trying to achieve that perfect line or perfect run, and there’s nobody else to blame if you don't do your stuff right - it's just you. That feeling, that's the beauty of skateboarding for me."
It’s this feeling that’s kept Alba coming back for 40 years. It’s this that’s driven him to keep skating pools, regardless of the injuries, the arrests, or what’s currently considered ‘cool’ or ‘sponsor-friendly’ in the world of skateboarding. It’s a mission he’s not about to abandon any time soon.