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George Powell recently spoke with the originator of the ollie, Alan Gelfand. The following article comes from that conversation. In 1978, Alan invented the maneuver that went on to completely revolutionize skateboarding and later impact surfing…the Ollie
Alan was born in 1963 in New York. His family moved to Florida when he was five. Alan joined the Bones Brigade in 1978 shortly before he invented the "no hands air." Alan's skating buddies renamed the new trick after him, using his nickname, "Ollie." The name stuck and spread as Alan perfected the trick and toured the world for the Bones Brigade. Years later, other Bones Brigade skaters like Rodney Mullen adapted the ollie to flatland skating and the rest is history.
How old were you when you started skating Alan?
I started skating in 1974 when I was 11.
What made you decide to try the ollie?
It was all by accident. Actually what happened is that there was a skatepark in Hollywood, Florida back in 1978 that was built so crappy that a lot of the stuff was over vertical and uneven. There was a part of the pool run that when you skated, you went out, you'd catch air and you'd hit the top of the last couple of inches, which were over vertical. When you'd zoom down this run, you'd fly out and because it was over vertical, it would pitch the board back to your legs and you'd bend your knees back in and the board would come back to you. It was all by accident, really, you know. I started doing it on all kinds of stuff. I remember I went back to Winchester Skate Park in San Jose, I think it was 1979, and I started ollieing.
Do you remember Cabby?
Caballero? He was up there.
It was his home park…
Right. He had just started skating and he wasn't really big yet. People started doing the ollie by doing a fakie and hitting the back truck against the coping. That was their first attempt, but they could never do the 180 degrees part. I was joking with Mike McGill that it's the only trick that took everybody in the world a year to figure out how to do. A year later, you'd go back to California and still no one really did it. Now-a-days, I don't think anything takes that long to learn - like someone sees you do something they are going to copy you pretty quick. Right?
Yes. Kids seem to learn new tricks in about 3 minutes these days!
Unless (Tony) Hawk invents it. Then it takes somebody a couple of days.
Who named the ollie?
A couple of friends of mine, Kevin Peterson and Jeff Dewar.
Are you stoked to see what happened when people took the ollie to flat ground and it revolutionized street skating?
It was a surprise when I read magazines that printed stuff like that. I've had really good press. They always did cool articles and gave me credit for the ollie. I get a big kick when I see articles written and they say stuff about it. I read interviews of people who are in their early 30's or late 20's and they talk about skateboarding a long time ago. They revert back and say my name; it's kind of cool.
Yeah, I'll bet! How often do you get to be first in something as important to a sport as the ollie!
I got out about a year too early, though, George. Skating got real big about a year after I got out.
When did you stop skating?
1981 - I hurt my knees. I had enough of the "water on the knee" stuff, so I got surgery on both knees. It stopped the problems with my knees. I was 16. Getting my drivers license, that's what killed my skateboarding career. Besides my knees hurting me, the car stuff was a lot of fun.
What do you think of skating today?
Oh, it's outrageous!
Skating has come a long way since 1978, but there still isn't much awareness of the origin of today's skating tricks and style.
Yeah, everybody knows what the ollie is, but unless they are in their late 20's or early 30's they don't know who Alan Gelfand is…
Exactly. And that's something I would like to do, to create an awareness and an understanding of the people that made skating what it is today. The people who's shoulders everyone is standing on.
I don't know if you have to go that far, but I think that it's cool that it took a year of people looking for Velcro on my shoes. Remember those days? Velcro on the boards? Like, I'd take my shoes off and people would steal my fucking shoes! I don't know if you knew about that at all. Vans gave us shoes and my shoes would get stolen all the time.
'Cause they thought that you had suction cups on your shoes?
They thought I had something, so they'd steal my shoes and made me come down off the ramp…it was well known back then. They would steal my shoes all the time, no bullshit. Maybe it was because I always wore Vans back then, and in California, Vans were like Thom McCann - like everyone had a Vans store near them. But back East, no one had it. If you wanted a skate shoe you couldn't get them. You had to mail order them through the magazines.
Vans is still big. Cabby still rides for Vans.
He has a shoe with them. It's turned into a wonderful relationship for him.
I can imagine. A national company can do a beautiful thing. Now-a-days, it's like there is no loyalty in skateboarding. It's like everybody and their brother have a company or other thing going on. I don't know if you knew, but the only company that I ever rode for, in my whole time riding, was you (Powell-Peralta). And I mean when the Variflex thing was getting big and they offered me all kinds of money and Sims offered me all kinds of money and little companies offered me money and I said, "Yeah, go to hell!" I didn't make that much money with you guys. I rode for one company. Some people were thinking of it as money, but to me, I came from a good background and it wasn't the money - I have loyalty. I rode for one company, I never tried to switch or do anything else. I could have gotten double or triple what I was getting from you guys, but I didn't quit. That's not what I'm about. I was just having fun back then. I was a kid.
It says a lot for you, Alan. Do you remember what it was like when you turned pro?
Well they had this thing when the (Henry) Hester series started. They had mandatory tricks. I couldn't do a handplant for my life. I was the first in the world and couldn't do a handplant. But, there were three outstanding contests that stood out. There was a contest, the Big O, that I tied for the highest air in. Back in that time, it's pretty funny; the winning air was 4 feet high. Now-a-days they're doing 10, 15 feet. That was a good day, I had just gotten back from a trip and I went out there. They didn't have compulsories and I ended up winning part of that contest. In '79 there was The World Skateboard championships in Del Mar. That was pretty cool. Those were all pretty cool. We were never into doing five or six setups. I remember back then, the few contests that I did enter, I think I won by a decent amount. I always did something kinda outrageous - to get the crowd on your side, like running into the building, throwing 2000 stickers out, or something to get their attention. Like doing different moves on every wall, which was kinda cool back then I thought. Back then everyone was doing five, six of the same things in a row, then doing 2 or 3 of the same trick, then 5 or 6 setup moves, and 3 or 4 tricks. Ya know, I never fell, George, I never fell in a professional setting. I remember mike McGill and I went to Venezuela for some kind of show down there. Like for a week, we skated every day and I never fell. I think they weren't the most outrageous moves, but pretty good stuff back then. Then Tony Alva and a couple of guys joined us and they were just beefing hard, ya know. But in professional settings, I never fell. I felt it was kind of the professional thing to do, back then.
Yeah, I think it probably still is, Alan!
Yeah, I guess, but now they're doing something so outrageous that if you don't bail, I'd probably be dead! I mean, I can't believe the stuff they are doing now-a-days, it's unreal.
What did your family think about your skating?
They liked it. They were very supportive. I had to go away a lot, but that was no problem. But, what pissed me off was that they paid for my brother's bowling, because my whole family was a bowling family, but they wouldn't help me with my skateboarding. They would never pay for park time or a deck. Ya know, it pissed me off a little bit. Then when I became semi "famous." Ya know - well known, people would ask them, "Is that your son Alan Gelfand, that Ollie?" And then they were all-proud of me and would tell everybody about me then. But when it came time to buy the skateboards and pay for the skate time, they weren't too hip on it. They used to clip all the articles and everything, then it was cool, then it was alright.
How are you doing now?
My hands hurt me now. From skateboarding. I never broke a wrist or broke anything, but my fingers just bend back, I think from all the thrashing and now they hurt me every day.
What do you do now-a-days?
We have a place called Volkswagen Depot. We sell, service and export parts for Volkswagen around the world. And now we are jamming, doing a lot of exporting of parts to the islands and South America. We sell about 25-30 Volkswagens a month, used. When I got out of skateboarding, I got into the car stuff. I started auto crossing my car. I got into racing cars in '86. I got real big into that. In '86, I was the Grand National Champion in go-carts. I won the Grand Nationals. It was like road racing. Like Daytona 24 hour, 12 hour Sebring, Laguna Secca out where you're at. In '93, I went full time in racing and went around the whole country. We raced endurance and we were ranked 3rd with the factory-backed teams. Five guys, doing our thing against massive companies like Honda, Toyota, Chevrolet and Ford. We did quite well.
You were placing in the top 3 against those guys?
Yes! We placed top 3 - overall.
That's incredible! Is there anything you want to say to young skaters today?
I want to say it is a great sport. Skateboarding is a thing that most people don't do. And the amazing part about it was, over the years, most of my friends that skateboarded were far more intelligent than the average person. I have friends that are doctors, lawyers, college professors - guys were punk rockers back then - are really smart people.
I've always liked skating because I felt that it attracted people that were creative and weren't followers, they were the leaders.
You are right about that. That sounds exactly true.
Skating attracts a lot of artists and musicians too.
That's alright, don't be a follower, be a leader!